A local photographer who has specialized in portraits of LGBT youths for more than a decade was reunited with several of her subjects during a talk about her recently published collection at the Free Library.
“I just wanted to create a book that was for us, by us,” Philly photographer Rachelle Lee Smith, 34, told attendees Monday night during the talk at the Independence Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Smith was there to speak about Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus. A photographic and personal narrative of 65 LGBTQ youths between the ages of 14 to 24, Speaking OUT originated as a personal project that was not initially intended to be published, Smith said.
“It sparked from a growing curiosity of the different coming out experiences of those LGBTQ around me,” said Smith, who openly identifies as a lesbian. “I was fortunate to have an accepting and loving family…but I knew that unfortunately this wasn’t the same result for many when I came to college.”
At age 21, the University of the Arts graduate began photographing and archiving the volunteer youth images of those lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and of queer identity around her. She would reach out to personal friends until word of mouth got the project recognition around Philadelphia.
“I later went to the Attic Youth Center, and then local campus groups reached out to me to share their stories as a way to volunteer themselves for the project. … We photographed each one, authentically hand printed, at my UArts studio behind a white background,” Smith said of the project, which started in 2002. “It was fascinating to me what images they would choose to describe themselves from the photoshoot…what personal stories they would write on them as a result.”
During the duration of the project, Smith would take time off to travel across the country and interview other youths.
After being one of the first exhibiting artists at the Human Rights Campaign’s headquarters and later being commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, Smith realized that she “couldn’t just let these stories only be temporarily displayed.”
“People would often see these images and feel as though they wanted to take them home,” Smith said of her reasoning behind publishing them. “I felt as though this was a very important time to preserve these stories for various generations afterwards.”
Speaking OUT was published in November. After raising $25,000 in donations to help offset costs, Smith is now on a national book tour across the country showcasing the experiences of the LGBTQ youth that inspired her work.
But the tour has not come without a few hurdles along the way.
Earlier this year, while her collection was on display at the University of Connecticut, a protester vandalized the exhibit and inscribed “God hates the gays” on promotional material. To Smith’s fortune, the physical work was not damaged due to the protective framing over it. Overall, she found the campus community’s response to it “the most empowering statement of all.”
“The incident brought spiritual groups and students together to respond in love and understanding to something more individually hateful than religious,” Smith said.
Since the memorable photo shoot, Smith has still kept in touch with many of the individuals featured in the text. She has even invited some of them to speak at events with her along the way.
“I was 21 when I was photographed. How I felt about myself was very different,” says Matty Lehman, now 35. Lehman, who then identified as “Beth” in the original photo, has since “become more reflective” of herself.
“To be photographed as a queer woman of color allowed me to feel as though I was entitled to those experiences,” said Alyssa Hargrove. Now a photographer for Getty Images and The Associated Press, Hargrove, now 24, still recalls “the big smile” she gave in the image taken of her at age 18.
“I was then expressing the joy I felt of my first kiss with a girl … Being a lesbian for me now has been about proving that we’re not just institutions but people who deserve love just like anyone else … That’s what this project was all about.”