Since 2005, Samantha Box has dedicated herself to documenting New York City’s community of homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth. Her on-going project, INVISIBLE, has been recognized by the Anthropographia Award for Photography and Human Rights, EN FOCO, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her photos have been widely exhibited and Box has received numerous awards and honors. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she was raised in Edison, New Jersey and is now based in Brooklyn, New York. S2S talked to Samantha Box about her long term photography projects and her teachings.
S2S: Was there a particular event in your life that made you want to become a documentary photographer?
Samantha Box: There was no particular event that made me want to become a documentary photographer, as far as I know – it seems that wanting to do this kind of work is something that has always been with me. Realizing that being a documentary photographer was something that I could do, and then a point of claiming the title as my own, those were my foundation moments.
S2S: For your project “Invisible: LGBT Youth Homelessness” you have been documenting a community of homeless LGBTQ young people, mostly at Sylvia’s Place, a shelter in New York City, for the past 7 years. How did you first become interested in the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness?
Samatha Box: I learned about LGBTQ youth homelessness around 2000/2001, when I became interested in documenting the struggle to preserve Pier 45, at the end of Christopher Street in the West Village. Pier 45 had/has long been a safe space and gathering spot for LGBTQ youth, mostly of color, for decades; the city was trying to close the Pier to “revitalize” it. While researching the stories and history of the Pier, I learned about its role as home for homeless LGBTQ youth who congregated there. I ended up putting the project on hold, but continued to research LGBTQ youth homelessness. I formally began to work on documenting this issue in 2005, when I was a student at the International Center of Photography (ICP), and began to photograph the community at Sylvia’s Place.
S2S: What was the process of getting to know your subjects? How did you earn their trust? Many of these youth have experienced rejection and hardship on many different levels.
Samantha Box: It’s the same process as getting to know anyone. There’s a lot of time spent being there, asking questions, listening, and earning trust. I always ask permission to be in someone’s space, taking nothing for granted and respecting and my subjects’ agency and boundaries.
S2S: I am especially drawn to the images of individuals within the dramatic cityscape. How do you pick the moments you document? Is it intuitive or are you planning ahead?
Samantha Box: Picking a moment to document is mostly intuitive. There’s a lot of waiting involved, because I look for emotion, context and composition to come together in the frame. I think most photographers have a list of shots that they are looking for, that they keep in the back of their mind. I have one, too, but I tend to follow what’s in front of me more.
S2S: I imagine that after so many years spent together, you grow very close to the people whose lives you document. Do you find that your life sometimes gets entangled with your subjects? How do you not get emotionally carried away?
Samantha Box: Yes, many of the people who I photograph/photographed and I have become very close; we are family.
S2S: Are there situations you don’t photograph because they are too intimate or personal? What ethical guidelines did you set for yourself and your practice?
Samantha Box: Definitely. I take my cues from the people that I photograph. If someone asks that something not be documented, I respect our relationship, and put my camera down.
In terms of my practice, I am committed to creating a body of work that challenges the visual stereotypes that have been so often used when documenting the LGBTQ community – especially women of trans experience, communities of color, homeless communities, at-risk communities and young people. As a documentary photographer, I am committed to telling the truth of people’s lives; visual stereotypes have no role in honest storytelling.
S2S: Your other project The Last Battle is an evolving documentation on the New York City Kiki Ballroom scene. I think most people think of Paris is Burning but that film is documenting the ball culture of the late 1980s. What are these competitions like today?
Samantha Box: I can’t really answer this question, as I’ve been focused on the Kiki Scene, and less so on the mainstream Ballroom Scene, a small part of which Paris documented. From other photographer’s work, most notably, Gerard Gaskin’s, I can say that the Ballroom scene has very much evolved from beyond where it was in the movie, remaining self-creating, vital and resilient, and playing an important role in the community of LGBTQ people of color.
S2S: I find the images of The Last Battle incredibly beautiful – the contrast between the black and white is very rich and looks like film stock to me. As a photographer, you are very much in control of the final image. What are your conceptual, aesthetic and technical intentions with this series?
Samantha Box: Thank you! I am a black and white photographer, so it felt right to shoot this way. Beyond personal preference, I want the focus of the images to be on the importance of these events as spaces of community and validation, and not on the color/costume of an event. Shooting in black and white, in my opinion, allows this to happen.
S2S: Is there any crossover between the homeless LGBTQ youth and the Kiki scene?
Samantha Box: This is a question that I’m trying to answer myself. I’ve run into a couple of people that I know from my work with LGBTQ homeless youth who are a part of the Kiki Scene, but beyond that handful of folks, I’m not sure to what extent those communities overlap.
S2S: What do you wish to accomplish with these photos for the community of homeless LGBTQ youth and the Kiki scene?
Samantha Box: Some of the things that I would like to accomplish with this work are: beginning a nuanced and honest conversation about the intersecting oppressions and issues that affect these young adults; challenging the visual stereotypes often employed to document the community, in particular those used to document transwomen of color; creating a honest and respectful document of the lives of LGBTQ youth of color; and putting the lives of LGBTQ youth of color back into the LGBTQ community’s historical narrative.
S2S: You also teach photography to LGBTQ youth. What has been some of your most cherished moments from this experience? What did you learn from your students?
Samantha Box: I really love the moment when a student’s personal style begins to come out, and they begin to develop and to use their own visual language.
In class, we spend a lot of time looking at photographs, especially contemporary work, and I love to hear my students’ always very insightful opinions on the day’s images, which often makes me look at the work in new ways. It’s always really interesting to see which images/bodies of work that they connect with, and which ones leave them flat.
S2S: Do you have any role models in the field of documentary photography?
Samantha Box: I do – Brenda Ann Kenneally’s work, and method of working, is a model for my own. If my pictures could be half as good as hers, I would be happy.
S2S: What advice would you like to give photojournalists who are just starting out? What are some of the pitfalls that should be avoided?
Samantha Box: My advice to anyone looking to do documentary work, especially with at-risk or marginalized population is to first ask yourself: why am I doing this work? I think that some journalists tend to look at people in at-risk situations not as people, but as “stories” or pictures for their portfolio. Ask yourself: if I were not making photos/film/video, would I be here? If the answer is no, and you’re only there for “the story”, then how do you expect to do work that doesn’t lean on stereotype and preconceptions? How do you expect to do good journalism?
I hope that any journalist looking to do documentary work on any group of people would have serious commitment to those people, and to talking about the issues facing them in a nuanced and truthful way, beyond visual stereotype. This commitment will see a journalist through to the real, human stories that I hope that we all are looking for.