By COLLEEN McGRUDER
En Foco/In Focus, opened Jan. 22, 2013, at CIIS, with 56 images by 48 artists, selected from the permanent collection of En Foco, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to cultural diversity in photography. The below interview most recent in a series conducted by CIIS students and emerging photographers, Jessica Juliao and Colleen McGruder.
Colleen had a chance to speak with artist Samantha Box about her work with homeless LGBTQ youth of color in New York City.
“You know, if I ever taught a photo class,” says photographer Samantha Box as we begin to wrap up our interview, “I would say go photograph the things you are absolutely obsessed with and the minute taking pictures of it becomes chore you should stop.”
Boxʼs statement lingers in the air before we both laugh in agreement.
Samantha Box found her photographic voice in 2005 when she began documenting the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth in New York City. Her documentary series, recently re-titled "The Invisible Project," intimately chronicles the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth, mostly of color.
Colleen McGruder: How did you get involved with En Foco?
Samantha Box: I took my first photography class 14 years ago at City College in New York, during a leave of absence from my biology studies at Cornell. I met and became friends with Marisol Diaz, who upon graduating went to work for En Foco. So thatʼs originally how I became aware of them. In 2009 I applied for a work fellowship at En Foco and was accepted. En Foco was the first organization to recognize The Invisible Project. This was especially significant for me because many of the photographers I really admired were involved in the organization; since first becoming aware of it, I’d thought, “Maybe one day I can become an En Foco photographer.”
CM: So how did your project become known as The Invisible Project?
SB: At the time I submitted the work to En Foco, it was called Nobody to Anybody. This referenced a quote by Mother Teresa about being seen: “One of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody.” To me this idea pinpoints the feeling of the young people I shoot. I switched it later to The Invisible Project because it works on a couple different levels. To most people moving along the street these kids do not look homeless. They look just like regular young people going about their lives. In this way they are invisible; a part of their lives is kept in the shadows. They exist in this intersection of race, class and gender, invisible to the media and to social policy makers. The Invisible Project speaks to their marginalization.
CM: A significant portion of The Invisible Project is done with LGBTQ youth in a homeless shelter in New York. How did this come about?
SB: A good chunk of my early work (on this project) was from a shelter on the West Side but since the director left three years ago, I am broadening the scope of the project. In some ways I now de-emphasize the shelter to focus more on the outside experience, especially on those youth living on the streets. But it’s still true that I meet most of the young people at the shelter; they come in with their friends and the shelter is kind of a hub.
CM: Whether inside or outside the shelter, often times you are photographing people whose lives are very different from your own. How do you make this entry?
SB: In documentary photography there are things that are problematic. There are certain visual stereotypes that are perpetuated. There is a certain type of portrayal of people of color...and there are really irritating stereotypes of the LGBTQ community, specifically of trans women.
CM: Yes I see this often. Photographers sometimes take an anthropological approach to entering others’ lives, making images that mostly reflect their own expectations.
SB: One of the reasons people photograph in a stereotypical way is because it is easy. So you go to another country, or spend time in a community outside your own and see the people involved as the other because you have not taken the time to look at the fact that we are all people. If someone came into my house to photograph me I would want to be represented with honesty but also with respect.
If you are photographing someone like Donald Trump there is a way to photograph him that can actually show you who Donald Trump is, beyond the scandalous public life. It’s important be able to look at the photos you make of him and think, okay, I get it. I understand who this nuanced person is.
My subjects’ lives arenʼt scandalous but to some people what’s happening may be shocking. They may not understand it. But again, if someone was photographing my life I would not want to be reduced to that shock; I would want them to tell who I am in a way that is respectful and yet honest.
In the beginning I really tried to make pictures that drove home the issues for viewers. Then I realized, life is the in-between moments, when you are just sitting, contemplating things, just existing. So when I am photographing these young people I look for the moments when they are just being themselves, just living. After two years of working on this project I started to feel like I finally had the tools to talk about what I saw happening with queer young people.
CM: That is what I think is so great about your work. Your subjects’ lives may be different from that of the viewer but your photographs feel like an invitation to share a moment with them that speaks to a larger human experience.
SB: This is the thing, when you photograph in stereotypes you do not get to find out what is really going on in someoneʼs head. You have to watch them long enough, get to know a person long enough to see who they really are.
CM: Can you tell us the story behind the photograph in the En Foco collection?
SB: That photograph was taken in the first couple of months of the project. I was taking classes at ICP (International Center for Photography) during the day and I would go to the shelter in the evenings. Misty was one of the people I met. We warmed up to each other very quickly while everyone else was just getting used to me being there. And I was asking myself, “Okay, so how do I do this?” Missy had set up her bed for the night, a little pallet—a nest really—and she wanted me to photograph it. She had these two stuffed animals just set against her pillows, and to me, this was so interesting. The young people all had these talismans to create the idea of home; hers were these two animals. So I began taking a photograph of the stuffed animals, then the pillows, then her bag of clothes. When she saw me doing this she asked me to take a picture of her and she arranged herself in that way. I only took like three pictures so I really lucked out.
CM: In what ways has this project enhanced your life?
SB: It has impacted my life in ways that I find hard to explain. Mainly it has allowed me to clarify who I am, how I exist in the world, how other people like me exist in the world and how I talk about those things. Iʼve been out for a while, but through this project I have access to a community of queer people of color. Finding like-minded people was a wonderful reward for doing this project.
CM: What are the misconceptions?
SB: Many believe that homeless LGBTQ youth are being kicked out of their communities and that is why they are homeless. Really it is more about communities of color being so unstable that a child can get arrested, a child gets put in foster care, mothers abandon their children for new relationships. . .There are just so many reasons why these kids are on the streets; it’s much more complicated that the idea that communities of color are kicking out their young people. This project gave me the confidence to finally talk about these intersections and the intersections in my own life.
When people take photos for the sake of taking them, I think, “Maybe you shouldnʼt...maybe you should photograph only the things you really want to photograph. Maybe you should try becoming obsessed with it.”