Photographer Samantha Box started photographing LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) homeless youth about six years ago. In New York City, there are roughly 5,000 LGBTQ youth on the street every night. Box has dedicated much of her photography career to recording what she describes as “the banality and brutality of everyday life in this community.”
Columbia Visuals talked to Box about her project “Invisible: LGBT Youth Homelessness” and her experience in photographing a sensitive community.
Columbia Visuals: Can you talk about how you first started documenting NYC’s homeless LGBTQ youth?
Samantha Box: I began to formally work with NYC’s community of homeless LGBTQ youth in 2005, while I was a student at the ICP (International Center for Photography). However, I had been following the issue from around 2001. Around this time, I began to do research, and to reach out to organizations which work with homeless LGBTQ youth. I have been documenting this community for about seven years, at this point.
CV: To those who are not familiar with your “Invisible: LGBT Youth Homelessness” project, can you walk us through how you were able to get access into this community?
SB: I did tons of research to understand LGBTQ youth homelessness (even though, at the time there was scant research or reporting), reached out to and built relationships with organizations that worked with the young people, asked for permission to document spaces and lives, spent a lot of time asking questions and, above all, listening and earning trust. I continue to do all of these things, actually.
Real “access” in any honest storytelling takes time and energy; it’s not enough to just get a list of contacts and parachute in, expecting to have captured the complexities of the issue at the end.
CV: What was your approach to covering LGBTQ homeless youth?
SB: In my work, I’m accountable to the community. People know where to find me. One of the commitments I made when I started this work was that I would create work that challenged the perception of what it was like to be homeless, what it was like to be LGBTQ and what it was to be young and of color. If you think about all those four things, each has been visually stereotyped. It’s hard to visually stereotype someone you are close to, that you’ve swapped cigarettes with, that you’ve talked for hours with.
CV: What do think are some of the biggest misconceptions of LGBTQ homeless youth?
SB: I think many people go into work with at-risk or marginalized groups with a soundbite/pitch that centers their work. As journalists, our job is to get away from that, and to let the story tell itself.
That was certainly the case with me, until I realized how wrong I was. In the case of the youth, the soundbite is that they were rejected by their homes and families, but the reality is far more complicated than that. LGBTQ youth homelessness is caused by the intersection of many oppressions, which includes, but is not limited to, rejection based on homophobia and transphobia. Had I tried to limit my point of view to family rejection, my work would have been similarly limited; I would not have allowed myself to see beyond one aspect of a wider story.
CV: What advice would you give to young journalists who want to produce stories involving LGBTQ homeless youth?
SB: Beyond LGBTQ homeless youth, my advice to anyone looking to do work with any 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 precarious, at-risk, or even “exotic” situations not as people, but as “stories” or pictures for their portfolio. Ask yourself, “If I were not making photos, film, or 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. This commitment will see a journalist through to the real, human stories that I hope that we all are looking for.
CV: Once you find a story, how do you move forward?
SB: Do a lot of research. Not only on the subject, but also visual research. How have people talked about this topic?
For example, just say you were going to go photograph Brownsville [Brooklyn]. How I would go about it is figure out the issues, what’s going on, I would become the expert on Brownsville. And then, I would go spend some serious time looking at images of how people have photographed places like Brownsville.
Then you have you ask yourself: Do I agree with how Brownsville is being portrayed? If yes, why? If no, why? If no, then you have to ask how do I want my work to capture the actual experience of this place and what’s going on –then how do I want that to translate into images. And how are those images going to be different from what people have been producing about these places?
Media Matters: Justice, Fairness, And Covering The Fight For LGBT Equality
The Ali Forney Center: The Campaign for Youth Shelter
glbtq.com, an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
American Library Association/ GLBTRT professional tools
Fuck Yeah Character Development: Writing the LGBT Community