An examination of sexual identity, gender and performance: Austn Fischer discusses American Sugar

The London-based photographer on how he learnt to stop caring about other peoples’ opinions of his work and how it freed him creatively.

30 September 2021

When the pandemic hit in March 2019, Austn Fischer went from being a photography student in London to living with his family in Wisconsin. As an eager undergraduate, he was keen to continue practising in any way he could. Without access to facilities and being so far from his place of study, Austn experienced an anxious time. “I originally chose to study abroad because I wanted to grow and experience new possibilities in making,” he tells us. To find himself back where he started felt like he was “back in a box of creative and cultural limitations,” but instead of falling victim to these downtrodden feelings, instead, Austn set about rethinking his creative path.

He started by rethinking what making work looked like for him. Experiments in self-portraiture and building small worlds ensued, and Austn explored longing questions about himself and about masculinity in the US. In this way, Austn’s practice is rooted in the everyday. “Often someone will say something I find rude, offensive, triggering or even something I perhaps don’t understand,” he says. As a way of internalising these feelings, Austn digs deep and explores these emotions through his work. “It’s a form of therapy for me to reach for a camera,” he adds, “to perform, to direct, to build sets and explore how role-play can help unpick the questions and fascinations I might be preoccupied with.”

These feelings amassed and developed into a quarantine project, American Sugar. He notes it as “extremely important to me because much of the work was made in collaboration with my siblings and other creatives in my hometown.” The primary motivation for the work started with a feeling of discomfort; a feeling espoused from his sexual identity and identity in general. As he turned his lens inwards, creatively expressing the matter, he realised that his sexuality and self-image “lived firmly in the grey zone.” What this means, he explains, is that “it knew what it wanted, but was doubtful. It looked for definition but didn’t want to be tied down by one.”

Austn’s photography, in turn, visually describes these complicated emotions through delicate black and white imagery bathed in the grey aforementioned tones. The work is both violent and delicate at the same time. Weapons such as guns, swords and masked figures are peppered throughout the series, but on the other hand, the subject’s gait is undoubtedly empowered, strong and fervent.

An authentic portrayal of Austn’s coming-of-age experience where a sense of duplicity runs rife, the project was birthed from a set of distinct influences: Robert Maplethorpe, Claude Cahun, Kanye West’s rebellious streak and “hours listening to Kendrick’s critique of society.” As these artists swirled around Austn’s mind, he decided to use the project as a process of discovery, a way of speaking about the spectrum and specificity of sexuality and what it means to him individually. “Great for someone who has never felt good with words,” he adds.

American Sugar encapsulates a community of minds working together to delve into the possibilities of gender, performance, kinship and sexuality. Examining what queerness means to the artist, the project marks a significant moment in its documentation of Austn’s struggle for self-acceptance. Having grown up thinking he should make images that are attractive to other people, he looks back on a common belief that he always wanted to make work that achieves conventional success and is well-liked. Now, however, he realises “this way of thinking just made me upset, and constantly made me compare myself to others.” He finally goes on to say: “Once I learnt to stop caring about what other people thought of my work, it freed my creative spirit. It’s something I struggle with, but the most important thing is that I’m on the journey to getting better at it.”

GalleryAustn Fischer: American Sugar (Copyright © Austn Fischer, 2021)

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Austn Fischer: American Sugar (Copyright © Austn Fischer, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

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