Photographer Dustin Thierry, born on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, is now based in Amsterdam where he uses his camera to bolster communities he is both a part of, and feels a responsibility towards. Working on long-term projects, his images are sensitive and full of joy, not to mention beautiful, and tackle themes surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and vulnerable minorities.
Dustin describes his practice to us: “It’s a form of re-activation through communal storytelling and showcasing beauty and resiliency. For now, I’m having this urgency to tell these stories, uplift and disrupt the confinements of the institutions that passively sustain ignorance in the public domain. It’s very troubling and makes me uncomfortable that I don’t see my community represented or empowered in any shape or form through the words of its own members.” Through his work, therefore, Dustin does just that – represent and empower.
One ongoing project of his, and the one that initially caught our attention, is Opulence. A dramatic series of black-and-white images, the series documents the Dutch ballroom scene from 2013 until today. Back when he first started the series, Dustin was the resident event photographer for the nightclub, BIRD Rotterdam. “One day the owner, Phil Powel, connected me to Amber Vineyard, mother of ‘The House of Vineyard’ who was, then, starting to organise her first Ballroom events under the name of ‘The House of Vineyard presents: The Black Grapes’,” he recalls. “It’s through this collaboration that I began to understand that my photography was needed and could amplify the voice of the Ballroom scene.”
While Opulence allowed the photographer to see how his chosen medium could empower others, it also unearthed several personal revelations for him. “My blackness, my search for artistic freedom and expression, my dance and the feeling of family is what kept me coming back to it until my brother committed suicide. The suicide of my brother changed everything and I never really got to process that,” Dustin tells us. “Since everything got this personal for me, photography helped me to understand myself better. I always knew that my work could be a visual voice for the people who feel like they don’t have a voice. I feel needed and as long as I can I’ll use my camera as a tool for it… In that regard, processing his loss, photography has had, through many encounters, a therapeutic effect on me.”
Dustin’s series Dreaming Above the Atlantic is only further testament to his sensitive approach to photography. In 2014, he was made aware of political André Bosman’s proposed law to bar uneducated Antilleans (“a former colony of The Netherlands, yet still a municipality, sort of like Puerto Rico and the US”) from entering the Netherlands. The ensuing controversy became a catalyst for Dustin’s project, leading him to create 52 portraits of 52 people from Surinam and Curaçao living in Amsterdam. “After moving to Amsterdam I wanted to meet fellow Caribbean emigrés to learn about their life stories,” he tells us. “I wanted to share the portraits and stories of these beautiful and positive people.”
While all of Dustin’s imagery is adept in its execution – he describes his visual language as “simple, raw, personal with a little goofy classiness to it” – it’s his understanding of the power of the camera which really makes it resonate. “As a photographer and artist, social justice means telling stories from the points of view of people who suffer, or have experienced social injustices: not creating work about them, but with them,” he reinstates. “As a black photographer and artist I feel that it’s my responsibility to at least address it.”
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