Photographer Laurel Golio on her decade-long documentation of queer youth in the US
Since studying visual anthropology, Laurel has been fascinated by the ethics of representation in photography, something she’s learned a lot about through her collaborative project We Are the Youth.
- Ruby Boddington
- 21 September 2021
Back in 2010, photographer Laurel Golio and her childhood friend Diana Scholl, a journalist, noticed a significant lack of representation of the queer community in mainstream media. Stories relating to queer youth were even scarcer. “Most of the stories we were seeing on a national or even regional level focused on adult queer folks and were centred mostly around cis-white-gay men and the fight for marriage equality,” Laurel recalls. When stories of queer youth were shared, they were mostly focused on bullying or suicide. “Those stories, of course, were and are important to share,” she says, but adds that if negative or traumatic stories are all you’re seeing, “it’s quite detrimental on a lot of different levels both to those in the queer community and those outside the queer community who may not have a lot of personal experience with queer folks,” she continues. In response, the duo launched We Are the Youth, a platform where queer youth can share the stories of their full lived experiences in their own words; stories about bullying and mental health but also high school drama, family, love or heartbreak.
We Are the Youth began with a trip to a gay prom in Yonkers, New York, where Laurel and Diana met around 200 young people. “Over the next few weeks, we put some of their portraits and interviews up on a BlogSpot we had started (yes a BlogSpot! that’s how long ago this was!),” Laurel jokes. Press coverage from that initial series allowed them to launch a Kickstarter and eventually travel to colleges, queer groups, diners and more in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, to meet queer youth there. The project evolved naturally and over the ensuing decade, the duo continued to chronicle the individual stories of LGBTQIA+ youth in the United States through authentic, honest and respectful means.
Importantly, the project has not just been a way to educate those outside of the queer community, but has been a learning experience for Laurel and Diana too. Over the years, they have been welcomed into the worlds of so many young people and have had to grow and change with every encounter. “The project allowed us to examine our ideas around representation and photojournalism – what it means to ethically interview folks, especially minors, who wanted to participate but didn’t want their parents to find out,” Laurel says. “We learned and evolved our thinking in so many ways over the course of the project and honestly, as society and media and the internet has changed over the last ten years, our thinking around how we represent stories that aren’t our own has and continues to evolve.”
Laurel, who was born in the Bronx and grew up in Ossining, New York, studied visual anthropology at university where she became interested in the ethics of representation, especially in terms of photojournalistic coverage of conflict. While she didn’t enter that field, specifically, the question of who gets to depict who and how has always formed a core element of her photographic practice.
One story in particular sticks in Laurel’s mind. She and Diana met Braxton at Auburn University right at the beginning of the project, on their first trip in fact. “He talked a lot about trying to find a path forward in his evangelicalism after coming out,” she explains. “I wasn’t around a tonne of religious queer people growing up, so it was really interesting to hear his perspective and it definitely pushed me to think about queerness and religion in a way I hadn’t.”
While Diana’s interviews, of course, play a major role in telling these stories, Laurel’s photographic approach is also vital. Speaking to her process not just in relation to We Are the Youth but other personal and commercial projects, Laurel says it’s all about “people and story-sharing” for her, so making a personal connection with a subject on a shoot is key. “If I can find a way to connect to the person I’m photographing or the general mission of the project or the story, it feels much easier for me to make a picture,” she adds. For We Are the Youth, she was particularly lucky in that she was able to sit in on all of the interviews, using that time to get to know someone and “get a sense of what their life is like and where or how they might feel comfortable posing for a portrait.” In turn, she tries to bring as much of that process as she can to her other projects. “It also made very clear to me how important it is to have personal projects to work on, in addition to editorial and commercial work,” she adds.
Recently, Laurel was asked to shoot a Pride campaign for Lex, a queer-owned social app that connects queer lovers and friends. Following the concept of “Summer of Love”, they cast “real people” and everyone was self-styled, leading to a joyfully candid series of images. In order to capture that essence, Laurel says she “tried to approach the shoot with a loose, natural energy”. While there was of course a shot list, everyone was open to experimentation and so the day was spent following tangents and new ideas, then capturing the natural moments that arose as a result. “It was really special to work with an all-queer team, which definitely created a sense of safety and openness,” Laurel adds.
Conversations with Diana about how they can reignite We Are the Youth have also been filling up her time of late. “We think it could be really interesting to re-interview some of the folks we met early on during We Are the Youth – in 2010, 2012 – and see where they’re at in their lives now, what’s changed, what hasn’t, what they’d like to reflect on about their identity then and now.” While they’re still working out exactly what this new iteration might look like, Laurel summarises that “we’re both really excited about exploring the current state of queerness in the United States and also reflecting on what we might do differently this time around – how we’ve changed personally and artistically over the last decade.”
Laurel Golio: Anabelle, from We Are the Youth (Copyright © Laurel Golio, 2021)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.