With her ongoing personal project, Infinite Tenderness, photographer Peyton Fulford aims to bring “a new visual understanding to the lives of queer people living in rural areas, specifically those who identify as trans and non-binary.” The project intersects with Peyton’s own experience of coming to terms with her own queer identity while growing up in Albany, Georgia.
Having graduated from her studies in photography at Columbus State University in 2017, Peyton was awarded the 2018 Firecracker Photographic Grant. She has received international recognition for her work, which has been exhibited at Somerset House’s Photo London and at Base Milano’s Photo Vogue Festival, as well as garnering commissions from publications such as Time Magazine, The New York Times and the British Journal of Photography. While her commissioned work often participates in discussions around queer identity – for example, her recent photographs for Time on America’s LGBTQ+ bars – it is through her self-initiated projects that Peyton delves most deeply into personal narratives of queer experience.
Describing how the project Infinite Tenderness came about, Peyton tells us: “I grew up in a religious household in a small southern town. My mother was raised in the Sanctified Holy Church and my father was raised as a Southern Baptist. As a result of the strict beliefs I had been taught since birth, I did not feel comfortable coming out as queer until I was 21 years old. For the majority of my life, I was unsure where I belonged in the world. It was difficult to navigate the space I was growing up in because I could not relate to it or understand my place within it. As I came to terms with my own identity, the photo series Infinite Tenderness came to fruition.”
Peyton refers to the work she makes as “narrative portraiture”. Since 2016, she has been establishing meaningful relationships with those around her who share the experience of wanting to understand and embrace own identities as queer individuals, while grappling with the difficulties of growing up queer in small-town southern America. Peyton says of her subjects: “These are the people I have met and connected with along the way. Through this work, I am documenting the exploration of one’s body, sexuality, and gender that comes along with growing up and identifying oneself. My intention is to empower others and create an accepting space for queer kids that grow up in small towns and rural areas. Each individual in this series is dependent on one another for support and understanding of their ever-changing identities.”
Infinite Tenderness advocates a community of mutual support based on openness and compassion. Care and intimacy are expressed in the photographs, not just in physical closeness and tender affection between bodies, but in the trust implied between photographer and sitter by the privacy of the settings. Hannah is photographed in her own bathroom, complete with fluffy pink toilet seat; Annie is pictured relaxing on their sofa; Trevor stands at their desk, surrounded by their personal possessions – wigs, books, records, a black feather boa, a sewing machine; and Yancey sits on the edge of a bed in Peyton’s own candlelit bedroom.
Peyton states: “I believe good storytelling relies on intimately understanding the complexities of the subject’s life and environment. In the process of shooting this project, it is important that I as the photographer capture not only the individual identities of these queer folks but also attempt to answer the question of why the inclusive nature of these close-knit communities is necessary for the collective as a whole. From my experience, it is imperative to go beyond the subject’s sexuality or gender identity and capture the essence of their humanity to create more compelling, authentic imagery.”
In mainstream visual media, those who identify as trans and non-binary are often either ignored or else misrepresented and fetishised, the aesthetic of their identity appropriated as a commercial tool. In opposition to this, the highly personal nature of Peyton’s portraits and the environments in which they take place acknowledges the individual stories of each person photographed and gives them control over the way they are represented.