In Their Own Words

by HRC Staff

Fortunately for the GLBT community, 27-year-old Rachelle Lee Smith pursued her passion for photography, and developed the exhibit &quotPride/Prejudice: Voices of GLBT Youth,&quot capturing the stories of GLBT youth from around the country.

Smith brought her six-year project from her hometown of Philadelphia to the HRC headquarters in Washington, D.C., last fall. For the project, Smith shared her canvas with the youth by allowing them the unique opportunity to tell their own stories - and in their own handwriting.

"I want to give a younger generation, one that is often underrepresented, the chance to be seen and heard, if by no other outlet, through these photographs," she said. Smith picked up some of her skills from Barbara Proud, a longtime photographer for HRC, who first noticed her work in a class Proud was teaching in Philadelphia. When she�s not shooting, Smith can often be found on wheels, in the rink - she�s a member of an all-women�s roller derby team in Philadelphia. Smith�s show was the first-ever exhibit in HRC�s Equality Forum.

Equality Magazine: Where were you born? Where do you live now - Philly?

Rachelle Lee Smith: I was born in Philadelphia. I left for New York for school for a very short amount of time, realized that I was a Philly girl at heart, and returned. I now live in the heart of South Philly. I live in the South Philadelphia that Rocky made famous! With little old Italian ladies that have lived there their whole lives and everyone knows everyone. I even have my own neighborhood baker!

How long have you been taking photos?
I had my very first camera in elementary school (late 80s) � the kind with the flash bulbs and loved it! I first took classes in high school and spent my lunches and free time in the labs. I was always the kid with the camera.

A mentor of yours is one of HRC�s longtime photographers, Barbara Proud - or B Proud, as she is also known.
I did indeed take a class with her. She was my studio teacher and was the one to teach me how to light a white backdrop � which is trickier than it may seem. I also did my internship with her. She has been very influential as a strong (female lesbian) photographer and has always helped me achieve my goals by believing in me and giving me pointers.

Is photography full-time work? Do you have a day job, too?
A little of both. I work full-time at the University of the Arts in the Media Arts Department, which is made up of photography as well as film and animation. I taught a freshman photo class there for a few years and I also do freelance work for outside companies. I do my personal photography whenever I can.

How did you get the idea to have this project?
Meeting people and hearing stories that were very different from mine has really served as a catalyst for this project. I had started the project by photographing people in their surroundings and comfort zones, but realized that that was too easy and obvious. I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone (by bringing people to a studio) if I was going to ask the same from the subjects. For once, I did not want to let the photograph do the talking, but rather eliminate their surrounding environment and have the subjects speak for themselves.

Why are you doing it?
I wanted to learn more and in turn share the lives and stories of young LGBT people by getting their faces seen and words heard. I feel that there is so much judgment placed falsely on queer people and I wanted people to walk up to a photo, having no preconceived judgments on who the person is or what the people in the photos even have in common. I want people to know that all young adults grow up with the same feelings, fear, anxiety and happiness as anyone else. Adding one more element to deal with, might even make this particular group of people stronger. I want to give a younger generation, one that is often under-represented, the chance to be seen and heard, if by no other outlet, through these photographs.

When did you begin it? Where? Who was your first subject?
I began this in 2001. It seems so long ago, but it is such a process to complete one image. The subject and I have to meet up at the studio, we meet up again after I process the film to choose which photo will be used, I print the photo in a color darkroom (not digitally), and then we meet up again for the person to write on their print. I have done all of the photography at a studio in center city Philadelphia. Although I began with friends and acquaintances to test out the comfort level of subjects, my very first subject was a person named Joey, who I had met on the streets. I followed her (at the time, but now referred to as him) around to capture her day to day as a squatter, and the day before she left to hop trains back to California, I brought her into the studio. She had asked me if I would like to hop trains with her and document the lives of her and others who live that way. If I had done that I may never have done anything with her photographs to move this project ahead!

Has it evolved in some way?
I feel that the project, with each new "piece," adds an element of difference and knowledge. Every person contributes something so unique that it cannot help but to move forward. Also, as a body of work, I have been able to have the work seen in bigger, better places. The outlets of visibility have evolved. From classrooms, to galleries, to magazines, then the internet, and of course HRC!

Have you learned anything from the project, in particular?
Doing this project has helped me realize that I was very fortunate to grow up with supportive family and friends in an open environment. I feel that I have learned something from every person that I have encountered along the way.

Any surprises?
Every time a person takes my finished photograph to complete it as their own, it is a surprise to see how they tackle it. One surprise that comes to mind was with a subject named Max. I did not know that he was FTM [female to male] until reading what he wrote on his photograph!

What has been the response of your subjects? Are they interested in participating?
This is a voluntary project. My hopes are that, yes, people are interested in participating and sharing and have equal goals. I have had a myriad of responses. Most people relate to one person or another and/or are inspired to share more or do more to help in their life or the lives of others.

Did you know you were going to be a photographer early on in your life?
Although I was always the "kid with the camera," I never thought about it as a career or something that I could further involve myself in until applying for colleges and having my high school photo teacher encourage me to look into photography schools.

You also are involved with a roller derby team. Why?
Athleticism, female empowerment, and the social aspect. Our team has two old-school coaches, both who skated professionally 30 years ago and both happen to be gay as well. Everyone who actually is not a lesbian is very open. The girls of the team (and guys - we now have a men�s league as well) have become family to me and I love them all to death. Derby is the reason I do not teach anymore. It is quite addicting! With an HRC sponsorship I think we can really progress! Wink.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I try not to think that far ahead! But ideally I�d be happy, wealthy with friends and family, have a good job and many stories and experiences to keep me moving to the next challenge.

Your parents are supportive of your work? Of you being GLBTQ?
I have always said "labels are for jars, I am not a jar" but the truth is that I do identify as a lesbian. My parents found a letter from my girlfriend when I was 16. They have been supportive ever since. They are proud of the work that I do.

What do you think your next project will be?
Although I have always been drawn to journalistic style photography and find myself following big events and no specific projects - until Pride/Prejudice - I do have two projects in mind. Ideally, if I can get this current project published as a book, I would like to do something similar, but to focus on an older generation. I think I would learn so incredibly much from a generation that came before mine. The stories would be inspiring and help remind people of the progress that has been made. The other project I would like to see in book form is a classy, sexy female book. There are countless numbers in the gay male market, but not much selection when it comes to female eye candy. That could be a fun change! We�ll see. I�d like to focus on this one first before straying my focus!

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