Can you tell who’s ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ in these photographs?

Army gear, feather boas and spurred boots: this photo series is challenging the stereotypes of how we present sexuality

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Luke Smithers
MotelPhotography Luke Smithers

You are what you wear, according to long-standing, anachronistic gender norms. Imposed on us at birth are the colours pink or blue, as decided by the doctor who announces our sex. From then on, our choice of identity is defined by the tropes of gender: what’s glittery or matte, what’s stereotypically effeminate or macho.

First discovering Collier Schorr’s photograph “Night Porter (Matthias)” from a series in which she dressed German boys in Nazi uniforms, photographer Luke Smithers began exploring the notions of self presentation. “This particular boy, Matthias, wears a Third Reich cap with a boa around his neck,” says Smithers. “I relished the mystery in these contradictory accessories.”

Thinking about how norms surrounding gender and sexuality are portrayed, Smithers began to think of his body “as a canvas, onto which others project radically disparate visions”. Having shaved his head, he was asked constantly if he had joined the army. “I decided to fully adopt their conception of my newfound masculinity,” explains Smithers. So he bought a uniform and started capturing this persona: “I sought to catalogue the dangerous effects that could blow my cover – a gaping mouth, a hungry gaze.”

The ambiguity of identity weaves its way through Rules of Desire: the possibility of people unbound by heteronormative ideals. He infiltrates what he calls “heteronormative zones” such as the local swimming pool, donning speedos and bringing a camera and tripod, despite the wayward stares. The series acknowledges the performative nature of photography itself for the subject, in a similar vein to how we perform ourselves in the public sphere.

Smithers alludes to lyrics from Joanna Newsom’s new album Divers, “How do you choose your form? How do you choose your name? How do you choose the time you must exhale, and kick, and rise?” Explaining their meaning in his work, he says: “Newsom points to the arbitrary nature of our identities. Had these unseen forces been different, had my place of birth been a few miles south, perhaps I would have been a soldier or a cowboy. Would the residue of my sexuality remain?”

Check out more of Luke Smithers' work here

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