It’s been a tough year for queer people. In addition to the Orlando shooting – which was, as Guardian columnist Owen Jones noted, “the worst mass killing of LGBT people in the west since the Holocaust” – there’s been the appointment of Mike Pence to Vice President of the United States, a man with famously draconian positions on gay rights. If that wasn’t enough, here in the UK LGBT hate crime has risen by 147 per cent since the Brexit vote in June. As such, the importance of safe spaces – a notion mocked by the conservative right in the aftermath of Orlando – has never been greater. In his new book Home, which was published in collaboration with Grindr, Berlin photographer Matt Lambert explores this idea through a series of portraits of young gay men he cast via the app, along with Facebook and Instagram.
“After Orlando, we began to look for ways to express this common sense we all had that something had been taken away from us,” says Landis Smithers, Creative Director of Grindr, who describes the project as one of his favourite collaborations in his career. “A sense of comfort in each other, in the ability to be safe, to walk or speak or simply exist in places we had taken for granted were ‘ours’. Matt and I were speaking about it and I asked him if he could, on his travels, take time to find the new frontier in safe spaces. We both agreed that the term itself perhaps had no real meaning in today’s age, even before the tragedy. But that perhaps the concept could be found in new ways, by a new generation. Matt said he felt those spaces were virtual now, or constructs of a much larger, much more fluid, and perhaps more inventive global community.”
Art directed and designed by Studio Yukiko, Home sees Lambert’s subjects discuss their own experiences of safe spaces, and cult gay filmmaker and No Skin Off My Ass director Bruce LaBruce reflect on the topic in the foreword. However this book is just the start of Lambert and Grindr’s partnership – in fact, he’s joining the company as Global Commissioning Director and will be working with them on content creation, enlisting emerging and established artists from the LGBT community to create everything from short films to music video and documentaries. Here, Lambert talks Home, safe spaces and his new role at Grindr.
So tell us about this book.
Matt Lambert: I skyped with Landis and he said he’d love to commission me to do a photo series. It was right around the Pulse nightclub shootings and the conversation was a response to (the) cynical conservatives in America who mocked the idea that people celebrated gay clubs and bars as sacred spaces. But if you’ve never known what it feels like to not feel safe or not feel comfortable to express your love in public, then you’ll never understand the necessity of needing these spaces. They’re important in London and New York, but in smaller towns and places that ostracise LGBTQ+ people they are vital. These spaces are incredibly important places to come of age, often before we’re able to come of age and come out in the real world. So the idea was just to document conversations with young gay men and ask them when and where that space was for them.
How did people respond?
Matt Lambert: I’d say the average age was probably like 21 or 22 and almost everybody’s response was connected to digital spaces rather than physical. It’s by no means meant to be an anthology of what digital relationships or virtual intimacy looks like, more just a snapshot of about twenty people that I’d met and had a conversation with about the ways digital or virtual spaces have helped them find a sanctuary or solidarity. A lot of my work deals with intimacy and digital spaces and I’m not trying to present this dystopian view of the world, that romance is dead as a result of the internet, but rather to say ‘hey, we’re here now and digital spaces have done some really fucking incredible things for people over the last couple of years’. From what it’s done for young gay men to what it’s done for the trans rights movement and what it’s done for conversations surrounding race, gender and sexuality as a whole. I’m trying to focus on the positive.
“If you’ve never known what it feels like to not feel safe or not feel comfortable to express your love in public, then you’ll never understand the necessity of needing these spaces” – Matt Lambert
Why is it called Home?
Matt Lambert: I have a friend called Moonshine and years ago he drew a tattoo on my arm which says ‘Home is where I lay my head’ and it was this idea that for me. It’s an empowering feeling when you realise home is in your head, heart and relationships. Home is the people around you and home is a feeling. I think a lot of young LGBT teens can be physically at home but actually feel very not at home, feel very alienated and alone. For them, digital spaces can often become this concept of home, somewhere they feel safe.
How did you cast it?
Matt Lambert: We actually did an open casting call through the app on Grindr and met a few people that way, but I also went just on Grindr, Instagram and Facebook and cast people on there to follow the digital theme, but also some friends as to connect with the way I usually cast and shoot.
Bruce LaBruce wrote the foreword, how did you get him on board?
Matt Lambert: I’ve known Bruce for about eight years. He indirectly introduced my husband and I randomly at a bar when I first moved to Berlin and connected me to some my first people and spaces in the city. I’d also been influenced by his work and now he’s become a mentor of mine. For me, it was quite important to have someone from a generation past to frame this idea of the a safe space, what it meant and continues to mean. He's probably more of an authority on those underground gay culture than anyone I can think of.
Onto your role at Grindr, can you tell us about that?
Matt Lambert: I’m going to be working as a Global Commissioning Director as they move into content creation. My role will be to commission LGBTQ+ filmmakers, photographers and artists to tell their stories and create content, ranging from short film, music video, documentary, art photo, etc.
What’s your personal hope for your role? That you can act like a patron to emerging LGBT artists?
Matt Lambert: Emerging artists but also artists, but also in talks with some of the legends of cinema. People who I've always wished there was some kind of platform for. The response so far has been great because people have been disenfranchised with what platforms were there in the past. So for me it's a way to support the LGBTQ+ creators that I have already in my community, and also to meet new creators who maybe feel unable to realise their ideas – often because their work contain themes that mainstream spaces can’t wrap their heads around. There is an incredibly limited number of spaces for a lot of those creators to make work. Dazed has been an amazing platform for me over the past few years and my video work I've made, but there's just not really an amazing amount of options out there that also have taste and trust.
Buy a copy of Home here.
Follow Ted Stansfield on Twitter here @ted_stansfield