Pauliana Valente meets a group of friends living authentically in a port city called Mindelo
In 2014, photographer Pauliana Valente Pimentel was participating in an artist residency when she first met members of Mindelo’s local LGBT community. This port city, located on the north side of São Vicente island, sits some 838 kilometres away from Senegal in the horseshoe-shaped cluster of volcanic islands and country known as Cape Verde.
Compared to the harsh mentalities of its West African neighbours, the island nation is noticeably more accepting of non-binary and gay people. Though same-sex marriage is not recognised, same-sex sexual conduct was legalised in 2004, bringing Cape Verde to the forefront of progressive gender legislation in the region. Homosexuality is illegal in 37 countries across the continent, including four countries where queer intimacy can result in a death sentence. Even within the archipelago, the island of São Vicente is an exception, according to the photographer. “In the main island, Santiago, you wouldn’t see this group. They’d get beaten up,” she warns.
Valente, who lives in Lisbon, Portugal, attributes this tolerance to the island’s diminutive size – which allows for an inevitable closeness – but also the major role that LGBT people have come to play in the city’s most important celebration; Carnival. “The gay community is used to making the costumes and performing in the parade, so the island population got used to them.” Gay and transgender people are still considered “strange” but their mere presence does not necessarily spark violent reactions from other islanders.
“I think they are strong because they are together” – Pauliana Valente Pimentel
When the photographer first met him, Steffy seemed extraordinarily self-confident and poised for a 19-year-old. He was an out-and-proud gay boy who wore makeup daily and liked to dress up in satin dresses and high heels with his friends – a tight-knit group of young trans women, gay men, and gender non-conforming individuals. “I think they are strong because they are together,” Valente notes, adding that soon after this, she began to document their lives.
“(Steffy’s) mother was so proud of him (and) she would allow him to bring all of his friends home,” reveals Valente. But only when the group’s informal headquarters had become her own home did Valente push the shutter button. “I didn’t immediately start to photograph,” she explains. “I only began shooting when they were completely comfortable.”
Over a period of two years, Valente worked on this project intermittently because “it was a very important story to tell”. When the residency ended, Valente was able to go back to São Vicente in 2016, thanks to a nomination of the Novo Banco prize – Portugal’s most important prize for contemporary photography. This opportunity got her one step closer to realising her dream of “putting (the photographs) in a museum”. Her work with Mindelo’s young LGBT community was eventually exhibited at the Berardo Collection Museum in Lisbon and published as a book, titled Quel Pedra via Camera Infinita in 2017.
An unwavering sense of self-love saturates these untitled images of Steffy and his seven friends; Edinha, Gi, Elton, Sindji, Suzy Marie, Henio, and Jason. Here, self-worth is not concerned with how one compares to others, nor does it involve seeing oneself as others see you. Rather, it is about loving oneself, independent of others’ judgment.
Valente explains that she is aware of how positive her depiction of the community is, adding, “I’m telling you the glamorous part of the story, but there is another side too.”
For the most part, the series is set against a stripped-down backdrop of precarious homes and unpaved roads. Brick-red, barren hillsides surrounding the town conjure up the country’s lack of natural resources. The city of Mindelo is portrayed as an LGBT-friendly oasis, but Cape Verde is a country struggling to eradicate poverty and meet its population’s basic needs.
Suzy’s everyday life is a clear example of this, Valente says. “She was living in a one bedroom house made of iron,” the photographer recalls. “She had no kitchen or bathroom. She’d take baths in a basket. She’d wake up at five in the morning, go running for two hours, she’d come back and bath. Then she’d go to work as a housekeeper in the house of an old woman that was her friend. She’d do everything in the house and then go home, put on her best dress and best shoes and go out with her friends.”
Without neither turning a blind eye to it nor reproducing tired narratives about poverty, Valente sheds a light on an impoverished community that finds strength and joy in the freedom to express itself.
Back in Portugal, the response to Valente’s images has been positive, as western audiences are often surprised by images of African queerness because they don't fit with dominant portrayals of the continent’s tolerance to the LGBTQ+ community. At the exhibition, dubious visitors asked if the images were genuine; whether the people in them really existed.
But Valente was not attracted to Steffy and his friends for their shock value. Her main concern was in the potential of this story to inspire. For the photographer – whose passion for youth culture and sexuality extends from previous work – young people’s confidence and dignity is a message to be shared: “At that age, you still believe that you can be whatever you want.”