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Isabella Noseda, Damien Frost
Isabella NosedaPhotography Damien Frost

Damien Frost’s portraits of LGBTQ+ people in isolation are works of art

Damien Frost photographs a global community of drag queens, artists, performers, and designers living in isolation

Damien Frost is an Australian British photographer known for his incredible photography series Night Flowers. Published in 2016 and consisting of over 300 portraits, Night Flowers documents the protagonists of London’s nightlife – drag kings and queens, club kids, goths, alternative queer and transgender people, fetishists, as well as cabaret and burlesque performers – as they “bloom after midnight”.

Thanks to his background in opera and theatre, Frost was able to grasp the complexity of his Night Flowers’ looks, acknowledging the intricate preparation anticipating their otherworldly outfits. Inspired by the sophisticated makeup and wild costumes of his subjects, the London-based photographer began documenting this scarcely accessible community of people to bring its grace to the wider public.

Combining traditional-style photography with the unpredictability of chance encounters, Frost – who met most of his series’ protagonists on the street or in a club – created authentic and ethereal visions of some of countercultural’s most eccentric members.

In his latest series, Social Distancing, Portraits, the photographer reinvents himself and his artistic production to adapt to the pandemic. As night venues keep their doors shut to comply with the lockdown measures, Frost decided to expand his documentation of those who flourish in social gatherings into a worldwide, remotely-shot project.

“It is important to keep the subjects of these portraits visible, we shouldn’t isolate any further a segment of society that is already quite marginalised” – Damien Frost

“An artist’s reaction to the unsettling and eerie reality of the statutory social distancing and self-isolation,” reads the series’ press release, Social Distancing, Portraits turns the lens on artists, performers, designers, and members of the LGBTQ+ community across the world to reflect the oxymoron expressed by the phrase ‘social distancing’. Capturing the protagonists of the global night scene, the series expresses their struggle to stay connected with others in a time urging us to remain apart. 

Entirely photographed via video calls, Social Distancing, Portraits shows alternative social icons in their inimitable costumes and makeup as they face quarantine inside their homes. From Russia to Spain, Italy to Iraq, Frost depicts the new challenging “normal” as experienced through the eyes of those working in the nightlife, theatrical, or performative industry.

Below, we speak with Damien Frost about cultivating creativity amid the pandemic, remote photography, and the importance of preserving his subjects’ visibility. 

Social Distancing, Portraits came as a reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak and the resulting social-distancing measures. To what extent has the impossibility to take part in social gatherings stimulated your creativity?

Damien Frost: The photos I take as part of the Night Flowers series on my harmonyhalo account are taken in clubs and at parties, documenting the more extreme and colourful styling of London’s alternative queer nightlife. When it was first announced that club nights were being cancelled as a result of social distancing I realised that I was not going to be able to continue to capture this culture in the same way in which I’ve always been used to doing. It was actually the phrase ‘social distancing’ that made me realise I could be social and distant at the same time via video chat apps.

So that thought gave me the idea to start photographing people using this method, which would also enable me to capture that sense of imposed alienation. I find the oxymoron inherent in the expression ‘social distancing’ interesting – the fact that one can be social and distant at the same time. I wanted to try and document this moment in time somehow, but that’s tricky when it’s important for us to limit not only contact with each other, but also contact with the outside world. That’s when I understood that taking photos from home was important.

Above all, I wanted to highlight and help promote the visibility of this sector of society, which has had their career and livelihood severely affected by this situation. Most of the people I’m photographing work in the nightlife economy, so the nature of such jobs implies that they don’t have the job security necessary to go on to furlough. In the current situation, even just having enough money to pay rent, let alone eat, is a serious concern for many people out there.

My own job security at the moment is very precarious and it can be difficult to feel motivated to be creative right now, but that’s also partly why I’ve absorbed myself in a project like this one. I’ve been inspired by all the people I’m photographing, many of whom are, in turn, struggling financially. Despite being in more complicated circumstances than the ones I find myself in at the moment, they still remain positive, taking each day as it comes, and doing their best not to let the situation overwhelm them.

At the end of the day, I just really enjoy taking portraits. I love the process of collaboration that takes place between the subject and the photographer, both working towards the same end result  making an engaging image. So if we can’t be doing this in person today, (social distancing portraits) seem to be the only mechanism available to us to keep on doing it.

Contrary to your previous works, in Social Distancing, Portraits, you had the opportunity to portray your subjects inside their own houses. How has the unconventionally familiar setting of this shooting contributed to the outcome of the series? 

Damien Frost: In 2016, after the Night Flowers book came out, I started a project photographing people I had met on the streets inside their homes before they venture out into the night. Albeit I’ve only done a handful of these portraits, this helped feel confident ‘going’ into peoples’ homes for this new project. One of the subjects featured in Social Distancing, Portraits I had already photographed in his home in Saint Petersburg last year for another one of my works. Knowing where the windows were and where the light was coming from, as well as knowing how much space we had to play with made the whole process much easier for me. Working out where the best light is or finding a background that’s not too distracting from the outfit is probably the hardest part of this type of shooting.

Sometimes the subject walks me around their flat, showing me different rooms before we both decide what would be the best place to set up the shot. The greatest obstacle is dealing with variable internet connection quality issues, as the video connection can cause the image to be overly pixelated. But this is all part of the process. The nature of these images is that they’re not meant to be perfect, it’s about highlighting the situation we’re in right now and documenting it in whatever way I can  imperfections and everything included. That’s also why I decided to include the iPad in the imagery rather than just taking screenshots: I wanted the process to be part of the end result too. 

If you had to pick the photograph that best represents the vision of this series, what wouldit be and why?

Damien Frost: That’s a very difficult question! I would probably say the second image I took in this series, the one with Élan D’Orphium. This shot was one of the few I discussed with the subject beforehand in more depth, talking about how we would set the scene, and choosing a few different locations in their flat that could possibly work. It was also the first international shot I took, as Élan lives in Spain. We took this shot at a time when (in the UK) we were just going into quarantine, but they had been on lockdown for weeks ahead of us. So we shared some stories and expectations about that. It was also nice as I could hear their mother in the background, and their brother was helping out with the positioning of the light, so it felt quite collaborative as well. It was lovely to shoot for the first time across internationally quarantined borders. 

Why is it important to keep documenting your subjects’ self-expression and sense of identity amid the COVID-19 crisis?

Damien Frost: If I was to find a thread throughout my photography – aside from the obvious documentation of London’s transgressive nightlife – it would be that is really about community, about documenting and showcasing a community of people at a particular moment in time. This project has allowed me to continue capturing that community but, this time, at a more global level rather than a local one. It truly allowed me to highlight their situations while emphasising this shared sense of commonality (which was present) between all the people (I photographed) in these different countries. The fact that we’re all “in the same boat”, that’s what many people are finding comfort in. 

What has been wonderful (about this experience) was meeting people for the first time via this process who were inspired to do what they do by people living here (in London) that I know on a personal level. That’s when you realise just how small the world and the global community can be. When I first started the project, I was actually unsure how many people would be open to putting together looks, given that we’re all confined in our homes and, often, in difficult circumstances. But the drive to do this isn’t just about showcasing it to the world. It’s also a very personal act of transformation, and many people I have photographed were really thankful to both have the excuse to dress up, but also for providing them with something to focus on for the day – which might, otherwise, have drifted past in a haze.

Around the same time when I started the project, I noticed that many had started live streaming events, or doing online make-up tutorials. So I was able to capture people before or after they were doing a show, or while they were also ‘attending’ a live stream party and getting dressed up for that. In that sense, the documentary nature of the project has partly survived. What has been amazing for me was to be able to reach out to a wider global audience. I don’t get the opportunity to travel much for this project, so being able to meet people living in different cities and, for example, finding people doing drag in India or in small cities in Ecuador – where there’s no alternative queer scene at all – and seeing how vibrant other communities are has been really inspiring.

“The nature of these images is that they’re not meant to be perfect, it’s about highlighting the situation we’re in right now and documenting it in whatever way I can” – Damien Frost

Can you tell us about the experience and process of shooting these? 

Damien Frost: The process is actually very random and I generally don’t know what the person is going to look like on the other end of the line, so it’s always a fun and pleasant surprise. In that sense, it actually mirrors the other portraits I do, which are also random, and the result of chance meetings in clubs. The people in the Night Flowers photos are photographed “as found”, and I enjoy this element of randomness and surprise. In most cases, the people are getting dressed up for another reason – whether it be taking their own photographs, or as part of an online show or party – so I’d take these photos (either) before or after that. Once we’re on the call though, I might rearrange the flowers (I use as decoration) a little, adding more or taking some from the setting, to match the colours I see on the screen. But the photos are actually captured quite quickly and are generally shot within 15 minutes.

Is there any lesson you’ve learned thanks to this unprecedented experience?

Damien Frost: I’ve been using a variety of different apps to take the portraits. Sometimes we swap apps halfway through the process to see if the image is clearer in one over the other. It often is, but the quality is always variable, often terrible, and always unpredictable. To be honest, I would probably get a better quality image if I was to take a screenshot with the iPad, but I enjoy the physicality of using a camera, and it’s also important for me to see the medium in these photos – the imagery is about documenting the situation, the process of the ‘meeting’ up, as well as the subject. 

Still, I wish I could be in the same room as the person and be able to directly capture the image – the flatness of the screen and the flatness of the images on the screen is often heartbreaking when the person on the other end has such an ornate and detailed look. It wasn’t until the lockdown that I realised how much of a social animal I am – the process of taking the nightlife portraits is also a very social one and I do miss that personal interaction. The video chats act as a substitute, but it’s definitely not a replacement.

It’s often slightly awkward whether because of the video freezing up, or the audio echoing, or general digital glitches. Combined with language barriers, this can contribute to highlighting the actual distance and remoteness. In the coming months, once we are allowed out into the wilds of each other's presence again, I'm hoping to be able to follow up many of these portraits with a second photo of the subject without the awkward medium of a video chat app. In that way, we will have a before-and-after pair of images.

What would be your advice for aspiring and fellow photographers that are struggling to produce new work due to the lockdown restrictions?

Damien Frost: Just do it, don’t overthink it, and even if you don’t feel motivated, try and push through this because you don’t know what will happen on the other side. In times like these ones, I'm very much reminded of Einstein's quote, ‘People are like bicycles. They can keep their balance only as long as they keep moving.’ That’s why I always try to keep on moving and, in many ways, that’s the drive behind this project, the same drive that encourages people in those images to continue practicing their craft – because if you stop doing what you love, the balance starts to get a little weird.

What message do you hope people viewing this series might take away?

Damien Frost: I hope people will understand that it is important to keep the subjects of these portraits visible, and that we shouldn’t isolate any further a segment of society that is already quite isolated and marginalised. The goal of this series is to highlight my subjects’ situation as well as that of everyone whose work is dependent on the nightlife, theatrical, or performative economy. My photography tries to make ends meet, providing a humane, intimate, and captivating portrayal of these people.