Roman Manfredi’s exhibition We/Us seeks to broaden the narrow perceptions of butches and studs and increase the presence of this less visible group
There is a reason the portraits in the new exhibition and photo series We/Us feel like cause to stop, pause and take time with them – and it’s not just the subjects’ piercing but vulnerable eye contact or their powerful stances. It’s the fact that we rarely see these kinds of faces and bodies lensed, either in gallery spaces or in the media.
“There is a lack of representation of butches and studs in all aspects of mainstream society,” says photographer Roman Manfredi of their impulse to shoot the series. “I think the reason for that continued invisibility is linked to consumerism, that our identities are not seen as marketable.” This is heightened when the subjects are working class, says Manfredi, because the (perhaps subconscious) stereotype of the working class ‘butch’ is an image of a ‘mannish lesbian’ who does not conform to the beauty standards of whiteness and/or femininity.
We/Us hones in on working-class butches and studs specifically for this reason, but also to get back to the roots of the terms ‘butch’ and ‘stud’ themselves. “The term butch originated from the working class bar culture in the US in the 1940s and 50s,” Manfredi explains, “while Stud, though more recent, comes from working-class Black lesbian communities in the US – a much newer and younger identity, now taken up by Black masculine-presenting lesbians in the UK.”
“There is a lack of representation of butches and studs in all aspects of mainstream society. I think the reason for that continued invisibility is linked to consumerism, that our identities are not seen as marketable” – Roman Manfredi
The American history of the terms made the locations of Manfredi’s portraits feel more vital; they wanted backgrounds that placed people very clearly in the UK through the architectural landscape; council estates, parks, and funfairs. “If you Google ‘butch’ or ‘stud’ those pictures that come up are from a bygone era or from the US,” Manfredi says, of how the images contribute to a vastly lacking British legacy of masc and dyke imagery. “I photographed people mainly where they are from, where they live or somewhere that was personal to them,” she explains. Locations include Kent, Essex and Lancashire. “We are less visible in regional parts of the UK because those areas are generally ignored in terms of queer representation. Queer culture tends to be London-centric.”
The photos were shot on film as an active choice, meaning there were aspects of the image that Manfredi didn’t intend or see at the time of shooting. “I decided to put aside traditional rules of composition in favour of working with the moment and the presence of the person I was making the image with. I came to enjoy these little ‘failures’, working with them as part of an ongoing process of defining ourselves as butches outside of conventions of gender; of embracing and celebrating that which is ‘not quite right’.”
We/Us will show in London first at the gallery Space Station Sixty-Five, a queer and artist-run space in Kennington, south London. Manfredi has programmed a series of intergenerational talks and performance events to explore further just why working-class butches and studs specifically are one of the most, if not the most underrepresented groups in the UK. A series of audio recordings allow the subjects’ stories to travel further than those who can attend the show in person, and are spoken in their own words, providing – like the images themselves – what Manfredi describes as “a different narrative to the academic rhetoric and theorising over our identities.”
“We are less visible in regional parts of the UK because those areas are generally ignored in terms of queer representation. Queer culture tends to be London-centric” – Roman Manfredi
But, more than that, the intention behind the decision to include audio was to disrupt the gaze and challenge how we consume images around identity, as well as to add another dimension of intimacy with the participants. “I wanted to add humanity and warmth as a way of subverting the objectification of gender non-conforming bodies.”
Born in England to a working-class Italian family, Manfredi identified as a dyke before they found the term butch – “butch best describes me and dyke best describes my attitude” – and their own self-portrait features in the series. Their intention was to create a series from within their own community, using their own networks, word of mouth and scouting subjects at events like boxing matches, spoken word events, UK Black Pride and through Instagram. Since shooting, they have formed lasting connections with those photographed.
What have they learned about butch and stud identity in Britain through the process? “Working on We/Us confirmed the vastly different experiences between white butches and Black butches and studs. It confirmed that our identities cannot be separated from experiences of classism and racism; that it is how we are perceived rather than how we feel our identities to be that determine our lived experiences. I learnt that young studs are prolific, forming strong communities, organising events, podcasts, YouTube channels, whilst young white butches are struggling to find any sense of community or representation.”
Roman Manfredi’s We/Us is running at Space Station Sixty-Five (373 Kennington Road, SE11 4PT) until 3 June 2023.