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Richie Shazam
Photography Dicko Chan

The West Indian muse storming NY’s club circuit

Photographer Dicko Chan and ‘queen from Queens’ Richie Shazam reimagine classic imagery of powerful women through a queer lens

Taking inspiration from vintage black and white portraits of powerful women, Dicko Chan and Richie Shazam Khan aim to modernise classic imagery with their exploration of gender fluidity. Shazam, who is pluralistic in gender and identifies as queer, plays out our perceptions of masculinity and femininity to his own tune.

Hailing from opposite coastlines of the US, Shazam and Hong Kong-born photographer Chan – known for his raw, honest portraits that reveal a simple intimacy with his subject – met one another through mutual friends, resulting in a creative union that Shazam describes as 'a match made in heaven'.

Shazam is a self-described dying breed, as a New York City native born and raised with West Indian heritage. He’s been a model and creative muse to Chan and on ongoing projects for fashion designer Julia Fox, including an S&M-style SS15 campaign that saw him suspended aloft by ropes. And of course, he’s a fixture on New York’s underground fashion and club circuit.

He cites “being courageous, fearless and confident” as key components for any individual trying to be a person that diverges from societal norm. It’s that unapologetic, authoritative tone that permeates the photo series, a spontaneous collaboration with Chan, as they explore androgyny and contrasting gender aesthetics.

We spoke with Shazam about gender politics, performing identity and the varying concepts of beauty their piece brings to light.

Can you describe what this photo series is about, and your motivations for being a part of it?

Richie Shazam: The shoot with Dicko Chan was super-spontaneous and non pre-mediated. It was an organic collaborative effort of self-expression, body, language, and mind. We bonded over our alien-ness, of being otherworldly. In a lot of ways, we don’t fit the typical mold and we spoke the same alien tongue.

How have you explored identity politics, in this piece and elsewhere? 

Richie Shazam: Being born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, and also having a West Indian background – both my parents from Guyana, South America – I am a first-generation New Yorker.

I have always accepted the black sheep identity – being different in appearance both mentally and physically. I never felt normal, but never wanted to be shunned by society. I worked really hard in my academia pursuits as a way to better understand my positionality. My queerness is my second skin and is something that I own and appreciate and use to inspire others. From the non-acceptance of my traditional thinking family, it has pushed me to break boundaries in the way I present myself. Accepting my idiosyncrasies, my queerness, and relation to gender.

What is your own concept of beauty, and the cultural and ethnic issues that go with it?

Richie Shazam: Within the media portrayal of beauty, I find myself on the peripheral. I hope to re-shape the definition of what is seen as beautiful and showcase myself within a wider arena. With mixing both feminine and masculine ideals of beauty it adds to a more pluralistic stance. I wanted to showcase my body through movement and energy.

There was absolutely no representation for me growing up. I didn’t see any images of queer people on screen, and even rarer were any images of queer people of colour. I want to be able to inspire young, queer brown kids that are coming from similar, tough situations to express themselves freely and openly without judgment. That there are spaces, not just in their minds or even online, but tangible spaces in the world where they can live their lives authentically and embrace their sexual and gender identities with other people who are on their same wavelength and support them for who they are.

“By taking ownership of derogatory terminology, especially within the communities I grew up in, it has completely empowered me. I wear the term ‘faggot’ on my chest” – Richie Shazam

How has it been shooting with Dicko Chan? Are you both very much on the same wavelength, or opened each other up to new ideas?

Richie Shazam: Working with Dicko was amazing – we barely felt the need to speak to one another, we are able to communicate with our eyes. Dicko and I worked together to push boundaries in recreating and restructuring our identities. I want to show queer kids that you can wear a dress and make up and not have it mean that you need to identify as trans. It also doesn’t make me a drag queen.

I want to be a trailblazer that transgresses the antiquated notions of what it means to be a man. I want to contribute to reinventing masculinity. Part of what makes me stronger as a male-identified person is my femininity. My balls of steel are equally as fragile and sensitive as a pussy – just like my masculinity.

What is the important story behind these images that you hope viewers can take away from it?

Richie Shazam: The pictures are beautifully queer – they resist binaries and exists in the space of fluidity and a rejection of what we are told of what is acceptable and what we are taught and told of what is beautiful. It’s also really important for me to work toward tearing down the homophobia that is unfortunately all-too-common in a lot of West Indian communities. Dicko did such a phenomenal job of conveying strength, vitality, and resistance in these images.

He captured my essence and gave me such a great platform to show these queer kids of color that we’re out here – that we exist and that we have the right to exist and take up as much space as anyone else. Your pain is our pain, your struggle is our struggle, and I feel you. You don’t have to do this shit alone; I’m here for you.

How have your own life experiences influenced this work? 

Richie Shazam: My rebelliousness of going against the order of what people expect. I felt contained growing up, that I didn’t have room to express myself the way I wanted to and felt trapped. Now, in a different place in my life and able to recognise the beauty and the fun, truly have in expressing myself in way I want and in any given day. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that gender really is a spectrum, and my gender identity has been an evolution. By taking ownership of derogatory terminology, especially within the communities I grew up in, it has completely empowered me. I wear the term ‘faggot’ on my chest.

Being a queen from Queens has mobilised me and put a fire under my ass! We’re in such a pivotal time when it comes to gender and sexuality and fluidity. I want to be an example to my niece and my nephew. I want to show them that there is nothing shameful or wrong in owning anything and everything that makes you ‘different’. They need to grow up in a world that doesn’t fear and hate these differences.

What are your current or future projects you're hoping to work on?

Richie Shazam: I am currently working with the NYC-based knitwear brand, Franziska Fox and helping them in different capacities, specifically serving as the Sales and Marketing Director. Continuing to do more creative, photographic projects with like-minded individuals and pushing the envelope. I am engaging in different curatorial efforts and endeavours that I hope to bring forth this year.

Check out more of Dicko Chan's work here