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MaryV Benoit For Them Binder Campaign
Photography MaryV

Intimate portraits of queer people in Colorado wearing their binders

MaryV talks about photographing the safe and sacred queer spaces of a community under attack

In a hostile world, where it can be dangerous to just exist as yourself, queer spaces have long been havens of safety, freedom and self-expression without judgment; places where people can be who they are without limits. These sacred spaces can be found in many forms, from early 20th-century Mafia-protected Greenwich Village bars like Provincetown Landing and The Swing Rendezvous, to the ballrooms of Harlem and Harvey Milk’s camera store in San Francisco. Sometimes, the most private sanctuary is the bedroom.

It’s in this space that MaryV photographed Colorado’s binder-wearing community for her recent collaboration with queer wellness brand For Them. For some of the models it was the first time they were being photographed in their binders. Welcomed into their homes, MaryV captured the calmness and safety that we find in our personal refuges, something that became particularly poignant when, not long after, five people were shot and killed at Club Q, the only LGBTQ+ space in Colorado Springs. Since then, the images have taken on a more sobering importance.

“To see a queer person within a safe space feeling confident, beautiful, handsome, and magical and in the same collection mention death, tragedy, sadness and horror – that happens not just on that day but time and again,” MaryV tells Dazed over the phone from her home in Colorado. Though her voice remains soothingly calm throughout the interview, she holds an impassioned enthusiasm and loyal support to her community. “From what I’ve seen and heard from the people who were a part of this [campaign], it felt like this beautiful, painful balance of like wow, we’re celebrating these images of queer joy but also recognizing queer pain and honor and giving space to that.”

Amid these attacks on the community, and particularly the trans members of it, the necessity of these safe queer spaces has become as clear as ever. And it's equally as vital that the prejudice and fear people have towards the LGBTQ+ community is broken down and erased. I think it’s important for people to realise that queer bodies aren’t evil or scary. They’re just bodies,” said one model from the campaign. “Stripping away the clothing one wears that may other them as a visibly queer person leaves the person vulnerable in a way queer bodies are not usually allowed to be. This campaign does an amazing job at not fetishising the queer body, but showing it as it is: natural and beautiful.”

Here, we chat with MaryV on how her personal background helped her cast and photograph the series, and what she learned about queer bodies and queer wellness throughout this process.

As a model and photographer, how is your approach to modeling different from photography?

MaryV: I like starting off this interview with this question. My approach is pretty similar. I want to walk into a space and make sure I feel safe and tender and everything feels gentle, exciting and fun. Whether I’m in front of the camera, being a model and tapping more into my performance side of things than on my connection side, I strive for those feelings and emotions to comfort. I love making photos. Modeling is a lot of fun: you can explore many sides of yourself but making photos and collaborating with someone – I feel like that’s my purpose.

How did your own background and experiences prepare you for this shoot?

MaryV: In New York and growing up, I had queer people around me. I have been able to take the time to listen and hear the experience of my trans siblings and friends, including non-binary folks and people of all different genders. As a photographer, I feel like it’s my responsibility in collaboration with them to do this work and to make sure it feels authentic, real and something they can see joy in it as well.

Creating that work throughout my time in New York and with different people has been preparing me. Even this shoot will prepare me for future projects. It’s a continuous learning process, collaboration and understanding of how we can better work together and make images that are historic or important for queer history. People photographed in Colorado in binders – trans and queer folks – feels special and should be handled with care.

How did you establish a level of trust between you and the models?

MaryV: I wanted to set up a call beforehand: a video call if they felt comfortable because I wanted to be transparent and lay everything out on the table. Not only am I going to be photographing them in a vulnerable space wearing a binder but also within their space. I asked each person to pick out a space they felt the most safe. An intimate space like a bedroom which is so special: to walk into someone’s sanctuary where they sleep, reset, relax, have fun, maybe cry. It’s so charged and has energy so I was making sure there was respect and understanding.

I wanted to thank them for having grace when entering their space. It might seem like a serious shoot and it is. Also, I’m just a girl and a photographer, and I’m silly. I try to have a moment before we start shooting with testing the lighting and making images and talk and have an in-person connection. A lot of conversations began with, ‘We’re in your space. Could you tell me a little bit about this thing?’ Many of these people have incredible tattoos: I love talking about tattoos!

How did you capture the safety and sanctity of these queer spaces?

MaryV: I did it through that initial conversation of like, ‘Is there anything I could do to provide more safety or more breaks?’ We could stop and go at whatever point. Every bedroom was different. Me and my photo assistant were thinking about lighting and aesthetics for this to come together. Like what spaces in their bedroom would look best. My photo assistant was helpful and patient: letting the talent know we can have no one in the room or it could just be you and me in the room. That’s how a photo gets that feel of this slow and gentle process. I’m happy to hear people felt that looking at the images. 

How do you feel the meaning behind these portraits has changed since the Club Q shooting?

MaryV: Em, who was a part of this campaign, was in Colorado Springs and shared with me they work out there. I responded to them to see if they were safe. I had some friends affected. I had been going back and forth on this project: the launch date and cutting out all the logistics. I felt that we should mention this, to in some way send out love to the universe through these images. 

It felt heavy to include this information along with these images because there’s so much queer joy in these images. I went to one of the vigils for Club Q. That was beautiful and painful to see queer folks come together, hold hands, take a breath together and say we’re here. We love one another. 

What is the importance of sacred, safe spaces in the queer community?

MaryV: ​​There is no denying that queer spaces, nightclubs, homes, other types of space have been under attack and targeted simply for being a queer space. So having sacred and safe spaces within the queer community is super important. It’s what’s building a lot of queer community. People talk about the physical spaces but sometimes a safe, sacred space could be with another queer individual regardless of where you physically are. Maybe it doesn’t have to be two people. A group of people. Energetically, queer people create safe spaces because we’ve just had to.

It’s important to make sure that these spaces are being taken care of because for example, nightclubs are the only safe spaces for some queer people and for those to be so frequently interrupted and erased almost is horrible because where do those folks turn to? A safe space could be an exchange of a hug, making eye contact with someone across the room and just sharing that exchange; a message making sure that your friend got home OK. Those moments should be just as celebrated and just as important as the physical spaces that queer people build and create and nourish.

What do you think is widely misunderstood about queer bodies and queer wellness? How can your photography help change that misperception?

MaryV: I think everyone thinks every queer person is similar and everyone’s experience is the same. Every queer body and queer experience is different. Like the levels people experience heartbreak, pain, euphoria or dysphoria are all different. The continuum is wide and fluid. That’s a huge thing I realised with this binder project. I learned so much. Binders aren’t just for folks looking to compress or give this appearance of having a flat chest. Like, people who have gotten top surgery use it for compression. People can use it for style. People with a chest can bind one day but not the other day. 

There are incredible, phenomenal queer photographers capturing many different things. Having an abundance of that shows the uniqueness and diversity of life experiences and moments that queer people have. Not just one queer photographer can photograph one queer experience to encapsulate all queer life, queer love and queer joy. I feel honored and special to have my work as a queer photographer be a part of that conversation and moments.