“You can’t go to Paris to do the runway, you can’t go to Broadway. But to become known that’s what it’s all about. The people who participate want to be liked, accepted, and loved; they go to the balls to be seen.”
– Marcel Christian, appointed grandfather and historian of the House Ballroom Society.
My photographs explore ball culture, 50+ year tradition of pageantry in the U.S., where working-class African-American and Latina/o queer from urban inner cities come together to examine what it means to be gendered and sexed. Born in Harlem as a forum for queer “kings” and “queens” to express themselves, Balls include competitions in which participants vie in categories such as “butch queen sex siren”, “transman body”, and “femme-queen big girl realness”. Here, young adults are part of houses with glamorous names like Blahnik and Xtravaganza. They scrabble together dimes and dollars to build their next outfit; with street drugs, they morph their own bodies to an internal vision of soft curves and high voices; and by necessity, they play doctor, shrink, beautician, and health adviser to one another. Often ousted by their biological families, they also mentor each other, teaching them how to walk with a switch in a pageant. Although the balls are ostensibly about fashion and prestige, they are also structured around building family and manifesting selfhood. Building upon the 1990 documentary film “Paris is Burning” by Jennie Livingston, this ongoing project seeks to deepen and update that landmark film by adding visual image that capture the complex and rich lives of this community. My work documents marginalized communities in an effort to bring honor to their existence, as well as to provide a critical journey for those who have not yet seen this world. As individuals and as a society, I believe we struggle most with what is unseen and/or what we are afraid to see. Thus, I am interested in making images that challenge the viewer to address their own relationship to the subjects and what that interaction reveals. Building upon the 1990 documentary film “Paris is Burning” by Jennie Livingston, my ongoing project seeks to deepen and update that landmark film by adding visual image that capture the complex and rich lives of this community.
A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Gerard H. Gaskin has worked a freelance photographer since receiving his BA from Hunter College in 1994. His images have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Newsday, Pilitiken, Black Enterprise, Ebony, King, Teen People, Caribbean Beat and Inc. Magazine. His photographs have been exhibited across the country including at the Brooklyn Museum and Queens Museum of Art, and abroad in Goethe-Institute Accra (Accra, Ghana) and Fototeca de Cuba Habana (Vieja, Cuba) among others. Additionally his photographs are included in the collections of the Museum of the City of New York, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Queensborough Community College Art Gallery. He was a 2002 recipient of a NYFA Fellowship in Photography and a 2005 Queen Council on the Arts Individual Artists Award and in 2010 he was an Artist-in-Residence at Light Work (Syracuse, NY).