One of our favourite pho­tog­ra­phers shares his up­com­ing book ex­clu­sively with Gay Times.

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy Luke Austin Words Jack Pen­gelly

With his new book LÉWÀ about to hit the shelves, one of our res­i­dent pho­tog­ra­phers ex­plains why di­ver­sity is so im­por­tant to him, and how he cre­ates safe spa­ces while cap­tur­ing his in­ti­mate por­traits.

Fresh from shoot­ing our glo­ri­ous cover with Laith Ash­ley, pho­tog­ra­pher Luke Austin is re­leas­ing LÉWÀ - a col­lec­tion of por­traits ex­plor­ing the beauty and di­ver­sity of black mas­culin­ity. Ahead of his book tour, Luke tell us why he’s taken on the project, dis­cusses cre­at­ing safe spa­ces for ex­press­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity in his por­trai­ture, and fight­ing neg­a­tive racial stereo­types. JP: Your por­traits ex­plore all body types and cel­e­brate them equally. How im­por­tant is it to you to show­case body di­ver­sity and pos­i­tiv­ity? LA: I feel like peo­ple as­sume that I just like to pho­to­graph buff ripped dudes, but I think if you look at my work, that’s not the case. I’ve al­ways been more drawn to faces any­way. I think in the be­gin­ning, I was drawn to mus­cles and I en­joyed shoot­ing them and then grad­u­ally it’s just got less and less and less about that. Even now I feel like most of my por­trai­ture work is kind of cropped in faces. It re­ally is more about the face.

I feel like I could prob­a­bly shoot some more of the bi€er guys like plus size mod­els. A lot of my work fea­tures the re­ally skinny, lanky boys be­cause I ac­tu­ally en­joy pho­tograph­ing them the most be­cause of the shapes and things they can do with their bod­ies. In terms of the body stuff, I think peo­ple as­sume that I only shoot guys with re­ally good bod­ies be­cause I think I’m good at get­ting ev­ery­one look­ing their best. Like some­times a friend will be look­ing at my work and say ‘this guy’s ripped!’ and I’m like ‘he re­ally had an av­er­age body, we just lit this boy so well.’ So I just ac­cen­tu­ate what peo­ple like about them­selves so that they’re al­ways cap­tured in their best light. I guess that’s why peo­ple al­ways think my mod­els are re­ally ripped, but that’s just not the case.

JP: And when did you start to fo­cus on queer peo­ple?

LA: I mean that’s from day one, re­ally. It’s al­ways been queer peo­ple!

JP: Your work is also in­cred­i­bly racially di­verse. As a white man, was it im­por­tant for you to seek out peo­ple of colour to be fea­tured in your shoots? LA: I think like in the last cou­ple of years pho­tog­ra­phers have said, ‘Oh I need to be shoot­ing peo­ple of colour, so I’ll look out for them’. Like they’ll go out and get a black guy or an Asian guy be­cause they’ve shot three white guys in a row, which is great be­cause it’s still rep­re­sen­ta­tion which is im­por­tant, but I’ve al­ways just pho­tographed the peo­ple around me that I’ve thought are at­trac­tive and that I want to pho­to­graph. I think it’s more about hav­ing di­verse friends.

I get mes­sages about hav­ing more of this race or that race but my process is way more or­ganic than seek­ing out peo­ple to ful­fill a pur­pose. The same goes for trans peo­ple. A few years ago I was get­ting asked about why I wasn’t fea­tur­ing more trans peo­ple in my work, but now over time I’ve de­vel­oped friend­ships with trans peo­ple and fea­tured them in that way. It’s def­i­nitely never been about to­kenism for me.

JP: You shot the in­cred­i­ble Laith Ash­ley for our Jan­uary cover. How can we as a com­mu­nity do more to am­plify trans voices?

LA: I think we have to start fo­cussing on the ‘non­pass­ing’ trans peo­ple, rather than de­vot­ing all of our at­ten­tion to the Mun­roe Bergdorfs and Lath Ash­leys of the world which is what I’m try­ing to do with my fi­nal Mini Beau Book which is com­ing out some­time this year. I’m fo­cussing solely on trans men in that book, and I’m try­ing to col­lect as many dif­fer­ent types of trans men as pos­si­ble be­cause I think the gay com­mu­nity sadly for­gets about them - they’re so un­der­rep­re­sented, it’s in­sane.

Like every now and then you’ll see a Buz­zFeed ar­ti­cle that will say ‘We Found 10 At­trac­tive Trans Men’ and I’m just like… ‘re­ally?’ I think the gay com­mu­nity has time for ‘cis-pass­ing’ trans men or gor­geous, glam­orous trans women, but the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple aren’t that lucky ge­net­i­cally or fi­nan­cially.

JP: Mov­ing on to your new book, LÉWÀ, which de­rives its name from the Yoruba word for beau­ti­ful. How did you de­cide upon us­ing the Yoruba lan­guage? LA: It comes down to the whole white saviourism thing which I don’t want to be as­so­ci­ated with - that’s not what I’m do­ing with this book. I want this book to be about the men on the pages. I would be happy to pub­lish it with­out my name be­cause it’s re­ally not about me at all, and it’s def­i­nitely not about a white per­son show­ing beau­ti­ful black peo­ple. It’s like: there are beau­ti­ful black peo­ple and here they are in a book. So I didn’t want to put a white, English word on the cover - I wanted an African word.

I spoke with a lot of my black friends and there were loads of su€es­tions thrown around but many said that it would make sense for it to be a West African word be­cause that’s where slav­ery and a lot of African Amer­i­can her­itage is from, and Yoruba is the most com­mon West African lan­guage.

JP: I read some­where that it’s taken you five years to create, so where did the idea for the book come from? LA: So all of the men in the book weren’t pho­tographed with the book specif­i­cally in mind. They’ve been col­lated from five years worth of shoot­ing por­traits and about two years ago I made the de­ci­sion that I wanted to fea­ture them all in a book. I was re­ally notic­ing the likes and en­gage­ment on my In­sta­gram go­ing down when­ever I posted a por­trait of a per­son of colour, and it felt like every week there was an­other black per­son be­ing mur­dered by white cops and so I re­ally wanted to drive the point home and put them all in one col­lec­tion. Like the last seven days alone, I’ve only been post­ing im­ages from LÉWÀ and I’ve lost over 2,800 fol­low­ers. Isn’t that de­press­ing? Peo­ple tell me to not worry and that ‘oh you don’t re­ally want them fol­low­ing you any­way’ but I just think it’s re­ally sad that our com­mu­nity is like this - like a few black guys in a row and you un­fol­low? It’s crazy.

JP: As men of colour and specif­i­cally queer men of colour are con­stantly ob­jec­ti­fied across dat­ing apps, what can we as a com­mu­nity do to fight against dam­ag­ing stereo­types?

LA: I think the more di­verse im­agery sur­round­ing black mas­culin­ity there is out there that goes against neg­a­tive stereo­types, the bet­ter. I feel like when­ever I’ve seen the black male form cel­e­brated in pho­tog­ra­phy or cof­fee ta­ble books it’s al­ways a su­per-ripped guy or a close up of his gen­i­tals - like they’re be­ing shot as ob­jects. So skinny black guys and im­ages of skinny black guys be­ing soft and gen­tle are also su­per im­por­tant as they go against those sex­u­alised stereo­types of the big mus­cled black guy.

JP: Go­ing in front of the lens, you’re not shy of the cam­era your­self. Have you ever had any body im­age is­sues your­self, and how did you com­bat them?

LA: Well the funny thing is I’m one of the shyest peo­ple you’ll ever meet which is why in my self por­trai­ture my face will be cov­ered, or I’ll be wear­ing a mask or some­thing be­cause I ac­tu­ally don’t want to look at my­self! Half the time, if I had a model in my back pocket, it wouldn’t be me in the photo - I’ll just stum­ble upon a great lo­ca­tion and there’ll be no one else around so I’ll just do it my­self.

Grow­ing up, I was ex­tremely skinny and I got picked on for that in school. I think I’ll al­ways be that skinny kid in­side, and I think a lot of guys with a bit of mus­cle will say the same. I guess peo­ple on­line see my self por­traits and think ‘ugh vain white mus­cle dude’ but I re­ally don’t look at my­self like that at all.

JP: Why do you think peo­ple get so hung up on nu­dity, and why do you choose to cel­e­brate it so avidly in your work?

LA: It’s such a strange thing that male nu­dity is still so shock­ing for peo­ple. I think that if some­one does some­thing a lit­tle bit quirky or a lit­tle bit fem­i­nine or a lit­tle bit arty with the nude it’s like ‘okay, I can’t deal with this’. It’s weirdly too much to take for peo­ple as op­posed to the hot mus­cle dude in his bath­room mir­ror or straight up porn. JP: Did you al­ways just want to ex­plore the male form?

LA: Yeah be­cause I think peo­ple are their real self when they don’t have all their cloth­ing on. I mean, it’s ac­tu­ally rare for my por­traits to be fully nude - usu­ally there’s some­thing cov­er­ing it up or un­der­wear or some­thing.

JP: And fi­nally, the in­dus­try has been rocked by a few scan­dals of note re­cently. How do you create safe en­vi­ron­ments for your shoots? LA: It’s the gay male pho­tog­ra­pher stereo­type I’ve hated from day one. When I’m shoot­ing I try and go the com­plete op­po­site: I al­ways check with peo­ple what they’re okay with be­fore get­ting started and will al­ways leave the room when they’re get­ting changed and never push any­one to do any­thing they’re not com­fort­able with. What’s nice is I’ll al­ways get mes­sages after­wards thank­ing me for mak­ing them feel com­fort­able and safe. But yeah, the sto­ries I’ve heard over the past ten years in the in­dus­try are crazy and I’ve never wanted to be re­spon­si­ble for that or to be spo­ken about in that way ever.

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