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