“Lately I’ve been working on a set of neo-80s drag queen glamour portraits as a way of documenting queerness in a style that references an era which sought to erase them.”
Bryan Clavel (pronouns: they/them) is a Brooklyn, NY based photographer and drag queen who creates thought-provoking self-portrait works and documents drag culture across Las Vegas and New York City. Identifying as transgender non-binary, Bryan’s work focuses on the queer identity of both themselves and their LGBTQ+ peers. Presenting as both Bryan and their drag persona, Miss Leading, they have been on a journey of self-discovery through the photographic lens. In typical 2020 fashion, Molly Baber opens up our Zoom call to see Bryan in the preliminary stages of a makeup transformation.
Molly: Are you getting ready to take some pictures?
Bryan: I don’t know yet. When I photograph myself, I usually photograph myself in clown drag. But when I do my TikToks, which is what I was in the middle of doing, what really gets people going is my femme drag. I blocked my brows and now it’s about deciding whether or not I’ll be getting into femme drag.
M: I’m looking through your recent self-portrait series, ‘Diary of a Drag Queen’. How did you transition from your early surreal work to these raw, stylised portraits?
B: I did an art talk once where essentially the premise of the talk was me getting at the fact that I feel like I’ve been creating the same picture over and over again throughout the years, this “other” searching for identity. I’ve come to the conclusion that identity is this constantly changing and fluctuating concept that we don’t really get a grip on. If you look back far enough in ‘ The Healing Process’, and ‘The Princess Project’, it’s both looking at identity and femininity, and then transposing that into my life. What I found ultimately was that in my surreal work, I was separating myself from the pieces: it wasn’t relaying my narrative anymore. It was about relaying an open ended narrative that belonged to someone else, that could belong to someone else. I needed it to be about me; to be my life the way that I wanted to tell it. I felt like I was censoring myself with surreal work – I wasn’t being honest with myself enough. I was being a character, and it’s strange to think that is what’s separating me from telling my story like that, when I literally go on as a character as Miss Leading to photograph myself, and it somehow feels like the most authentic version of myself.
“I want an America that looks like me and fights for people like me. Shares stories like mine and reminds young queer POC that they too can dream.”
M: When you’re taking these portraits, do you see it as self-portraiture? Are you photographing yourself or the character, or is it the character taking a photo of themselves?
B: It’s this weird middle ground because I exist in the world as this character. I perform as Miss Leading all around the city and I navigate through the world as Miss Leading as well. Sometimes I even date as Miss Leading. So it’s very interesting when I think about it, because it’s not a character per se, and this is where my trans non-binary identity begins to intersect with all this, because I feel like the most me when I’m wearing a face that is so different from me. I often get asked, like, do I want to be a woman? And the answer is, you know, at first I thought maybe I wanted to be a woman, maybe I was a woman. But when I found clown drag, I was just like, I don’t want to be a woman, I just want to be this “other”. This meshing of masculinity and femininity. You can coexist as both and not have to choose, and that’s why I was so torn for so long with my own identity. I felt like I needed to define myself as one or the other. Like it was mutually exclusive to be femme or to be masc. And then I ended up with this full white face, this really beautiful feminine eye and then this butch, masculine, beneath part.
M: Is there a narrative that goes through ‘Diary of a Drag Queen‘? Or does each individual image tell its own story?
B: I think the overarching narrative is just my life. I’m not photographing in a set, I’m photographing in my home. I’m highlighting hoarding, the brokenness of my home. It’s done in this docu-fiction narration. I do get all glamorous and I do walk around in the house like that, but it’s not documented in the sense that it’s a naturally occurring moment because I’m very posed and regal in them. When I plan to showcase this work in the future it’s partnered with writing because I journal every single day. It’s my story.
M: How do you want the work to be perceived?
B: The work in its purest form is about immortalizing pockets of time, moments of my life that I’ve come to whole heartedly believe are worth sharing. It highlights queerness and it highlights humanity in queer people. Oftentimes, when we think of drag queens, we think of these commercial objects, things that can be sold, things that are being marketed. The reality is that we’re humans, we’re human beings; we live in homes like everybody else.
At first when I started the project, it was about becoming a statement of power. I wanted to showcase how drag was a second skin of power. And then as I began through it, more and more I was like, I don’t feel powerful all the time. Even when I’m in drag, I don’t feel amazing 100% of the time. Is it a great way to get power? Yeah, but, sometimes I feel so vulnerable in it. When I think about the amount of times that I’ve been followed to my car in drag, harassed, or yelled at, it’s hard to feel like that character every single day. So I wanted to showcase the reality and the insecurity and the brokenness, as well as the powerful moments when I feel like I can take over the world.
M: I just wish that we were in a world where you could just walk around every day, at all times of the day, exactly how you want to.
B: It’s made even more terrifying when you know people who are being targeted and attacked. It’s so terrifying to think that this is real, this exists. And as a victim and survivor of assault myself, I know that these things are real. We all know these people, and that’s why I think the premise of the work is showcasing that we exist. It’s about queer visibility, queer identity and queer empowerment.
M: More awareness needs to be spread! In my bubble, my little gay life in Brighton, it’s very accepting. But it’s like, if you don’t experience harassment or violence firsthand, then you can kind of think maybe it’s not happening. But it definitely is.
B: I think it’s interesting that you bring up your identity as well. Because the reality is we do walk through the world very differently though we are both queer. We are all accompanied by different sets of privileges and subordinate positionalities that we are either born into or grow into. So that affects how we navigate. It’s so scary to think about how much queerness is still targeted and trans identities are still targeted when most of the world has tried to tell us that it’s better. We are being discriminated against in the sense that we aren’t being hired at the same rate as our cisgendered and straight counterparts. It’s a sign of privilege if you haven’t had your rights taken from you, right? You can believe it doesn’t exist, you can walk away. You can ignore it.
M: Especially when you read about people trying to deny trans people health care. Why is that even being debated? If you aren’t trans, then you shouldn’t get to say what happens to them. It’s like when men choose what happens to womens’ bodies.
B: Exactly. It’s always going to be non-trans people talking about trans issues, because we don’t have enough lifting for trans people. It wasn’t a unanimous decision to say that trans people are human beings and deserve equal rights. It was still debated, some people argued against it. I think that trans healthcare should be covered, their transition needs to be covered by insurance companies. It’s not a cosmetic one, it’s a survival one. We need trans people to feel comfortable in their own body so that they don’t kill themselves. We need them to be alive so that they can take on roles in political campaigns; so that they can make decisions for future trans youth.
M: With ‘Divine Punishment’, what was the starting point?
It began in 2017. When I started drag, I wanted to photograph all the drag performers in the city. I was already fascinated with colour, gels and light, and the way that light looks when it’s directed at the camera; but I really wanted to document queerness. I wanted to give back to this community. They all deserve better pictures for their flyers, because these queens were using cell phone pictures, I kid you not, that they took in the bathroom with bad lighting, and I was just not about that, sweetie. I decided to gift every queen and drag performer in the city, one free studio shoot, one look. I brought them into my studio and one by one I photographed them all. And from there I got a name for myself in the community. Pretty soon I had more than half of the community photographed.
M: That’s definitely a good way to get yourself known.
B: Yeah! And it doesn’t surprise me that this work is doing better in communities like Capture One who just featured that work. It doesn’t shock me, and it’s because that’s easier to sell to people than my naked body in my broken home.
M: I guess it’s more conventional, with the lighting and being shot in a studio.
B: Yeah it’s more commercial in that sense. Which reiterates the idea that drag is something to be sold.
M: Was there a learning curve within ‘Divine Punishment‘?
B: All the softness is done in-camera. It’s very neo-80s aesthetic. Soft, but sharp where I need it to be. I’m doing that by applying a clear glaze over my lens and then shooting, which is fragmenting the light in different ways. That was a learning curve because I had to know exactly where to put the glaze on the lens, how much to apply and where to focus. And also how to make each picture different from the last one, but still with the same aesthetic. How do I make it align with my visual integrity? It was the challenges of having to reproduce something good, and different.
M: What is the message that you want to put out into the world with ‘Divine Punishment’?
B: Firstly, I always say it’s about the erasure that happened to queer identities in the 80s. Specifically, I think it’s about the erasure that happens today as well. Queer people are being targeted, and the US constantly tries to tell people that we don’t exist. So the premise of the work is about showing people statements of power, personifications of camp and queerness, and show them that they’re worthy of being remembered. I often look at the premise of photographs as a document of people worthy of being remembered, and it just makes me really aggravated when you look at history and there aren’t enough photographs of trans and queer people. Because they’ve always existed. They’ve always been present. And so what this project is doing is reminding people these people are worthy of documentation.
It makes me so upset when I think about the small missed opportunities of documenting someone. In December I met this beautiful queen, Jessica Daniels, and about a month later she died. We had a shoot booked about 2 weeks before she passed away, and I cancelled, because I didn’t want to get out of bed that day. And 2 weeks later she died. And it makes me so upset that I didn’t get to document her existence. Because that’s the premise of the project. That’s the reality – that queer people are dying all the time. We need to show people that they’re worthy of being remembered. And I missed it. I don’t ever wanna miss another opportunity. That’s why I want to document as many queer people as possible, and I need to do it faster.
As we wrap up the interview, Bryan has transformed themselves into the glamorous Miss Leading, with a full face of femme drag beauty. To follow along with Bryan’s work and journey, check out their website and the following Instagram pages for their different works: Diary of a Drag Queen, Divine Punishment, and Miss Leading.
Molly Baber is a British photographer based in Stockholm, Sweden. She creates conceptual fine art, fashion and portrait works, as well as short film pieces.