By Laura Latzko, December 2015 Issue.
In Spanish, veme means “see me,” and serves as a command and an order to be seen – not to be simply looked at.
It is also the very fitting name of the photo project Bea Velázquez, one n ten youth center program coordinator and social justice and human rights graduate student at Arizona State University, is using to tell the stories of local queer youth of color.
According to the “VEME: Queering Phoenix” Facebook page (facebook.com/vemequeeringphx), “the intention of this project is to showcase LGBTQ youth of color and the complex ways their multiple identities interact to create their individual modes of self-expression; breaking away from representations that paint this population as a statistic or … at risk, and challenging the predominantly white and heteronormative image queer media representations and queer theory have popularized.”
The exhibit will open from 7 to 10 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Phoenix Center for the Arts as part of First Friday, and will also be available for public viewing from noon to 6 p.m. Dec. 11-13.
According to Velázquez, who identifies as genderqueer, their mission with this project was to give queer youth of color a platform for expressing who they were and defining their own identities, to show queer youth of color as human beings who have found ways to express themselves on their own terms and also to break stereotypes and stigmas along the way.
“While there are definitely social issues that our community faces more than our Caucasian/white counterparts, there’s also a lot of strength, a lot of resilience, a lot of hope and a lot of faith that I see in all of these individuals,” Velázquez said. “It is time to really talk about all the different communities that are within our community.”
Subjects showcased in the project range in age from 18 to 25 years old, come from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds and used a variety of terms, including “gender-fluid,” “gay/drag queen,” “Chican-x” and “two spirited” to describe themselves.
“I feel that younger people are finding different ways to identify and different ways to express and embody their identities,” Velázquez said.
Sharing personal stories, both good and bad, had special significance for many participants, according to Velázquez.
“It’s really interesting to see how excited a lot of these participants are to share their story,” they said. “The best feedback has been participants telling me how [the experience] made them feel so important [and] listened to in a way that they are not used to.”
Developing From The Negatives
During many interviews, Velázquez said, the subjects revealed intimate details of their lives, including accounts of facing homelessness and mental illness.
Within the project, Velázquez said, they don’t plan to focus specifically on negative or positive aspects of subjects’ lives, but will instead try to capture and display their humanity.
“I want to be as realistic as possible and show that, while there’s a lot of hardships, there’s a lot of hope, a lot of faith, a lot of positivity and a lot of willingness to keep fighting the fight,” Velázquez said. “This project is about how they perceive themselves and how they want the world to perceive them.”
For the exhibit, Velázquez chose a variety of excerpts from their interviews with each subject to accompany the images selected from each subject’s photo shoot. Velázquez said they were specifically looking for quotes and shots that were representative of each subject’s uniqueness.
And, although this exhibit doesn’t specifically focus on race, class or gender, these elements were often a part of their stories.
“Oftentimes, people of color are forced to think about those things a little bit more because they are in our face in our daily lives in general,” Velázquez said. “So, when you ask people, ‘How did you feel when you realized you were LGBTQ or when you realized you were different in some way,’ a lot of those things automatically connect. Their ethnic background, their socioeconomic upbringing [and] their family structures are in so many ways connected to class, gender and sexuality.”
Velázquez, who was born in Mexico City and lived in Tucson for most of their life, grew up in an artistic family. Their father was an opera singer and, as a result, they became involved in the visual arts and music at a young age.
Velázquez received their first camera, an old SLR purchased at a pawnshop, from their parents at age 17.
The photographer admits that they were hesitant to include themselves as part of the “VEME” exhibit, initially. However, their thought their story – which includes growing up as a queer immigrant and navigating two languages and worlds – should be told. As a result, Velázquez decided to share their own personal story, along with photographs, as part of the exhibit.
While working on this project, Velázquez reported being surprised to see how receptive both the subjects and the audiences have been.
“People seem to really like it, and people seem to really care about the work that is coming out of it,” Velázquez said. “That, to me, really speaks volumes about the necessity to hear different stories and perspectives, and to create spaces for people of color where our stories are valued and our experiences are taken into consideration.”
The artist hopes to get community members to think more deeply about these issues through their art.
“Art can be as deep or as superficial as the person viewing the art wants it to be,” Velázquez said. “And, many times, art allows our hearts to open in a way that maybe a conversation, specifically about race or class, may not allow.”
Framed prints will be available for purchase during the exhibition’s opening night. For information on supporting “VEME: Queering Phoenix,” visit gofundme.com/vemequeeringphx.
“VEME: Queering Arizona” Opening Night
7-10 p.m. Dec. 4
Also on display noon-6 p.m. Dec. 11-13
Phoenix Center for the Arts
1202 N. Third St., Phoenix