The ease with which one navigates the world can speak volumes. On a daily basis, where can you comfortably go? Where do you only go in groups? What places do you avoid at all costs? For femmes, this question is never easily answered and becomes even further complicated by intersecting identities. Erasure, micro-aggressions, sexual harassment and outright dismissal are commonplace. Visibility is an ongoing struggle.
Artist Amanda Arkansassy Harris is fighting to change that. A dedicated activist whose work has been seen in the 2015 National Queer Arts Festival, The Exodus Series, publications like Al Jazeera and anthologies such as Towards the “Other” America: Anti-Racist Resources for White People Taking Action for Black Lives Matter, Harris’ latest photography project, Femme Space, is reclaiming space for femmes, one portrait at a time.
These portraits, taken in spaces where femmes have been erased, contested, discriminated against, or otherwise marginalized, show femmes reclaiming ground and boldly demanding space for themselves. Each portrait is accompanied by a profile on each participant and a story of why they have chosen to reclaim their space. The stories include reclaiming spaces of employment, education, public spaces and private ones.
Each portrait largely centers its subject with a level eye. The depth of field is narrow, leaving no room for the eye to wander. This brilliant use of composition demands that its audience confront and concede space to every subject. Clean, crisp focus and bright, unapologetic color leaves no room for misinterpretation — the femmes are here and they will not be pushed out. To say that this project is as moving as it is important is to barely do it justice.
I was fortunate to be able to chat with Harris about her incredible project, some of her previous work and about her method in general.
Suma Jane Dark: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your background? How do your own experiences influence Femme Space?
Amanda Arkansassy Harris: I grew up in a one-stoplight town in the Arkansas Delta, and my queer country roots usually shine through in most things that I do, including Femme Space. I have a background in community organizing across issues of race, class, and queerness and I wish for my projects to empower first person story-telling across these lines. After coming into my femmeness in my early 20s I really began to see the world’s pervasive fear and hatred of the feminine and the valuing of masculinity in both queer and straight culture. At first, this was most apparent to me through invisibility or the lack of awareness that feminine people can be queer. But after spending more time with femmes and noticing how the world reacts to us, I learned that erasure is also an issue we deal with.
SD: Have you experienced femme erasure yourself?
AH: Erasure is when you should or do have the knowledge and still refuse to see. For example, I recently went to a Lesbians Who Tech conference and was asked three separate times by different people if I was queer. It’s like damn, why else am I here at a lesbian conference? If you are asking this question, it’s because you refuse to see femmes. This is just one example of many but it’s very telling.
SD: Tell me a little bit about your previous work that centers queer southern migration. As a born-southern — but certainly migrated — queer femme myself, this work is so important.
AH: Y’all Come Back is a performance art show and visual art exhibition comprised of queer Southern artists telling our stories of migration to and from the U.S. South. We have performed at the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco and OUTsider Fest in Austin. It really came about after having complicated feelings about my identities and cultures and experiencing the heartbreak of straddling multiple geographies and communities. So many queer Southerners I know and have talked with share similar feelings and experiences of being asked things like “aren’t you so glad you got out of there?” And for many of us, that’s not the case.
SD: How have your previous projects inspired or informed Femme Space?
AH: I realized just this year that the things I love photographing the most are queer community and my homeland, which is an artistic evolution of the things that matter the most to me and my drive to explore identity, place and belonging. My femmeness is so connected to my rural, working class Southern upbringing and feeling isolation and judgment from multiple cultures I am part of, whether it be Southern, queer or coastal. So this project is very much informed by my desire to shift perceptions in a grassroots kind of way, much like Y’all Come Back.
SD: Why is it important to reclaim space, specifically for queer femmes?
AH: Unfortunately, even though femmeness is an individual choice and expression, its performance draws entitlement and policing from others. So much of femme existence is surviving because of the space we navigate daily. Femme Space really came about after having many conversations with femmes about these daily experiences, from street harassment to being ignored in bars. There’s a reason phrases like “Femme as in Fuck You” and “lipstick as armor” exist; we are at war with a world that does not value us, no matter the space we are in.
Through these conversations and portraits, this project has raised the question for me, “Are there any safe spaces for femmes?” Femmes have wanted to reclaim space on public transit, in retail stores, at queer bars, straight bars, on the street, even in their own homes. Whether it’s queer space, straight space, public space or private space — femmes have all said these places have been unsafe for them. And that is a shame. We have to do more to make femmes feel valued and safe in every space.
SD: What has working on this project been like for you? Any favorite stories or memories?
AH: Femme Space has been one of the most soul-filling projects I’ve ever worked on. It’s incredibly intimate, in a way — to talk with femmes about their experiences and marginalization. It’s been very collaborative and empowering too, to stand in your power and have a femme there to witness and document it.
SD: Were there any locations or stories that were difficult to cover?
AH: There are some locations where you just don’t know what to expect. We’ve been kicked out of retail stores more than once, had men harass us while shooting. You kind of have to be prepared for anything because nothing is predictable when queer feminine people claim space with a camera in hand.
SD: Have people reached out to you to say that they have been personally affected by the project?
AH: Yes! I’ve had femmes express gratitude and appreciation for the project and more than 80 femmes reaching out — from Tokyo to Texas — to find out how they can be part of it.
SD: Tell me a little bit about your artistic process. What do you believe makes a “good” photograph? Can photography itself create spaces that we might otherwise lack?
AH: A “good” photograph really is subjective, I think. Even for this project the photos I would select and the photos that the collaborators select are often different. But that’s what I love about art in general — the viewer makes their own meaning from what they see. In terms of creating spaces through photography, I think it is a powerful medium to imagine new futures and ways of being. A photo is an isolated moment in time that can tell a political story of how things really are that the media/world refuses to witness or create a vision we want to actualize.
SD: What is your process like for finding subjects? How would anyone interested in the project be able to find you?
AH: It’s been a combination of seeking people out who I know, being referred to others by femmes who I have collaborated with, and then meeting new femmes who express interest on my website. For anyone interested in collaborating, they can fill out a short questionnaire on www.femmespace.net. The project is definitely ongoing, though I don’t have any funds or plans to travel currently, but I hope to photograph as many femmes as I possibly can.
SD: Who are some artists that you really love? What projects are you really excited about that our readers might enjoy?
AH: I definitely want to plug all of the programming at this year’s National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco — if folks are able to come this way, you will not be disappointed. I love FEMME by Sal Muñoz, a photo project focused on femmes of color. Some dear femme friends of mine recently released an anthology, Glitter & Grit: Queer Performance from the Heels on Wheels Galaxy — please go buy it! It was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award! I also adore Lex Non Scripta for their beautiful art about queerness and resistance, particularly loving their new Femme Bestiary series of artworks exploring femmes in mythology. I also have to plug my partner’s swoon-worthy electro band, GAYmous, which shares clever tunes on queer topics like polyamorous dating, femme on femme love and the art of queer sex.
SD: What are your plans for the future? Any cool projects we should be on the look out for?
AH: I’m really excited about my first big photo exhibition for Femme Space! I’m partnering with photographer epli and artist The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins on a joint exhibition about queer femme survival and navigating space. Our official opening is June 17 at Betti Ono Gallery in downtown Oakland. Stay tuned for updates at www.facebook.com/FemmeSpace.