Growing up in a conservative religious background, it was often encouraged to stay away from people and ideas that didn’t fit the desired mold. Rather than learning about and embracing differences, I would steer clear of anything and anyone I didn’t understand. I recently began a graduate course in documentary photography at Johns Hopkins University and was tasked with a semester-long project. I decided to tackle one of these topics I had long avoided: drag queens.
I have heard a variety of descriptive words used for drag queens over the years. As with many sub-cultures in society, the descriptive terminology often includes an abundance of negativity and misrepresentation. Since documentary photography provides an opportunity to inform and educate others about individual aspects of our society, culture and sub-cultures, the opportunity was a great fit.
Since I had no experience with the drag performing world, I wanted to learn about an individual behind the make-up and sassy attitude. I didn’t want the television reality show or Hollywood production. I also did not want to limit getting to know an individual in their life as a drag queen, but also wanted to learn who they are behind it all. I had the opportunity to photograph and interview Dustin, better known as Ba’Naka Deveroux.
The series of photographs begins with Dustin in his daily life and continues through his evening into full drag to perform. I entered the nightclub backstage dressing room, with shelves of colorful wigs and dresses hanging on racks and from the ceiling. Dustin’s vanity is messy and adorned with various jewelry pieces and photos taped to the wall. Dustin shaves and then begins the process of make-up. After Ba’Naka has most of her make-up applied, her next step is duct tape and panty-house to hide male genitalia. She dons a black padded bra with padded inserts and uses contouring make-up to give the appearance of breasts. There are important details that cannot be missed, such as fake nails and the correct pair of heels.
The portrait images of Ba’Naka express her vibrant personality getting ready and throughout her performance. She is serious and hardworking, but also silly and abundantly sassy. There are moments of contemplation sharing personal stories and life experiences, as well as joking and having fun. The greatest generosity was Ba’Naka permitting photographing during personal situations. The vulnerability of being photographed in underwear and without a wig offered true authenticity into the life of a drag queen.
Photographing Ba’Naka throughout the process of getting ready offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a world many are unfamiliar with. It was a world that I thought would be less than welcoming as an outsider to be received in such circumstances. Working individually with Dustin allowed us to form a new connection of friendship and mutual understanding. My previous misconceptions were not only limiting, but greatly devalued authentic talent. The greatest thing I learned and hope to share from the documentary photography project is the empathy derived from embracing rather than shunning what we don’t understand. Drag performers are a unique part of our culture and just as the rest of us, they each have a valuable story to share.