Today, Heather Glazzard describes herself as, ‘a constant explorer of sexuality and fascination’, but growing up in Halifax, United Kingdom, she found few chances to indulge this desire. Her own coming-out at secondary school was fraught with the fear, and harsh reality, of violent backlash. But it was also hampered by what she saw as a complete lack of queer visibility. She had simply no experience of how to become queer. Her first cultural experience of queer romance was of a single ‘chaste, lesbian kiss’ on the popular soap opera EastEnders.
While LGBTQI representation in popular culture has improved, Glazzard describes still seeing many stale stereotypes, which her current photographic work seeks to rectify. Queer Letters is her attempt at providing, through portraits and texts, queer aesthetics for people who find themselves without meaningful representation in the world. In her photography, Glazzard demonstrates a lack of self-indulgence rather a strong belief in accommodating to her subjects’ individualities, and ultimately to build trust, capture intimacy, educate and inform.
What brought you to photography in the first place?
My dad was a photographer, he wasn’t professional but he did a lot of photography, so he would sit down with me and show me how to take a good photograph. He used to say this thing that I’ve always remembered, “If you’re a good photographer you can take a good picture even on an old Nokia.” So I feel like he influenced me a lot. I started doing an art course at Leeds College, which wasn’t all photography but included animation and other things, but I guess I was more drawn to photography, which then led me to Salford University to do ‘Fashion Image Making and Styling’. The tutors there were just amazing. I was kind of half-heartedly photographing, but when I went there they just really pushed me to explore who I am and what I’m trying to say through photography. Then it kind of became a therapy in a way.
So, how did that lead into the Queer Letters project?
I was photographing a lot of girls I was sleeping with; I was doing a lot of nudes. Then I went to intern for Richard Kern, he sexualises women quite a lot in his work and when I saw it first hand I thought, ‘I don’t want to be doing this.’ I actually sat down and had a conversation with Richard where we ended up discussing doing something for the LGBTQI community. This led me to start a queer art collective in Manchester called Moist. A lot of people got involved but I essentially became a manager rather than an artist, and I was like, ‘how can I make Moist into a photographic project?’, which then became Queer Letters.
What was it about photography that made it the right medium in which to undertake this project of queer representation?
I was doing a lot of portraiture at the time and I felt like I was capturing something of people; I can’t draw so photography is my only medium to express myself. I’m just constantly taking pictures and writing and I wanted to combine the two, it couldn’t have been any other form.
Of course, there’s also a written aspect, there is a reflective correspondence and communication between yourself and your subjects.
I feel that comes from making sure the representation is right. If you take a photograph you can think up so much about it; you can create a story, but then if someone writes as well they can take ownership of their own image, and you’re not trying to represent them, they’re representing themselves. I see a lot of stuff at the moment where hetero people are documenting transgender people, and I feel like they don’t have a right. It’s a long conversation you have with yourself. I think that’s embodied in the letters.
You’ve said that with LGBTQI representation, there seems to be a major focus on gay cis men at the expense of others, how does it feel to see only these people standing in for a whole variety of other positions?
What it feels like… crap! It feels crap. It just doesn’t feel correct, it doesn’t feel authentic. I don’t understand why it is that way. I think if you can only see a gay cis male representation then you question yourself, and I don’t think that’s fair to grow up with. There’s the whole thing with trans people a the moment and I dunno, it’s problematic and it makes me angry. I guess it’s getting kind of better now because of social media, but there’s definitely still a huge lack of representation, I guess it’s just to do with patriarchy.
What do you look for, in an image or a text, as a good representation of queer people?
A sense of realness? A sense of uniqueness as well, and also to get people who are willing to be real and vulnerable. I think being vulnerable is so powerful. So people who are willing to be open and not let that be a negative thing.
It’s interesting you say that about vulnerability because it feels like the project reflects what you said earlier about photography as therapy. Did you always plan for the project to be like this, or was this something that developed as you worked with these people?
I think it was there on the first picture I took of the project, of a girl in a white dress. I think the question has just changed, not the question about the advice you’d give to yourself. We had some workshops where people said ‘you should start asking this’. So things have changed but not that much. The reason I chose to write to my younger self is that my therapist told me to do it.
You’ve said previously that you try to remove your ego from the photograph, to let the subjects show themselves through the images. Do you still agree with this?
I was speaking to one of my old tutors the other day and she was saying ‘your photography’s becoming a little bit more performative.’ When I’m shooting with someone else there’d be no ego involved in it, but I’m definitely moving to be more performative in my work.
As well as Queer Letters, you have your visual diary that you take. There’s a huge range of photographs in there, how do you see this relating to your other work?
I feel like my diary work is literally just everyday life. I’m shooting all the time; I’m not really conscious of it. I’m conscious when shooting for Queer Letters, ‘does this represent the person correctly’? I mean the whole point of Queer Letters is me being able to tackle representation I didn’t see when I was younger. But I want my work to be more than just portraiture. With diary stuff I feel not as conscious, I think less about it which is kind of nice; it’s the whole reason I got into photography. Honestly, I just have random set ups in my brain. I don’t think about it for days, I just have to do it there and then. As I said, the diary stuff is less thought about.
It does speak of a very different way of approaching photography. In one case you’re very spontaneous, very of the moment, and in the other, you’re slower, considered, attentive.
I’ve never thought of it in that way. I think every photographer, while they’re doing a project they have to be able to step away as well, because it can be intense. I received an Arts Council grant and I had to deliver Queer Letters quite quickly because of that, so it was very intense. So to be able to go away and do something random was very important.
Do you have plans for future projects?
I’m working on a self-portrait project at the moment with my partner, and the images are insane. So we’re working on that but we haven’t released anything at the moment. Now I’m going to go back to Queer Letters because I’m going to eventually make it into a book for schools so that it becomes a form of education for LGBTQI people. The main aim of it is to give kids a book so they can pick it up and go, ‘I am fine and I don’t need to feel like I’m not. I can see a range of people like me and I can see they’re fine now.’ I guess I want to create a space where people can be where they want to be.
And what advice would you give to your younger self?
I’d say don’t let guys tell you you can’t play football… because you can. I’d say EastEnders is not a good representation of queer people. I’d probably have said it’s normal to feel how you feel, and you’re going to be so loved for being who you are, and not to be afraid of who you are.
Queer Letters was exhibited at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, Format Festival in Derby, United Kingdom, and at Photo Vogue Festival, Milan, Italy.