Toronto-based photographer Brianna Roye on everything she’s learned from shooting Black queer couples—from showing intimacy to lessons on self-love
I’ve been photographing Black couples for two years now, and one of my most memorable experiences was shooting with my friends Tee and Cassandra for my on-going project “Out of Many, One People.” They were so warm as they welcomed me into their home, made me lunch and shared their stories. They’ve been together for about four years, and I said something along the lines of “Wow — four years is like…a really long time these days. I don’t know how you guys do it!” They both laughed and agreed. Four years? That’s like 10 years in lesbian. Something Cassandra said struck me: “I think we work because every day I make a choice. I choose her every day. We intentionally choose each other and decide to do the work needed to make us work.” I think about that a lot, and how powerful that is coming from queer Black women—and I wouldn’t have had that moment without photography.
While I’ve been photographing Black couples for two years, I’ve been doing photography for about seven. I wanted to challenge the lack of representation of Black queer love, and to challenge the stigmas in and outside of the Caribbean community.
I am completely self-taught; I just started shooting and looking at different YouTube tutorials, in addition to following different people whose work I liked on Instagram. I’m considering starting my own YouTube channel, because I found that there were a lot of white, male photographers demonstrating with white subjects—and I was like, that’s cool, but how do you photograph dark skin? How do you light dark skin? How do you pose different subjects? There’s still a hole that needs to be filled when it comes to Black photography. It shouldn’t be 2019 before Naomi Campbell and Gabrielle Union are shot by Black photographers for the first time.
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And that’s why I make it a point to shoot Black people and Black couples—because there’s not enough of it. Shooting Black couples wasn’t exactly intentional. I began photographing queer Caribbean people because of a lack of positive representation, and I wanted to be the one to tell those stories. Coming from the perspective of a Black, queer, masculine woman, I want to expose and normalize the different kinds of love and relationships we experience. My aim is to capture the tenderness, strength and all the nuances Black couples have within their dynamic.
I named my project after the Jamaican motto “Out of Many, One People” because I actually used to hate the saying growing up. My family said it often, followed by, “Jamaica’s so diverse!” But how diverse is it if you can’t accept diversity beyond your scope of race? What about other types of diversity? Growing up as a queer woman in a Jamaican household it’s as if you become two different people: the person you are with your family at home, then the person you are as soon as you get outside. Constantly hearing the motto used to describe how diverse and accepting Jamaica is has always been bittersweet to me because I knew I wasn’t included in that acceptance. Jamaican and Caribbean people in the LGBTQ2S community are constantly in defence mode. Not only do they have to defend their right to just exist, they also find themselves defending their heritage and culture from people who may discriminate because of the homophobia that exists—while not acknowledging the homophobia happening within their own cultures and countries.
The more I spoke to queer Caribbean people the more I realized we had similar stories about being in the closet; and—coming from backgrounds that are super homophobic—thinking there isn’t anyone else like us. So I used the saying “Out of Many, One People” because obviously the irony of it is that we are so diverse and we are one people, so why not accept the diversity in gender and sexuality as well? I’m thinking of making it a book, and I’m also planning on going back to Jamaica to connect with the queer community. It’s still unsafe to be out and queer, but there are so many queer people there that I want to talk to and ask, “How are you dealing with this—those feelings of being unsafe but still wanting to be who you are and love who you love?”
Photographing Black people and Black love has taught me a lot about how to express love. I personally struggle with being more expressive emotionally, and before this project I found that it translated into my work. Generally, after a long shoot, I’m pretty exhausted. But I found that shooting couples left me feeling optimistic and energized. I found that a lot of the people I photographed were either really good at expressing their emotions and their love or they had a different way of showing it, and I wanted to capture that bond between people. So it’s been this weird thing of me being inspired by the intimacy shared between my subjects, and using that inspiration to change how I express my emotions towards my partner and other people.
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And not only that, but photography has helped me become more confident in myself and my identity. Being able to connect with a lot of queer Caribbean people just living their lives day to day— whether they’re in a relationship or not—has made me feel like, “Yeah, we’re all here—who cares? I’m me, so take me as I am.”
Through my work, I’ve learned just truly how beautiful and important Black love is. How our stories don’t always have to be rooted in pain and struggle (despite the racism and anti-Blackness we face daily). There isn’t one kind of Black love, and it all should be uplifted and celebrated, especially the more marginalized kinds that we don’t see enough of.
I’m not sure exactly what it is I want people to feel when they see my photos, but I just want them to feel something. Compelled, warm, inspired, less alone, happy, confused—something other than indifference. I find that we’re too often bombarded with pretty photos and things that are aesthetically appealing, that sometimes we forget to feel things other than appreciation. When I photograph people, I just want them to be content and comfortable. It’s the biggest compliment when a subject tells me how comfortable they felt while being photographed by me.
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Black love is eternal and knows no bounds. It’s the aroma of my mom’s Sunday dinner cooking. It’s the sisterhood I feel with my friends. The full love my partner and I give each other. Black love means the world to me. I’m me because of it, and for that I’m grateful. —as told to Bee Quammie
This article was originally published on February 3, 2020.