WHAT DO YOU CHAMPION: LAUREL GOLIOAugust 14, 2017
What do you #Champion? This month, we teamed up with Champion to ask a group of inspiring interdisciplinary creatives what matters most to them. From art to politics, storytelling to authenticity, get inspired by the causes that are prompting them to dream big.
Laurel Golio is a Brooklyn-based photographer whose portraits document the strength and diversity of young people in primarily urban centers. Together with writer Diana Scholl, Golio began We Are The Youth, a photojournalism project capturing the images and stories of LGBTQ youth. When meeting Golio, one can immediately sense her self-assuredness while also being struck by her disarming friendliness— these traits, combined with serious talent, serve as a perfect conduit for her anthropological photography. She is eager to make visible and insist upon the beauty of young people who are too often dismissed because of their sexual or gender identity.
Looking beyond We are the Youth, a similar ethos exists. Golio’s personal and commissioned projects are striking in their faceted exploration of feminine strength. Her portrayal of women is Athenian— bodybuilders with contoured muscles; proud teens with open, unmade-up faces; a panoply of women engrossed in books; competitors crouched in ice hockey armor, skate shoes or wrestling spandex, their braids salted with sweat. This ambitious and three-dimensional representation of femininity imbues her work with energy and near-giddy authenticity. It’s no surprise her commission projects are everywhere, from Vogue to Fader to the New York Times. Golio opened up to us about her enthusiasm for teens today, and what we can do to champion the diverse voices of young people, whose visions can change our society for the better.
Interview by Katherine Noble
What do you Champion? How did this become a passion?
I champion youth. It’s really important to me to share stories that I wanted to see, and didn’t necessarily see, when I was growing up. As a kid, I was often the only girl on the sports team, and one of a few queer youth in my town, so I always felt a bit on the outside and was constantly looking for parts of myself that might be mirrored in mainstream culture. I didn’t always find that, so as an adult I’m passionate about sharing diverse stories and empowering young people to represent themselves.
Who is a personal hero of yours? What do they Champion?
I’m a huge Lil Kim fan. Kim changed the game for women in hip hop and was always unapologetically herself, despite BS respectability politics and all this sexist crap floating around her. I think Lil Kim champions authenticity, empowerment, and feminism in so many ways.
What are some photoseries or projects you’ve seen recently and loved?
I recently re-watched the film, Girlhood. That scene of the group dancing to Rihanna in the hotel room – I’ve had that scene pulled up on Youtube, watching it on repeat for days, especially the first 10 or 15 seconds of Marieme watching her friends – it’s so good.
Can you name a couple key turning points on your journey so far? What are some things that have determined who you are today?
I grew up with a lot of strong women in my family, which definitely influenced who I am today. I saw feminism and female strength represented in a lot of different ways and that empowered me to speak my mind and be myself. Although my queerness isn’t all there is to me, it’s a big part of my identity and being a queer person has definitely influenced how I see the world. Starting We Are the Youth has changed my life in countless ways. Spending the last few years meeting hundreds of queer youth and hearing their stories has been such a privilege. It’s also taught me a lot about photographing people and talking to subjects, trying to make people comfortable and at ease in front of a camera.
What is We Are the Youth, and how did it come into being? What motivates you to capture LGBTQ youth specifically?
We Are the Youth is a photojournalism project that shares the stories of queer/LGBTQ youth, 21 and under, in the United States. I started the project in 2010 with my childhood friend, Diana Scholl. Diana is a journalist by trade and now the social media manager of the ACLU.
When we started We Are the Youth, most of the mainstream media coverage of the queer youth community focused on youth suicide, bullying, that sort of thing. These issues are obviously very important, but the media coverage was so one-dimensional. The queer community is extremely diverse and multi dimensional – Diana and I wanted to see more stories and experiences being shared, different voices being amplified, so we attended a Gay Prom outside of NYC. I photographed about 200 attendees and Diana started interviewing these youth and the project was born! After that, we started traveling to different areas of the country, visiting schools and community centers and photographing and interviewing queer youth in an effort to expand the diversity of the stories we were sharing.
Growing up, I was constantly looking for anything queer – this was right before the internet emerged, so there was very little representation of queer life in mainstream culture. You had shows like Ellen and RuPaul (pre-Drag Race) was of course doing his thing. There were queer cultural moments here and there, queer communities for sure, but there wasn’t too much for a kid growing up in the suburbs to look at in terms of queer role models, or access in regards to queer lives and experiences.
Diverse representation is so important for young people, especially for those in minority or marginalized groups who don’t always see a version of themselves on television or in books or movies. Queer youth need to see different examples of how people like themselves are living and thriving. We started We Are the Youth in an attempt to give LGBTQ+ young people a chance to share their experiences – whatever those experiences may be – in the hopes that other queer youth might see those stories and feel a bit less isolated, a bit more seen.
As someone interested in photography as a form of anthropology and social documentation, how you deal with the politics of photography (or art in general)?
I’ve always been interested in ethics within photography, especially within photojournalism, as that can be a sensitive thing when you’re trying to represent a certain group or groups of people. As a queer person, I feel a certain connection with a lot of the youth we profile, but just because we share a queer identity, doesn’t mean we come from the same place, or have had the same experiences, so I try to do a lot of listening and let the subjects represent themselves as best I can.
I think the closest way to an ethical practice is collaboration, intersection, and a lot of talking and listening. Talking and listening to the subject, to the people around you, to your various communities, as well as communities that you’re not a part of. Mostly – checking in with people, staying open to feedback and reflecting on your practice.
In your personal work, especially your portrait projects, how involved are you with styling or shaping a frame to your vision, versus allowing the subject to pose themselves?
In my personal work, I try to lean more towards a hands-off approach and let the subject(s) style and pose themselves. Especially with projects that are more documentary-based, I try to stay in the background and do my best to capture my surroundings without influencing the situation too much. Every shoot is different, sometimes subjects are looking for a bit of direction, which I’m happy to give, but in most of my personal work, I aim to capture authentic moments, those off-beat poses and moments that might express who the subject is or how may have been feeling on that particular day.
Please share a favourite book, artist, or musician that has recently affected you.
I just read Hunger, by Roxane Gay. I love her writing style and was especially moved by the way she talks about the conflict of what a person might know intellectually (specifically regarding her body, her identity and the way that people view her) and what a person feels emotionally as a human moving through the world. That felt so honest to me and I think it’s something that many of us feel in different ways.
Describe your current personal style. What’s a favourite clothing piece of yours?
My personal style is pretty casual – somewhere between Dave Grohl in the 90s, Kiki from Are you Afraid of the Dark, and maybe a bit of Adriana from The Sopranos. I think that last part is mostly in my head though, like my heart/spirit feels a little bit like Adriana, but I don’t actually own a leopard print body suit.
One of my favorite clothing pieces is a vintage, faded green, XL Nike Air sweatshirt. The sweatshirt belonged to my grandma, so I love it for sentimental reasons, but also that lady had good style, it’s great piece.
Please share a ritual that helps you recenter.
Trips to the water – a beach, river, lake – always helps me recenter.
What do you want to be doing in five years?
I want to be sharing (visual) stories and hopefully be in a place that allows me to provide a larger platform to assist others in sharing their stories.
What are a few things we can do to champion youth?
Listen to young people! Believe them when they share their stories, their experiences, and their identities. Support and invest in organizations and groups led by diverse groups of young people and let them tell you what they need.
Follow Laurel on Instagram