Photographer Rachelle Lee Smith will celebrate the release of her photo-essay book, “Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus!” Oct. 10 at William Way LGBT Community Center.
“Speaking OUT” chronicles the life experiences of a diverse group of young LGBTQ people, ages 14-24, who are photographed against a stark white backdrop; the subjects were then asked to handwrite their stories onto the final print.
The book features more than 65 portraits Smith collected over a 10-year span beginning in 2001.
The project’s origins began when Smith was in college.
“It was kind of a culmination of hearing my friend’s story. I very specifically remember a call from a friend who had been chased down the street by frat boys, and she was crying,” Smith said. “Her name is Beth but she identifies as Maddie now — she is in the book. They chased her and called her gay slurs. I heard this story and was really affected. I asked myself, What can I do to get these stories out there?”
Smith’s inclination for activism bloomed around the same time she began attending gay-rights rallies in D.C.
“I heard about the marches in D.C. It allowed me access to issues I would not otherwise be comfortable jumping into. The LGBT community kind of launched the activism part of me. So I kind of travelled with this group of people. And from there I learned more about politics. So my love for finding out info got me into it,” Smith said.
She began “Speaking OUT” by photographing her friends, and it grew from there.
“It started with friends and friends of friends. I wanted to see how comfortable people were with it. There was a lot of word of mouth. I also worked with The Attic Youth Center. It became a cathartic process for these people. I would set up a booth at LGBT events too,” Smith said.
The photographer noted some of the changes that took place over the project’s decade-long life span.
“The themes over the course of the project, they are consistent, but there is more pride and acceptance and less fear and less labeling now than when I first started,” she said. “People are still saying the same things, but there is less fear and shame.”
Smith has exhibited the project for years in a variety of venues.
But putting the photo essay in book form helped her reach a wider audience.
“To me this made the most sense. When I was shopping around for publishers, they would say, ‘Oh , this should be an interactive website or comic or coloring book of sorts.’ But over the past decade I have had a bunch of shows at libraries, youth centers, churches and World Pride. For a long time this has only been an exhibition. Book form makes it more accessible. That’s the goal, to get it seen by as many people as possible.”
Smith has mixed feeling about this latest phase of the project.
“It’s definitely bittersweet. Not in the fact that this is it and I can never do another photo essay again — I will continue to show this as an exhibition. I initially thought when the book comes out, this is it. But I have a number of events coming in 2015. The book launch is really close and personal, the Philly kick-off. There’s all these events. It’s really exciting, kind of a new life.”
The free book-release party will run from 6-9 p.m. Oct. 10 at the center, 1315 Spruce St. Smith will sign copies of the book and members of The Attic Youth Center will perform. Smith will also be showcasing the new book at a table Oct. 12 during OutFest.
For more information, visit http://rachelleleesmith.com/speaking-out/.