It all started with a dislocated knee. Erica Lauren Perez, now 28, had dislocated her right knee on the last day of touring and photographing with Phoenix band AJJ in November 2016. She couldn’t walk. She sure as hell couldn’t tour.
It was in this state that Perez went to see the work of her friend and fellow freelancer Courtney Coles, also 28, at the Junior High gallery in Los Angeles, where they’re both based. The theme of that night in December 2016 was Miss Representation and focused on art made by women of color. Perez saw the the sad parallels between this gallery and how few women and minorities work in music photography, but she was still invigorated by all the work.
“I was just inspired when I got there,” Perez, who is Mexican, says. She looked at Coles and then at her knee and asked herself what she could do. “I don’t want to not take pictures and just feel sorry for myself.”
Then and there, Perez and Coles decided to host their own photo show.
This is how To The Front started. Formerly known as Girls To The Front as a nod to legendary feminist punk band Bikini Kill, this collection of women and non-binary photographers hosts gallery showcases to display their music and concert photography. The first show at the Allmost Studio in Los Angeles in January 2017 featured four photographers: Perez, Coles, Carly Hoskins, and Danielle Parsons. The New York show in June at Silent Barn expanded to 16 photographers.
At both the LA show and the New York show, Perez showed a black and white print of singer Shawna Potter from the Baltimore hardcore group War on Women. Potter is sneering lopsided and flipping off the camera while wearing a hat that says “Make America Feminist For Once.” This photo made Perez want to do something positive with her work, especially in the wake of the election, and in a broader sense, it encapsulates the motivations of To The Front.
The show at the D-Beatstro in Toronto on December 2 features the work of 18 photographers plus an illustrator and a designer along with the band Pony. Toronto is the first show under the new name as an effort to be inclusive of those who felt like they didn’t fit under the previous, gendered name.
To The Front unites these photographers in an industry, and a society, that is too often divided by gender. In the gallery, the competitive nature of the field and the photo pit disappears until it’s just friends supporting each other without the shadow of sexism weighing on them.
In Coles’ eyes, sexism plays a role in how she and other female photographers of color are not advancing in their careers at the same rate as their male counterparts, even if she’s grinding just as hard or harder. But she keeps doing it for the sake of aspiring photographers. “I’ll remember being myself when I was 15, 16 in that scene and not seeing anyone who looked like me doing what I was doing,” says Coles, who is black. “I remind myself about that: It may be hard now, but you’re probably that person for someone.”
Elena de Soto, who participated in the New York show and is also displaying her work in Toronto, says that one's experiences as a female photographer can even turn violent. De Soto, 25, works as the booking agent for the Atlanta festival Wrecking Ball. She climbed onstage last year to take a picture from behind the drummer of Quicksand, the 2016 headliner. Security grabbed de Soto and escorted her off stage where they told her she wasn’t allowed to shoot on the stage, despite her numerous credentials. It took the male manager of the band Thursday intervening for de Soto to go back on stage and do her job.
The photographers have been paying out of their own pockets to rent these spaces for the night, and they donate any proceeds they make from selling their prints to a charity of their choice. “Everyone chose their own kind of cause that they wanted to donate to, but we were all on the page of how can we use what we’re doing to take a stand on a lot of stuff we feel voiceless about right now,” Perez says. “A lot of the time you feel you don’t have a voice, and it gives you a voice to put a platform out there like that.” At the second show, the group sold pins and was able to raise almost $500 for the Ali Forney Center, a New York-based agency that houses homeless LGBTQ youth. The Toronto show also has pins available for sale.
Being in the community of To The Front has empowered these photographers to move their work from Instagram to a brick and mortar gallery. Some of the group had never displayed their photos in this fashion before. Emily Dubin, a Philadelphia-based 21-year-old who showed her work in New York and will also be present for the Toronto date, says that To The Front is mostly filled with introverts. “In New York we were all like, can we just put up our stuff and leave?” Dubin jokes. “You see it in the sense of likes and shares, but you’re never really present for people viewing your work. Having that more human interaction was really, really cool.”
It’s not a competitive atmosphere in the slightest either. In the photo pit, everyone wants to get the best shot. Here at these galleries, it’s a family. “It’s really this community of photographers where we all love each other’s work and are just so excited to have our work hanging next to each other,” Dubin says.
The collection of work is as eclectic as the photographers themselves. Dubin showed eight prints. One was a straightforward yet beautiful portrait of Sofia Verbilla who sings under the moniker Harmony Woods. Shade covers most of her face, but her lips and leather jacket pop out in the light. Another was a close-up of a sweaty Luke Spiller of The Struts lying on the stage of The Foundry and gazing directly into the camera. De Soto displayed an equally diverse set, including one of Kathleen Hanna squatting on stage and mouth pressed tightly against a dangling microphone. Alex Luciano of Diet Cig raises up her guitar and tilts her head back in pure joy in another of de Soto’s prints.
Coles views the galleries like the gigs they shoot: “It felt like we were going to a concert, and we realize, oh crap, we’re the reason people are here. We’re kind of like the band.” And this band rules.
Taylor just takes blurry and overexposed photos on her iPhone at concerts. Find her on Twitter.