This article originally appeared on VICE US
What does it take for a person to not just invite you into their lives, but allow you to photograph them while you’re there? It’s a question photographers have been asking for decades in hopes of getting that glimmer of alternate life—the life subjects don’t offer the camera at first glance. It’s a question Peyton Fulford has begun to answer with her ongoing series “Infinite Tenderness,” a documentation of queer Southern youth.
What started with just portraits in 2016 has since evolved into a three-part series of queer youth in southern landscapes and personal spaces, and Fulford’s own self-portraits. The project arose when Fulford—born and raised in Georgia—was in college, figuring out her own sexuality and gender identity. For the first time, she saw herself among people who didn’t define themselves only as cis, straight, and heterosexual. A photography professor challenged Fulford’s class to take on their own long-term projects, and Fulford felt queer youth in the South hadn’t been photographed in an accurate way. She began photographing queer people she knew and people she met through Instagram. “Infinite Tenderness” has been going on since then and has helped Fulford be more comfortable and candid about who she is. “All these people that I’m meeting, no matter their circumstances, they’re very sure about who they are and how they want to present themselves,” she says. “It’s really empowering to be around other individuals who aren’t afraid to be themselves especially in an environment that isn’t exactly inviting or accepting. I think up until around 2016, I was repressing a lot of who I was and the series really helped me to open up. It validated a lot of the confusion I was going through.” Just like her subjects, Fulford exists in the series exploring the relationship to one’s sexuality, one’s gender, and one’s body.
Fulford has been given the opportunity by her subjects to capture them in moments of great vulnerability, an opportunity she does not take for granted. She executes her images conscionably, respectfully, and with serious care. As a member of the community she is photographing, she knows the importance of doing it justice. In order to do this, Fulford makes herself just as vulnerable to her subjects and tries to come from a place of understanding and sensitivity.
Fulford’s ultimate goal in assembling "Infinite Tenderness" is to create an accepting space for queer youth raised in rural areas or small towns, to empower people who might see themselves in the project’s images and let them know they’re not alone. Accordingly, Fulford is not looking at her subjects but seeing them in all of their openness, an openness that somehow remarkably exists despite so much of the world telling them to close up: a ribcage extended upward toward the sky above a pair of guileless white underwear on arched hips next to an evocative bag of peaches; the carefree exposure of nipple piercings under which the words “wild” and “bitter” appear; the glimmer of sunlight off of eyes cloaked in swoops of black eyeliner and hair dyed crayon yellow. There is something special here, Fulford seems to say, something different but wonderful, something that shouldn’t be ignored.
The lack of representation of female photographers is not lost on Fulford. “Gender’s on a spectrum and there’s always been female photographers, there’s always been non-binary photographers, or [those] who identify as queer making really important work. But it just hasn’t been in the spotlight like the male photographers [who] have received so much recognition,” she says. “I feel really grateful to live in the time that we are [in] right now where things are slowly becoming more accepting. People are speaking out and different types of narratives are being created and female photographers are actually starting to be represented in a more positive light.”
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