Photos

Gorgeous Photos from Inside the Cuban American Queer Scene

Alexis Ruiseco's images seem at once artfully composed and spontaneous, subversive and glamorous.

by Alexis Ruiseco
30 August 2016, 4:00am

Self-portrait. All photos by Alexis Ruiseco

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Alexis Ruiseco is a New York–based artist, actor, director, and all-around creative type I met while I was doing a portfolio review at Parsons. He only received his BFA from that school this year, but it's clear he has a gift and a passion for exploring sexuality, identity, and trauma. His work includes self-portraits that play with notions of gender, but also shots of queer culture in Miami and New York that seem at once spontaneous and artfully composed. Below is a selection of those photos from his series Reinas, which is Spanish for "queens," and a short interview with him.
Elizabeth Renstrom, VICE Photo Editor

VICE: How long have you been photographing queer performers?
Alexis Ruiseco: I started photographing queer performers back in January 2013 in Miami; Azucar Nightclub was the venue that gave me my first access, and through TP Lords, the performer I worked with every Thursday, I met Erika Norel and Daisy Deadpetals. Because of them I was able to connect with the queer community of south Florida. For five months, I was coming in and out of Azucar and Off the Hookah photographing backstage and performances. During that time, the approach I took on was of a sensitive voyeur, looking for moments that resonated with my sensibilities and the ideas of dominance that were circling my head.

When I moved to New York in July of the same year, I sought to investigate how performance carried over into more personal settings, so I became interested in making portraits in the homes of the people I was meeting. I'm still working through understanding the psychology of transformation, and at the time, I was looking at the way others were expressing similar ideas. The most important thing for me when I asked for a sitting was to be aware of how each person wanted to represent themselves, because underrepresented communities aren't given that consideration. The portraits had to have an element of collaboration to give each queer voice a depth and volume.

Where do you see this project going?
After three and a half years of working on this series, I see it as the foundation for how my practice in photography will develop. My tendency to construct scenarios and perform for my camera in my portraiture and self-portraits have given me a grasp on my preoccupation with femininity, selfhood, and the ways that sexuality contributes to the construction of identity. I know that I will never stop photographing my community because of the lack of queer stories represented by queer people; I often find that visibility in normative society is misunderstood for acceptance and understanding of the identities that exist outside of it. I want to provoke reactions within the emasculated pride of Cuban culture and speak out on the oppression imposed on those who fail to live up to its "manly" code.

But the conversation should also extend from there and be looked at in larger scale. I'm a queer voice that is a part of a discussion bigger than myself and my immediate culture. One of the most important things for this work is to be able to insert the voice of this series into the circulation of queer topics.

What are your plans for future series?
I'm currently working on the research for the next series that I'll be completing in Cuba. I've secured a trip with The Cuba One Foundation (similar to Birthright Israel) in Miami and will be traveling to the island in December of this year. I'm corresponding with an activist, Rafael Suri, that works with CENESEX (a Cuban LGBTQ rights organization), and with his help, I'll be photographing the way that queer aesthetics are circulating throughout the island. And because my father still lives there (he stayed after my move in 1995), I have unique access to the life of a real Cuban in Cuba's post-revolutionary state. Through both examinations, the series will explore Cuban identity, machismo, fatherhood, familial structure, an exuberance of sexual energy, and a symbolic rejection of traditional gender roles. As an exile, I have to say that I'm very excited to reconnect with my culture during Cuba's major changes.

Self-portrait

What are some of the influences that you draw on?
I've been studying the way that David Bowie performs and explores his own identity for a couple of years now. His stagecraft helps me direct my own use of reinvention and carrying presence within circumstances I am directing. I'm also focusing on "the method" used by acting to incorporate scene preparation and emotional depth. I'm always captivated by actors, writers, directors, and musicians with a particular interest on sexuality. The theatrical natures of people like Gaga, Almodovar, or Freddy Mercury tend to instruct my work more than other photographers. I'm less inspired by photography and more informed by cinema, theater, and painting. However, I find that I'm constantly looking back at Helmut Newton's style of photography and his preoccupation with women. And at this moment, Deana Lawson's investigation of sexuality, violence, family, and social status is helping me shape the ideas for my Cuba series.

Alexis Ruiseco is a Cuban photographer based in Brooklyn. You can follow his work here.