Boston-based photographer Ally Schmaling discusses their Queerantine project, networks of compassion, and the makings of a better future with Senior Director of Communications Lauren Pellerano Gomez.
Lauren: At BCA, we are working to showcase “the good stuff” happening right now, including artists using their creativity to lift spirits. Your Queerantine project does exactly that. Can you tell us about how this series came to be?
Ally: As a photographer, I pay my bills by doing weddings, corporate events, and portraiture. My job wouldn’t be my job without people. People are the core element: human to human contact and energy exchange is my currency. So when the whisperings of this started happening — gig after gig getting canceled — it turned my whole career on its head. I think I was grieving a lot because of that. I have such a profound attraction to meeting new types of humans, hearing different stories, and holding reverence for different narratives. That was all gone in an instant.
Alongside the grieving, I’ve had to fundamentally reimagine what this career would be, what the future of photography is, and what storytelling is in this new set of circumstances. As a product of that, I began scheming how I could possibly reinvigorate my sense of purpose because that was also gone in an instant. Without a job, without this career — it’s my everything, it’s my call to being. Despite the wallowing and self-pity for my loss of income for the foreseeable future and for our planet, I also knew that this was a very pivotal moment.
Lauren: How has your process and practice changed in these times? How have you continued making?
Ally: As a person who documents things and people, documentation feels like essential work at the moment. Even though all I want to do is lie in a fetal position, it definitely feels important to capture what’s happening, so I caught wind of similar projects: mostly capturing nuclear families within these guidelines. I kind of wanted to meld that practice with a more documentary/activist edge. I wanted to capture the reverent and the irreverent, the joyful, and the painful of this weird situation, specifically in the context of a community that has been marginalized. Queer people are no strangers to this type of adversity; they happen to be very resilient when it comes to community. I’ve always been fascinated with the queer community: how it functions and the pathways it necessitates. Specifically, in the context of this crisis, we’re seeing a hyper-present actualization of the bonds we already knew were there. I am a person who desperately needs tasks and the illusion of purpose, so I dragged myself out of bed and said, “You’re gonna do this.”
Lauren: Has it been joyful? What were your expectations going in?
Ally: I had no expectations. I never thought the apocalypse would feel so mundane but I had that itchy artist feeling in the back of my brain that said this is an important time.
While I’m photographing people in isolation, I’m also having conversations with most of these people: all experiencing a similar feeling of isolation. It’s been beautiful seeing all the different family units and chosen families; the ways people find coping mechanisms, find joy and find strength with each other. The thread of having something so intimate such as a home — it’s this bizarre isolated unit — I love that thread running through this whole project. I have to stay physically distanced, so I’m this isolated observer, and yet I am photographing the hyper-intimate: someone for whom this unit is their whole world right now. Everything is contained in that little box and I am an outsider.
Lauren: Tell us about the interview portion of your Queerantine portrait series.
Ally: In interviews, I have asked two questions. The first is, “What tiny moments of joy have you been finding in this mess?” and those answers have ranged from very irreverent and goofy to very profound. Second, I asked, “Whether in the context of this new socially distanced landscape, or just in general, what does queer community look like to you? What does it feel like? What does it mean to you?” Those answers have been so beautiful and most of them focused on the same subjects: this idea that queerness is so much more than sexuality.
Lauren: To that end, what does queerness mean now?
Ally: Queerness, in the philosophical sense, is this idea of being able to imagine worlds and realities outside the one that was handed to you, this kind of innovation and resiliency that comes with that. I’m reminded that the queer community has survived epidemics and has historically, like many other marginalized communities, been a community that the government has let fall by the wayside.
In a larger context, because of that lack of institutional support, queer people have always had to develop these pathways of community compassion, mutual aid networks, and this radical idea of helping people even when you’re in a rough spot. Systematically, a lot of queerness has to do with taking stock of your resources and privileges and redistributing them to your neighbors and to your people. As queer people, without the assumption of a nuclear family in many cases, our chosen family is the family that resonates most with us. We carry this idea of, “I got your back, you’ve got mine.” This is something that the queer community has known for so long. I think the greater society is just waking up to the idea that we have to take stock of our privileges and resources and redistribute because our government isn’t necessarily going to do that for us. We have to develop larger-scale networks of compassion or else we’re not gonna survive this.
Lauren: I like the idea of networks of compassion.
Ally: I think such a fundamental idea of queerness is the antithesis of individualism. So many queer narratives have involved friends or chosen family as support networks — because they have to. Because a lot of people don’t have the privilege of having support outside of that.
Lauren: Tell us about the neighborhoods you’ve been photographing.
Ally: I started in JP because that’s where I live, but I extended to other neighborhoods: Somerville, Cambridge, Roxbury, and Dorchester — even as far as Revere and Salem.
I’m really grateful to have stumbled into this because I do feel like it takes this resignation from capitalism’s death grip to ask yourself, “What would I be doing if money wasn’t in the picture? If transactions were completely taken out of this?” I’m a gig worker, I’m a freelancer, so there’s no money currently. Now I’m at this beautiful moment where although I’m not making any income, I get to have that discussion with myself about what I would do if finances were out of the question. And this is exactly the work I want to do.
Lauren: You’re not charging folx for these portraits. Are you open to people compensating you for your time and energy with this project?
Ally: I’ve been going back and forth because, yes, I am out of income for the moment and yes, this is a lot of labor. On the other hand, in that spirit of queerness, in a more philosophical sense, I for the time being have enough resources to survive right now.
Taking money for this personally doesn’t feel like the most productive allocation of resources. I’d really like to find a queer/LGBTQIA+ specific charity, perhaps a legal fund that helps people manage evictions or some sort of housing justice project. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the Greater Boston Area, not just queer people, who are going to lose their housing because of this. I would love to keep this project free of transactions on an individual level. If donors or people who have enjoyed seeing this wholesome content would like to donate to this charity, that would be awesome.
Edit: After this interview, Schmaling selected Boston-based nonprofit Y2Y, an initiative that employs a youth-to-youth model to provide a safe and affirming environment for youths experiencing homelessness, as the official beneficiary for any financial support for this project. For more information on Y2Y, as well as how you can donate, visit their site.
Lauren: What would be the dream outcome of this project? Should it take a material form?
Ally: In this poetic way, the subject of this project is the idea of isolation itself. If once this is all over, I could put together a showing of all these portraits and gather all the subjects together, because we’re neighbors, and share this common thread of queer community — that would be incredible. It would be such a beautiful full circle to finally be able to get everyone in the same room after this common experience of a portrait in isolation.
Lauren: Would you make a book?
Ally: I could make a book! I would want to get explicit consent from everyone, all subjects.
Lauren: Do you think we’re any more alone now than we were before?
Ally: We’re all connecting in the same ways we’ve always had access to. It’s a weird Black Mirror episode where our reality is just slightly off. That’s what makes it more terrifying. Things have shifted just a little bit from our everyday lives to make it unnerving, but it’s not unfamiliar in any way.
Lauren: Do you have any parting words, phrases, or mantras that have been keeping you afloat over the past couple of weeks that you would like to share with our creative community?
Ally: Yes. One subject who I interviewed had a beautiful and poetic moment of joy. They said, “I’ve been meditating on the whole idea that indigenous communities and farmers, for centuries, have intentionally burned fields to plant new seeds. Some seeds only germinate if they’ve been scarred by fire, and I keep using that metaphor that maybe this is the fire and now we can plant these new seeds with better structures that serve us all.” This whole thing, despite it being so painful in so many ways: psychologically, financially, physically, it really does feel like a catalyst for radicalization.
So many people I’ve interviewed have been artists, makers, and shakers in our community. We’re all creatives because we fundamentally understand that we can bring something new into the world that has never existed before. So, believing that, why can’t we now apply that to our systems and how we imagine our world? What could we do if we all used our collective energies as a queer think tank of innovation? I just want to queer the heck out of our systems and politics and use this event to radicalize us into a more compassionate society.