For some time, the Netherlands has maintained a global reputation as a longstanding cultural hub of liberalism, owed in part to its legalization of gay marriage in 2001, making it the first country to do so. Additionally, in the recent wake of marijuana legalization in countries around the world, a major facet of Amsterdam’s open-minded rep is rooted in its coffeeshops—establishments that openly sell marijuana products for casual use. But what this global reputation ignores is the colonial history of the country, and how its effects continue to permeate society today, primarily felt by racialized communities who are silenced by the widely-practiced Zwarte Piet tradition and popular politicians like Geert Wilders.
This naturalization of discrimination means that a number of cultural groups are still seen as quite radical, despite the pro-LGBTQ façade that the Netherlands prides itself on. For photographer Dustin Thierry, giving visibility to these flourishing communities is a crucial step in their acceptance—not only in the Netherlands, but throughout the rest of the world as well. Thierry was born in Curaçao, and when his parents divorced, he stayed there with his father – who has Surinamese roots – until he was 11 years old. He later moved in with his mother in Saint Martin for a few years before making the move to Utrecht. “My race never really played a significant part in my life until I moved to the Netherlands,” Thierry reflects. “I realized people were treating me differently, and I also realized that I was only accepted in certain spaces and considered for certain jobs. I felt like I was working my ass off to get jobs that I was overqualified for, continuously witnessing other people get the opportunities instead.”
Thierry decided that if he wasn’t going to be seriously considered for local photography assignments, he’d have to mould a job and regular practice in the medium himself. “I started investigating my own roots,” he says. “I had started suffering from depression, and pushing myself to keep my own photography routines. They turned into this therapeutic way to get over my anxiety, and helped me go through the process of becoming an even better photographer and journalist. I pushed myself to pursue my own projects on a weekly basis, and all these potential stories started to pop up everywhere I went.”
During this transformative time, Thierry’s step-brother, who lived in Curaçao, started contacting him on a regular basis as a confidant and close friend. “He talked with me about this sexuality and identity issues, and how it was difficult to deal with in Curaçao—he wasn’t able to talk about it openly in that place.” In the same way Thierry was dealing with his oppressed identity in the Netherlands, his step-brother was experiencing a different kind of discrimination in their home country. Soon after, in 2016, Thierry’s brother took his own life. “That’s when I saw the necessity to really start doing something through his voice and the message he left me with,” Thierry explains. “He was an aspiring photographer himself, and I really felt like my voice in photography, from that point on, should be used to uplift more than my own representation in society.”
So, with the memory of his brother guiding him, Thierry began photographing the Ballroom scene in the Netherlands on a frequent basis. Perhaps most famously documented in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, as well as Gerard H Gaskin’s photo series Legendary and Chantal Regnaut’s Voguing, the Ball scene is an underground LGBTQ subculture where people compete for various trophies and prizes at events known as ‘Balls.’ The competition is fierce, and the creativity and quality of entertainment is remarkable. “I realized I could use photography as a weapon to uplift others,” Thierry explains. “I could point out the social issues that are at stake right now. It’s not just about saying: And here we have a marginalized group. It’s about looking at how a lot of these social structures keep us oppressed, and actually cause mental illness. In the Netherlands, we are not only in dire need of black entrepreneurship and voices—we are in need of hearing the voices of people of colour who are also members of the LGBTQ community. One step in subverting those power systems is giving these people the visibility they deserve.”
In this ongoing project, Thierry documents ballroom attendees in a series of powerful, defiant portraits that speak to the prevailing strength and presence of a community that refuses to give up on itself. The subjects pose in their extravagant regalia and stylish outfits, staring steadily into Thierry’s lens so that each image feels more like a self-portrait than a removed interpretation. The photographer also includes some candid images taken at the balls, both during performances and moments of pause. Despite their black and white aesthetic, the images are vibrant with bold energy, and emanate the personalities of each subject in technicolor.
As a straight man, Thierry is also extremely aware of his own body as a symbol of oppression for the LGBTQ community, which is why he wants the focus of the series to be on the people he presents, rather than himself as a photographer. “As a black male body, I represent an aggressor in this community, but I can at least relate to this feeling of danger and ostracization with regard to how I am approached in the art world,” he explains. “When I was studying photography, I didn’t have a black role model to look up to and tell me about the social issues and structure I would encounter as a black photographer. The art industry rarely accepts black creators, and it’s quite polarizing and harmful to those who are trying to take a leap of faith and have dreams that are often discouraged by their parents or educational structures. This is a severe trauma that’s being inflicted on these innocent souls. I can’t enjoy the same luxury of freedom and experimentation in the art world when I don’t have a history of being represented.”
Thierry’s images have gained some traction in various media outlets, but he’s quick to assert that there’s still a ton of work to be done. LGBTQ people of color are one of the most targeted minorities for aggressive violence, and are assaulted and murdered at startling rates not only in the Netherlands, but around the world. In addition to oppressive hatred, a lack of visibility for these communities is to blame. “While the information is now available and accessible, I think there are a few key players here in the Netherlands who could make it even more visible to a wider audience, but won’t. For example, trans voices are still not widely heard in the Netherlands, despite the slow progress being made in North America and other parts of the world. People are quick to jump on a headline, but what about the underlying issues? These photos are a start, but until there is systemic change, my portraits aren’t going to be enough.”
Editor’s note: We discovered the work of Dustin Thierry when he was named as a finalist in the LensCulture B&W Awards 2018.