That’s the best word to describe the current attitudes toward homosexuality in the American South, according to photographer Christian Hendricks.
“The explicit notions of … homophobia are mostly gone,” he says—but in their place, an unspoken discomfort reigns. So what better way to capture that silence than a photograph?
Hendricks, a 24-year-old documentary photographer and filmmaker from Cincinnati, Ohio, took a seven-week journey through the South beginning in August to document queer culture in small towns and major cities, including Corinth, MS, and Atlanta, GA. The project, titled “South of the Ohio” and funded by Kickstarter, is already starting to generate buzz through the Internet.
Back in 2009, Hendricks spent time in Tennessee doing humanitarian work. During his trip, he noticed that life slowed down and distinctly changed just below the border of his home state. He jokingly blamed it on the humidity. After returning home and completing a BFA in photography, he decided to venture back below the Mason-Dixon Line to photograph the LGBTQ south.
Through his journey, he found that attitudes in the South have been slow to change, but are heading in a positive direction. Using location based dating applications, such as Grindr, Hendricks was able to reach out to the underground community. This allowed him to focus on specific people's personals experiences while working around pre-conceived notions that the South is full of homophobic rednecks.
Hendricks’ work is inspired by the likes of Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Ed Panar and Melissa Catanese. His resemblance to diCorcia in particular shines through in a photo of a young man named Justin from Jackson, Mississippi.
The photo depicts Justin getting dressed in drag for a night out at a local gay bar. An off-camera light source spotlights him from the front, highlighting the action. Shirtless, hair pushed back, make-up half applied; Justin’s bare, curved back is balanced by a long, brown, perfectly styled wig hanging opposite him - showing the duality of Justin’s two lifestyles, of man and woman.
Discussing the photo, Hendricks points out that while, “Jackson, Mississippi … is surrounded by areas that have some of the highest concentrations of Baptist churches and evangelical groups,” the town’s closed atmosphere for LGBTQ youth doesn’t just have to do with religious disapproval. Instead, what he has concluded from his journey is that the makeup of Southern life, usually ordered around small, rural towns, creates “communities which see much less, and much slower change, and are not used to seeing things like same-sex couples holding hands in the park or a drag queen driving to the bar.”
Another photo from the project that stands out is of two gender queer adults, Spree and Jackie. Hendricks met them in Kentucky and Tennessee, respectively, early in his trip. Their portraits set in the subject’s residencies, give a sense of happy isolation through the sereneness of their surroundings and the comfortability of their confinements. This evokes a feeling that while the LGTBQ community might be a suppressed minority throughout the South, a sense of contentment and acceptance is beginning to take over.
In part, Spree and Jackie are more free to express themselves because both of them live in areas where the population is not necessarily “scared of things they don’t understand.” Spree, from Tennessee, lives in an intentional community – an alternative lifestyle society. She is in a field of flowers that can be seen to represent the openness that she is allowed within this community. Jackie, photographed in her home's fenced in yard lives in Louisville, Kentucky but frequently visits New Orleans.
Hendrick's has since moved to New York City. With a photo-book in the works, check out the rest of his trip through his blog, perhaps best enjoyed in silence.