Interview: Laurel Golio of We Are the Youth

Jaydee © Laurel Golio

Laurel Golio and Diana Scholl founded We Are the Youth in 2010. This week their book, of the same name, was launched via Space-Made. We speak with Laurel about the process of making it in this interview.

Laurel Golio is a photographer and visual anthropologist. Her work revolves around the examination of community and its various subcultures, with a focus on using portraiture to investigate issues of self-presentation and identity. Laurel’s work has appeared in The Oxford American, Printed Pages and the British Journal of Photography. She graduated from Smith College.

Diana Scholl is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in New York Magazine, POZ, and City Limits. Her City Limits article, "For Transgender Homeless, Choice of Shelter Can Prevent Violence" was recognized for Excellence in Newswriting by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Association. She currently serves as a communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Diana and Laurel were named to the Daily Dot's list of Top 10 Online LGBT Activists in 2012, and to GO Magazine’s 100 Women We Love List in 2013.

fototazo: Tell us a little bit about the We Are the Youth project as a whole, how your goals and ideas have evolved since starting the project, and when the idea of putting this book together entered into the picture.

Laurel Golio: Diana and I founded the project in 2010, because there were a lot of LGBTQ faces and stories that we weren't seeing represented in mainstream media. There is no one queer experience and we wanted to see that reflected. One thing that has changed, or perhaps just become a bit clearer since we began the project, was a sense of time of place. As we continued with the work, we began to feel the importance of chronicling these stories for the future, creating an archive of sorts - queer stories and experiences from 2010 until whenever we end the project.

So many queer events and stories have been omitted or erased from history and the idea of sharing stories through the eyes of an individual for future record is so important. Also, there have been so many changes in the LGBTQ community over the last few years, so it's exciting to record stories during such a dynamic time.

A book has always been on our wish list, but it was mostly an issue of timing - feeling like we had compiled enough diverse stories, experiences and locations to take the project from the Internet into book form, and then obviously tackling the issue of funding. We were super-lucky to meet Cameron Russell, the founder of Space-Made, an alternative media company, who was interested in publishing our work along with Interrupt Mag's LGBT* Love Issue.

Carter © Laurel Golio

f: How did you connect with the subjects featured in the book?

LG: We connect with the participants in different ways - we've met many through social media outlets and we frequently partner with LGBTQ organizations who put us in touch with youth who are interested in sharing their story. Sometimes youth will email us directly, wanting to get involved with the project.

f: And you drove around the United States to create the portraits and interviews? Tell us about that process.

LG: We kicked off the project with a trip to the Southern United States in 2010 (Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi). Noah, the president of Mercer University's Gay-Straight Alliance, had emailed us after he saw an article about the project on Change.org. It was funny because we literally had just started the project on a .blogspot (remember those?!) - I think we had published one profile - and the article had said something like, "so far, so good!" Noah had seen the article and invited us to visit Mercer, so we promptly launched a Kickstarter campaign and took our first trip! Since then, we've travelled to the Midwest (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota), the West Coast (California, Nevada) and states in the Northeast (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania).

There are still so many places we haven't been and would like to visit! Luckily for us, our home state of New York is filled with people from many different areas, but being able to travel to a participant's hometown, or visit a state we've never been to and meet youth at local LGBTQ centers is a really unique, wonderful experience.

Michelle © Laurel Golio

f: Talk us through a meeting with a subject. Do the interviews come first, the photographs?

LG: We prefer to do the interview first, and then shoot the portrait, but it definitely depends on the situation. We've attended some larger events (Gay Prom in Yonkers, NY, the Philadelphia-Trans Health Conference, a Fall Fest thrown by the Queer Nebraska Youth Network), where I’ll take many portraits in a short amount of time, and Diana will do an initial interview and then a follow-up. But in an ideal world, we like to slowly do the interview and then the portrait. We’ve found that the participants are usually a bit more relaxed after an interview, which I think leads to a more natural portrait, as opposed to just meeting them and taking the portrait straight away.

Raciel © Laurel Golio

f: How do you choose locations, how much do you direct the subject in their poses and expressions, what have you learned over time helps you to get the portrait you're striving for?

LG: Spending as much time as possible with the participant before taking the portrait usually makes the shoot feel more natural. Sometimes that means sitting in on the interview, or just talking and hanging out a bit before we start shooting.

Diana and I view the process as a collaboration with the participant, and try to give them as much agency as possible - this includes location, clothing, etc. Obviously if we meet someone at a conference, for example, we have to be a bit more creative in choosing location then if we're visiting someone in their hometown, but ideally, I like to photograph in a location of the participant's choosing - a place they feel comfortable or a location that is important to them.

In terms of direction, my aim is to create a natural portrait without any forced expression, so really my only rule is "no big smiles, please!" I feel that when you try to direct a certain expression, sometimes it can cloud the portrait and take away from the naturalness of a subject.

Braxton © Laurel Golio

f: What criteria did you use to select the portrait for the book as the most successful from among the images created in a shoot?

LG: Diversity in all forms has always been a priority for us, so that was a huge consideration in choosing the profiles for the book. We tried to provide a diverse range of stories in terms of geographic location, race and ethnicity, experience, the way in which people speak about their identities.

f: A lot of your subjects are under 18, one just 12. Did issues come up in terms of involving parents, getting releases, and working generally with young subjects?

LG: This is a popular question for us! Every lawyer we've spoken with says, "this is a grey area, but yes, it’s always good to get a release," so we operate under the "when you can get a release, always get a release" rule. We have releases for most of the youth that are under 18, and those that were or are unable to get a release from their parent or guardian and still wanted to participate, we don't turn away. The most important thing for us is to give the youth some agency - an opportunity and an outlet to share their story. Turning them away because a parent or guardian won't give permission for them to do so would be in opposition to that idea.

We send each participant the interview before we publish anything, and they always have the option of omitting or changing anything they don’t feel comfortable with. If a participant later wants their profile removed from the website, we have no problem doing so. We also made the decision to use first names only, so participants are not Google-able.

Shonz © Laurel Golio

f: How do you think about the landscapes that are in the book layout – what is their function in the book?

LG: The landscapes were inserted to give a sense of geography, to subtly place the reader in different regions of America, without specifically saying, "Hey! You’re in Iowa now!" They were also used as a visual break, so that the book didn't get too repetitive. We obviously love each and every profile, but we were worried that portrait-interview-portrait-interview might get a bit monotonous.

Hollywood © Laurel Golio

f: What are your goals for putting the book together? Ideally, what would you like this book to do and what kinds of conversations do you hope it enters into?

We hope readers will be able to see the diversity of LGBTQ youth, and the individual humanity in all of these stories. We hope they will relate to some of the profiles, maybe think about the world in a different way, and come away from the book with a more complete view of a community on the brink of change.

Izabela © Laurel Golio

f: Did creating this book change in any way your own impression of the LGBTQ community as a whole or the LGBTQ youth community in particular in unexpected ways?

LG: Working on this project for four years has been a truly incredible experience. As a queer woman, it was cathartic in a lot of unexpected ways - meeting so many amazing young people and hearing their stories made me re-examine myself and my experiences in a way that I hadn't before, which I think speaks to the universal beauty and power of sharing your story.

I'm not sure if our impression of the community changed, but I think I speak for both of us when I say that although we set out with the intent to show the diversity of the LGBTQ community, the range of experiences and the myriad of ways in which people speak about their identities was really astounding. For every face of the LGBTQ community, there is a unique story.

Quincy © Laurel Golio

f: Anything else you'd like to add, Laurel?

LG: The book can be ordered now here. We've also started a book-donation campaign, so if it's within your means to purchase a book for donation, we'll be giving those copies to participating LGBTQ organizations, such as the Hetrick-Martin Institute.

Trevor © Laurel Golio