For New Alternatives, New York-based photographer Joan Lobis Brown creates expressive studio portraits of the city’s at-risk LGBT kids, many of whom have been abused, neglected, or forced out of their homes by their families of origin.
These gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth, Lobis Brown explains, flock to the city in search of acceptance and community after having been rejected by their birth or foster parents. In the streets, they forge new familial ties, platonic and romantic relationships with peers in similar circumstances, finding a sense of home and belonging on the outskirts of mainstream culture. They find “gay mothers” or “gay brothers” in those who have gone through the same heartaches and come out the other side.
With the help of organizations like New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth, these young people find resources and learn lifelong skill-sets while living in shelters or transitional housing. Lobis Brown met a few of these individuals through a church sanctuary run by the organization, where she volunteered for several months before she even asked to take pictures. With the consent of both the pastor and the director, she constructed a studio within the building and invited kids to sit for her. Earning the trust of one youth leader, she notes, went a long way in gaining the confidence of the community, and sitters were enthusiastic and open with her. In many ways, the camera allowed their stories to be heard, their faces recognized, and their experiences validated by a wider audience.
Each day brought a new set of individuals and new photo shoots. At the end of each shoot, Lobis Brown gave each sitter prints of his, her, or their choosing, which they were happy to share with their friends. Many came with their partners or “gay family members” to pose for the kind of family portrait they might never have had the chance to have with those families that had denied them the love they deserved. After the sessions, the photographer admits that many said they felt beautiful, sometimes for the first time.
Although she took some time off, Lobis Brown continues to volunteer at the shelter. Although LGBT youth continue to be alienated by prejudice, ignorance, hatred, and shame, she hopes that her photographs will break through the keen isolation felt by members of this community to reveal the common threads of fear, hope, and love that unite us all.
All images © Joan Lobis Brown