Love, Lust, and Loss: A Photographic Memoir of the 80s is both a visual coming of age story and Atlanta-based photographer Billy Howard’s homage to a decade which stayed with him emotionally and visually. At the time people were less cautious about having their photograph taken by strangers and so the camera became his ticket to the fringes of society in the south — with it he was granted access to “those people your mother warned you about”: drag show dressing rooms, strip clubs, tattoo parlours, homeless shelters and homes of people dying of AIDS. At first glance these portraits of strangers might not seem pertinent to the photographer’s own story, though on closer inspection they share some common ground.
Capturing honest moments of humanity would involve disregarding the societal constraints and breaking deep-rooted taboos in order to pursue closeness between the artist and the subject. The people that his mother warned him about turned out to be kind and generous, helping him to form a more empathetic view of those who mainstream society had forgotten. “Love, lust, and loss are the common ground I shared with my subjects” explains the photographer. Of course, people are people everywhere, and the artist did also find himself photographing people who displayed the part of our human nature that emerges when empathy is lost; though the artist emphasises: “they are the counter-point to society’s more benevolent misfits”.
Most important to the photographer during these shoots was the interaction between himself and those he portrayed — it was crucial that he develop trust in these relationships. Photography as a medium just happened to be the bridge, creating a conversation between the viewer and the subject, though that is not to say that Billy did not dedicate time and energy into capturing good images: “I love photography not solely for the aesthetics but also for the power of the medium to bridge gaps of understanding and create common ground connecting the voiceless with the powerful”. Leafing through these images that were taken 25 to 35 years ago he reflected on how many of his subjects had influenced him. Some became friends or brought some happiness to his life, “or in the case of the KKK, affirmed an ideal of inclusiveness against a pallet of hatred that has only grown as I have gotten older”.
The motivation to document the world around us is almost always fueled by a burning curiosity to learn about it for ourselves. The taboos that haunted the south aroused Billy’s curiosity, and the possession of a camera enabled him to access the lives of these people who until then had been shrouded in mystery: “the camera became an excuse, without which I would have seemed just another voyeur” he says.
Beyond curiosity, the artist hopes that these images will encourage the viewer to abandon prejudices and see each subject as a unique individual, but also as humans: “I want the viewer to come away with the same discoveries that I made during that time—that we are all part of one journey and that there are many different paths along the way”.
“Love, Lust, and Loss: A Photographic Memoir of the 80s appeared in the top 50 of Critical Mass and is in the process of being made into a book in collaboration with his wife, book producer and designer Laurie Shock.
All images © Billy Howard