Let’s Meet Up With … Preston Gannaway!

We caught up recently with Preston Gannaway (USA, 1977), who won third prize in the ‘documentary’ category last year for her series ‘Out in the hood: Teddy Ebony.’ The photo series shows us the daily life of Tavaris Edwards or ‘Teddy Ebony,’ member of the ‘House of Ebony’ – part of the ball-room vogue scene. We see Teddy caring, loving, going out. In this series that follows his daily life we get a sense of his life and his dreams.
 
 
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Where did you meet Teddy, and what was it about him that inspired you to make him the focus of the series? 
I met Tavaris ‘Teddy Ebony’ Edwards during Pride Week at Norfolk State University, a historically black university, in March 2012. I was living and working in this pretty conservative part of Virginia and really wanted to do a coming out story – it seemed like a real way my work could make a positive effect on the community. I was on staff at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper and began looking for a gay teenager or young adult to pitch doing a project on.
 
When I met Teddy he represented so many things I thought were interesting and reflected multiple groups of people that the newspaper simply didn’t cover.
 
I told him a little bit about what I wanted to do and we exchanged numbers. A few days later he called to invite me to a candlelight vigil he was hosting for his friend who had just died of cancer. The friend wasn’t fully out to his family and so Teddy knew he and the rest of the group would probably not be welcome at the funeral.
 
I liked that Teddy wasn’t stereotypical. I was drawn to him by his openness and also his physicality: he’s still built like the football player his family thought he’d be. His sexuality is not immediately apparent; he looks like any other young black – and straight – man you’d see around the Tidewater area.
 
 
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I had the impression from the series that Teddy and his friends were fairly free to express their sexuality day to day, it seems the larger problems they face relate to broader social issues. Was this indeed what you found? 
Yes, I found that to be true. If someone is just keeping his head above water, struggling to keep the lights on and food in the fridge, he’s not going to be worrying about who some other guy is sleeping with.
 
After Prop 8 was passed in 2008, there was this perception that the black religious vote that helped put Obama in office also mobilized against same-sex marriage. Teddy’s experience defied this notion.It was a surprise in the story that I thought added a lot of depth.
 
There’s gossip and drama, for sure, and there are a couple of homophobic people in Teddy’s life. When we walked around his neighbourhood, he would point out men on the down low [sexual slang; men who identify as heterosexual, but have sex with men secretly]. But largely, his community is more accepting than many other communities I’ve known.
 
As I mentioned, Teddy’s big and can ‘pass’ pretty easily. I’m sure that’s worked to his advantage. But he’s also found strong LGBT communities that offer support and help make him more comfortable expressing his true self.
 
And Teddy points out; there’s been so much progress and change since he came out seven years ago.
 
 
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Do you think that having this community, the ballroom family, adds a sense of purpose and belonging which could save them from some more negative elements of their social situation?
Sure, I think anytime someone’s able to find a supportive community it helps shield them from society at-large. It’s also a reason why I personally feel drawn to this work: to help validate and add visibility to communities that have been shunned or overlooked. I’m gay and so it’s something I can relate to; the lack of recognition and marginalization is something I feel particularly driven to help combat. The search for belonging is something nearly all of us can relate to.
 
I wondered what Teddy made of the series? Was it shown in the area where he lives?
The piece was originally created for the newspaper I was working for at the time, but the day before his story was supposed to go to print the editors changed their minds and decided not to run it. They said they felt they couldn’t justify the story to their readers. It was pretty devastating for both Teddy and me. As journalists, we ask so much of subjects and they give it to us by opening up their lives. I just felt horrible.
 
It’s sad to think that this vibrant black gay community is still largely invisible to the area’s white community. It’s a real shame that readers didn’t get to know Teddy through the story.
 
Fortunately, a few months later I did find another home for it. The piece published on TIME.com’s LightBox, and Teddy wrote a first-person piece and got positive feedback from people around the country. But I got the impression that it wasn’t the same as if his hometown paper had run it.
 
 
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The pictures in this series, and a lot of your other work, show some very intimate situations. How long does it take you to get to a point with your subjects where you are able to capture intimate scenes in this way?  
The relationships needed to do true documentary work take an incredibly long time to build. And it’s different with every person. But it’s always a collaborative relationship built on trust and understanding. I find that if I’m at ease and genuine with people, they’re much more comfortable. With some people, I can make intimate-feeling photographs within a few hours, but with others, it takes months. I remember a time interviewing Teddy about a year after we’d been working together and I got the sense that he was just really starting to open up to me. So I try to remember to be patient.
 
Congratulations on publishing your first book, ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’. What is next for you, what are you working on? 
Thank you! Currently, I’ve started playing with some landscapes around my neighborhood in Oakland, California. I’m also expanding the queer youth project to the Bay Area, with support from the Documentary Project Fund, to illuminate some of the issues here. I’m currently documenting a young homeless trans woman here in San Francisco. My hope is that Teddy’s story will be one of many as I continue documenting the varied experiences of LGBT youth of color around the United States. I just started shooting a new story and so that’s always exciting. I hope to always be telling intimate stories about people and communities.
 
 
Interview: Robyn Grafton

Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.

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