Ryan Pfluger Captures Intimate Portraits of Queer Love

Ryan Pfluger Captures Intimate Portraits of Queer Love

With LGBTQ+ rights legislatively under fire across the country between Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill and Texas' attempts to deny trans kids healthcare and ban minors from Drag Shows, it's an especially relevant time to remind ourselves of the unique beauty of queer love. Both a comfort in trying times and a reminder of what we fight to protect, expressions of intimacy and love among queer folk are to be treasured, celebrated and preserved for future generations to come.

Having photographed the likes of Barack Obama, Meryl Streep, Jim Carrey and more, Los Angeles-based photographer Ryan Pfluger is turning his lens on the subject of queer love for his new book Holding Space: Life and Love Through a Queer Lens. Featuring more than 70 portraits and personal essays Pfluger gathered as he traveled across the United States, the book presents a tender slice-of-life look into the lives of queer interracial couples as they navigate the various trials and tribulations of their relationships.

Looking to put the power back in the hands of the couples he captured, Pfluger looked to make the monograph a true collaboration, with each portrait being accompanied by a personal essay from the couple recounting memories, experiences and wisdom learned throughout the course of their respective relationships. With a forward from celebrated director Janizca Bravo and contributions from the likes of Elliot Page, Bowen Yang, Ryan O’Connell and Jamie Lee Curtis, Holding Space serves as a heartwarming testament to the rich tapestry that is contemporary queer Americana.

PAPER caught up with Ryan Pfluger to talk about his new book, working with couples to tell their stories and the unquantifiable nature of queer love.

What made you want to focus on capturing love and the LGBTQ+ community for this book?

I’ve been photographing my community for the better part of two decades now. How and who we love historically has been politicized with aggressive legislation, the importance of its visibility debated in the culture, and often part of narratives that aren’t coming from a lived-in queer perspective. As an artist, I needed to create a space for these stories and visuals to be controlled by queer people, while also being largely accessible.

How did you go about finding subjects for the book?

First I just wanted to say on my end I considered everyone in this book a collaborator and not a subject. It may seem like a simple word switch, but it very much changes the context of how you look at this work. Except for about 15 couples in the book who were either within my immediate circle or with whom I had online connections, all the couples directly reached out to me through social media.

What sets queer love apart for you?

I come from a generation that didn’t have easy access to the internet during its formative years, so for a long time, I didn’t have the answer to that. The reason being, I didn’t have many examples of what queer love even looked like, let alone people I could talk about it with. Queer people have to learn how to love themselves in a world that often discriminates and diminishes them. This leads to a much more complex and nuanced way of seeing not only ourselves but the people we choose to love. Straight people can learn a lot from us if they take the time to listen.

What were some of the most surprising moments for you along the way?

I think the most surprising was the couples who broke up and decided to still be a part of this work and conversation. There was a real willingness to share some deeply personal insights into the breakdown or evolution of relationships that are so inherently queer and I’m really grateful I was able to include them.

What were some of the most challenging?

Allowing people to step away at any time from being a part of this book, no matter how far along we were in the process. I didn’t want anyone to feel stuck, especially if their relationships changed after I photographed them. Alongside that, the textual component of the book, which became integral to the work, was a much longer process than I took into account. Coordinating with two hundred people and allowing them to keep control of their narrative as well as exactly what they decided to share required a lot of patience and understanding on my part. I’m used to deadlines and quick turnarounds working as a photographer editorially, but that isn’t the norm for a lot of people.

What did you learn about queer love in the process of making this series?

Queer love isn’t quantifiable, just like gender and sexuality. There isn’t a cultural standard or framework for what it looks like and how it’s enacted. At the same time, there shouldn’t be one, and that’s what makes it so beautiful. I hope that queer people who read and take in this book get a semblance of comfort knowing that how you love and who you love is built by your own design; that despite any trauma or discrimination there are fellow queers who are navigating similar feelings and relationships.

What do you hope people take away from the from book?

My biggest goal was to slow people down so they can look at how they connect with people. To not look at queer people or any marginalized group like a monolith, to not make assumptions, and to take the time to listen. Because this book touches on so many topics from race and religion to familial trauma and class, I hope people outside the queer community take away just as much from this book.

Photography: Ryan Pfluger