By Douglas Nivens II, For The Baltimore Sun
6:14 PM EDT, May 28, 2013
When I was younger, my sister and I would stay up to watch BET’s "ComicView." Throughout the '90s and 2000s, "ComicView" was the launching pad for many of our current top black stand-up comedians. One night, I recall hearing a performer make a joke about gay couples, where he asked, “So, which one is the woman?” Though many years later, we live in a world where people still perceive gay relationships in a man/woman binary. Breaking that binary (and the judgments and expectations that come with it) is a unique challenge for same-sex couples as they undergo a historically hetero-defined institution.
Late last year, Enrique and I took our engagement photos with the help of his friend, a budding professional photographer. We planned to use these photos for our save-the-dates and wedding website. We eschewed the usual forest background and instead chose Washington, D.C., as our setting. To believe that forests are the playground of the newly engaged, where couples frolic foolishly around trees and ponds, is far from the truth in the age of iPhones and apps. Enrique and I are city folks, and we belong where there are bricks and streetlights.
Our photographer doesn’t regularly do engagement photography, but he could take our photos for cheap and professionally. So, off we went on a chilly December morning to take our photos in Georgetown and K Street. We stood together, side-by-side, closely apart, far apart, and yet we still looked like models showing off Express fashion rather than a newly engaged couple. Even our photographer had to tell us, “Hey, show me the love! I want to see some action!”
Enrique and I take photos together all the time, but never purposefully to show our romance. We rarely kiss or hold hands in public. We didn’t know how to pose ourselves to show the love and balance of our relationship. Even though we are open about our queer selves, we’ve had to overcome personal struggles to accept it. The lingering effects of those struggles can color how we feel and what we want to project to the outside world.
When I reviewed our photos, I wondered what other people may see in them. Will they ask, “So, which one is the woman?” Because Enrique is taller than I am, would he be seen as the more masculine of us two? Then again, I dress more conservatively, so would that apply to me? How do we arrange our bodies so it looks more like a loving portrait than as a sterile snapshot? Or better yet, does it even really matter? Is this just a showing of internalized heterosexism or is it the usual discomfort from seeing oneself over and over again in photographs?
I don’t know all of the answers, but I know what I want — to feel comfortable with myself and how my relationship is captured for the world to see. Granted, we can’t change the prejudices in someone else’s mind, but we can control how we react to the situations we encounter. We learned, though, that taking a portrait for Mr. and Mrs. Jones will not be the same for Mr. and Mr. Hamilton-Nivens. The issues of power, gender and personal comfort can affect how the couple feels and what the viewer sees.
Out of the 500+ shots we took in D.C., about 10 were our favorites. These few exceptional shots rendered the love and harmony we wanted to express. They were simple, often taken in an impromptu moment. They were well worth the chill in getting them done.
As more gay and lesbian couples prepare for their engagement photos, I recommend searching websites that feature other same-sex couples’ engagement and wedding photo galleries. It helps to see in others what you may want for yourself. Check out your prospective photographers’ portfolios and understand their methods. Interview them and have them understand your approach. There’s even a new book published to address this exact matter: "Capturing Love: Tips for Lesbian & Gay Wedding Photography and Engagement Sessions" by Kathryn Hamm and Thea Dodds. This book, along with many resources online, can expose you to more options in rendering the love you share.
The more you see, the more you learn, and the better your photos will come out in the end.
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