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In the lens of history: Photog Eric Russell captures Richmond’s LGBTQ stories

MadelyneAshworth | August 11, 2017

The idea of a Renaissance man may be somewhat archaic, but when a void appears in the Richmond LGBTQ community, Eric Russell is the man to call.

Since 1994, Russell has been photographing VA Pride and LGBTQ events around Richmond pro bono, simply because he saw a need.

“It’s the way I was raised,” Russell said. ”My grandmother was a big force of nature. She served on local boards, so we were always going to fundraisers for the symphony or one of the theatre companies she founded, or we were going out to do service somewhere. We were volunteering to raise money. To me, it’s important to do that. You give back to your community the way you can. Well, I can do that by documenting our history and our people.”

Following in the footsteps of his grandmother, Russell has dedicated his life and work to serving his community.

“When we were protesting and working towards marriage equality every Valentine’s Day, nobody was covering it, so I went down and did it myself,” Russell said. “It’s just been an integral part for documenting not only our culture and our people and our history, but also those milestones in our community’s life. This is our history, and people just weren’t doing it. So I made it my mission to document our history.”

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 Eric Russell

Although he was born in Butler, Pennsylvania, Russell’s family moved to Farmville, VA in 1983 and after two years, the family decided to make Richmond their permanent home.

“I got my first camera when I was eight. It was a little 135mm cartridge camera and I always really loved photography because I enjoyed seeing the pictures in National Geographic and such,” Russell said. “Eventually, I started shooting stuff for my high school yearbooks.” 

Russell continued his photography at Ferrum College by contributing to his school’s magazine, as well as lettering in three sports as an openly gay man.

“No one cared,” Russell said. “They were like that’s cool, whatever. Went, did my sports, took photos and had a good time.”

Even on coming out to his coach, who had a strict ‘no-dating-girls-from-other-teams’ policy, the man simply replied, “Well, that means you can’t date the football players either.” They had a good laugh.

On returning to Richmond after college, Russell found more ways than one to continue serving his community. After seeing a need for documenting the LGBTQ events and milestones around the city of Richmond, he became the voluntary photojournalist.

“I started photographing some of the local drag queens at what was then Club Pyramid,” Russell said. “Eventually, I started doing little pieces and photographing little events for a lot of fundraisers and HIV awareness things. That grew into doing more work for another LGBT publication called The Virginia Flame. I was actually one of the founding board members for GAYRVA with Kevin Clay.”

Russell knew the need to document their history was crucial, as few reporters were covering issues and events occurring in the Richmond LGBTQ community. As a teen of the 80s, he grew up watching how pieces of history can so easily be thrown away.

“So much of our history was lost during the AIDS crisis,” Russell said. “When people died, people burned photos. They would get to someone’s home and burn the photos, take them, do whatever, or families would just throw everything away. They didn’t want anyone to know. History was lost. In a small city like this, you don’t have a large reservoir of history to pull back from. It’s important that we have a record of our community and our city.”

In addition to being a photographer, photojournalist and board member of GAYRVA, Russell ran a GED program for 12 years in Chesterfield while being one of the first openly gay teachers at the school. He wanted to ensure he was a positive, healthy example of someone from the LGBT community for his student, the majority of whom also identified as LGBT.

“I had kids there because they were being spit on and they fought back,” Russell said. “I had kids there because their schools weren’t working out for them. What was great was we had a 98 percent course completion rate, 95 percent of my kids passed the test and I had 100 percent placement in schools, community colleges, armed services. I’m really proud of all the stuff that we did during that time period.”

Since the early 2000s, Russell became the unofficial photographer for VA Pride. He served on the Pride board for about three years, but later decided to dedicate his efforts solely to his photography. He photographed the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality, the Westboro Baptist Church protest among many others, and Ink Pride.

He has photographed countless drag shows, groups like the Richmond Triangle Players and Richmond Men’s Chorus, interviewed contestants of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, started a couple web series, and takes pictures for the annual Side by Side prom for LGBTQ youth in the community.

“My work has allowed me to showcase our community,” Russell said.

Throughout the years witnessing these milestones, Russell has watched the LGBTQ community change and develop through his camera lens.

“When I came out, there wasn’t much going on, but what I’m seeing more and more over the decades is people are more comfortable being out,” he said. “You’re seeing more people able to express who they are. We’re making sure we show our entire community.”

VA Pride has not only changed in location over the years, but has also developed its ability to accept minority groups even within the LGBTQ community.

“Sometimes there is a trend that we mainstream, or heterowash, like, ‘This is Johnny and Scott and their 3.5 children and they love living here in their 3 square acres of country woods wealth. Scott stays at home and makes beeswax candles.’ Then people don’t want to look at drag queens, super gay folks, the couple who’s in their leathers all the time–our community is everybody,” Russell said.

“It’s nice to see everybody out there expressing who they are, and we’re seeing both sides of that. We like the mainstream, but we don’t want to lose our edge at the same time and forget who we are and be who we want to be. Not conform to just one vision, or one version of our community, because it’s lots of different people making up that flag.”

From Byrd Park to Shockoe Bottom and now on the even larger Brown’s Island, Russell has seen some of the same families return to Pride each year. That sense of familiarity is what he says sets the LGBTQ community of Richmond apart.

“You get this sense of a larger family and community compared to maybe bigger cities where they have 10,000, 30,000, depending on where they are,” Russell said.

Although Russell acknowledges there is still a great deal of room for progress in Richmond’s community, he is glad to have witnessed the change thus far. He tirelessly continues to photograph the LGBTQ community today, at every event, free of charge.

“It’s fun, I enjoy it,” he said. “I enjoy giving back and capturing those moments. That’s what makes it fun for me.”