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Photographer Beth Austin showcases the diverse faces of the Hampton Roads LGBT community

“We wanted the people who aren’t seen, really,” Austin said. “The people who aren’t already the face of Hampton Roads Pride.”

MadelyneAshworth | August 2, 2017

Reverends, drag queens, chefs, Knight Hawks, police officers and hairdressers seem entirely disconnected, but to Beth Austin, they are the true faces of the LGBTQ community. Photographer Beth Austin, who identifies as a lesbian, is a Norfolk, VA native, and was commissioned to create a photo series for Hampton Roads Pride that showcased the individuals and personalities that make up this Virginia area’s LGBTQ community.

“It came at a perfect time when I felt like I could do something with my camera that actually made a difference,” Austin said. Austin wanted to ensure her project would present a realistic peek into the lives of these LGBTQ individuals by showcasing unfamiliar or unusual subjects. “We wanted the people who aren’t seen, really,” Austin said. “The people who aren’t already the face of Hampton Roads Pride.”

The Rev. Dr. Marguerite Alley

Rev. Dr. Marguerite Alley

While she did put out an advertisement for willing participants, she found many of them simply by exploring her neighborhood and seeking them out, whether on the street, through friends of friends, or talking to anyone who would listen. “They’re not the politicians,” Austin said. “It’s somebody you could be sitting next to on the bus, or somebody at the grocery store. All different ages, and all different genders, and all different colors. I wanted everybody. I wanted as many letters in the ‘LGBTQ’ as I could possibly find, and I wanted a broad spectrum of people.”

Similar in concept to the well-known photo project ‘Humans of New York,’ each photograph is accompanied by a short story in the worlds of the photo’s subject. These snippets of conversation offer a glimpse into the lives of these ordinary individuals with unique stories to tell. “Write me your story,” Austin would tell them. “Everybody has one.” Although the photo captions are written the subject’s own words, Austin would spend up to three hours with each person to get to know them. She looked for people whose opinions varied and weren’t necessarily “politically correct,” often looking for those from more rural areas throughout the Seven Cities.

 After working for five months, the photos were released throughout the month of June in conjunction with the month of Pride. Often an individual’s story would change while going through the process, as it did with Sergeant Shelly Meister. A police officer at the Virginia Beach Police Department, Sergeant Meister volunteered to be part of the project, as she identifies as a lesbian.

Sergeant Shelly Meister

Sergeant Shelly Meister and wife

While waiting for Sergeant Meister at the station, Austin explained, “We asked this other woman who was there, ‘Hey, have you seen Sergeant Meister?’ and she said, ‘Oh, she’s running a little bit late but she’ll be here soon.’ So we’re just hanging out, and about five minutes later she’s like, ‘She’s my wife.’” They were then both asked to be in the photo and become part of the project, which they both agreed to.

There were other subjects that Austin actively sought out, as she did with the Norfolk-based group the “Knight Hawks,” who describe themselves as “a social organization that gives people with an interest in the Leather, Levi and Fetish Community an outlet to meet, socialize and give back to the community.” The group is largely philanthropic.

Howard Bunger

Howard Bunger and Fellow Knight Hawk

“I knew about the Knight Hawks, and I knew they do charity work, which probably a lot of people don’t know,” Austin said. “I tracked them down online and knew when they met, and I went and I found them at this pub they go to after their meeting. I was just like, ‘I want you guys, are you interested?’ It was kind of funny. It’s just little me, I’m really small and tiny, and I’m talking to these giant Leather Daddies that seem to be eight feet tall. They were the sweetest guys on the planet.”

Although this was Austin’s first official portrait project, she has been interested in photography since childhood, and has been a street photographer for almost 20 years. “I started taking pictures of my friends, just hanging out at parties and taking candid photos of them. It kind of rolled out from there.”

In the late 90s, Austin became more serious about her photography career. She moved on from taking pictures of friends to taking her camera to the streets and into concert venues. “I didn’t start shooting shows until about seven or eight years ago. I don’t know why I never took a camera to a concert, but I just never did. I started shooting shows when I got sober. I still wanted to go out, but I wanted something to do, because now I’m not drinking.”

Instead of spending her energy on going out to party, Austin channeled her time and concentration into her work. “I struggled with my sobriety pretty much my entire life,” she explained. “I’ve gone through long periods of time being sober and then starting to party again. When I go out, I don’t just go out overnight, I go out for years. I got sober again about eight years ago. The photography has really been my saving grace. There’s no way I could take pictures with a buzz.”

Beth Austin. Photo by Jeff Hewitt.

She started by taking photos on cell phones, but soon she bought her own camera and started to take concert photos regularly. “I love shooting bands,” Austin said. “Especially local bands. I want to document our history, I want to be part of the people who help keep our music alive somewhere. I’m really a champion of the local music community. We’ve got some great stuff going on down here.” Austin has channeled that same passion for showcasing her community into the LGBTQ portrait project, which was both a challenge professionally and personally. “I didn’t want to let anybody down, especially the people who were participating,” Austin said.

Throughout the project, the people she met and interacted with caused her to think more about her own place within the LGBTQ spectrum. “As far as gender goes, I’ve never really ever thought about it,” Austin said. “There’s a whole lot of gray and a whole lot of areas… [The project] made me think about that. I’m a really open person, I try to see both sides of things as much as I can. It just made me think more.”

Brandiin Valentine AKA Chef Val

Alexander Valentine

Austin hopes the project will cause others to have similar thoughts and revelations when reading the stories of her subjects. She hopes people will connect with and relate to the stories. She also hopes to correct any incorrect preconceived notions about the LGBTQ community as a whole.

“We have long term relationships,” Austin explained. “We lose partners that we love very much. We have passions, like Chef Val, with his cooking. We’re the same. There’s some differences, but aren’t there differences with everybody, as human beings? We’re not all cookie-cutter people, none of us are. I just want people to see there’s not that much different at all. It’s just who we love, and how we feel right in our bodies, or how we feel right in our minds, or how we feel right to carry ourselves or dress or whatever. But it’s the same with everyone, really.”