This essay is excerpted from New Queer Photography edited by Benjamin Wolbergs and published by Gingko Press.

New Queer Photography, edited by Benjamin Wolbergs (Gingko Press)

There’s a quality of light I love that I find in all of M. Sharkey’s photos, and I find I am tempted to speak of him as someone like the portrait painter John Singer Sargent, and the way all of his photographs seem to belong to one world because of the light we find in them, a light not so much covering his subjects but illuminating them from within. It is almost like the light of legends, the light we see in paintings of gods and biblical scenes, an unvarying light that seems ideal and impossible. But for belonging to Sharkey’s photos, I think of it as his, a light found in the way his subjects participate with him in being seen by him — and seen through him, seen in turn by the world. “Queer Kids” then as a project is a radical one, because it shows them as wholly human, participating in their self-presentation, and even if they don’t seem confident in their expressions, exactly — there’s really only one vamp in this group, with their sunglasses, the hand on the hip — we see the confidence it takes to let someone in far enough to be uncertain in their presence. The word “vulnerable” is almost meaningless from overuse, but it means more than unguarded. It means that you admit someone to the realm of the secret self. Or at least, one of them. Even if that someone is only you, as the subject of the photo.

The dream of the heroic age of gay liberation, that became in turn the night­mare of the AIDS epidemic, has met the age of intergenerational queer conversation, enabled by greater acceptance and education, HIV drugs, and the internet, and that in turn has brought us to this: these young people who tell us about how gender is a relationship with oneself first, before one addresses the world; that instead of vanishing into the fabric of the world at large, our survival is in being seen and seeing each other; that instead of one or two or three words for what we are, we might need many words, words we haven’t yet found. This project documents a community and a generation that rejects some of our oldest hegemoniesand divisions on principle. Some people react as if this is tyranny, and yet the future they’re inviting all of us to join them in gives us a better set of tools for self-knowledge and social relations.

M. Sharkey, “David Bobby & Mike” (2006) (Fishkill, NY)

It’s personal for me to write about Sharkey, because he is a friend, and the photo of the three boys leaning into each other, two boyfriends and a friend, he gave to my husband and me as a wedding gift, and it is one of our treasured possessions. He has taken several of my author photos, including the one on the back covers of my last two books. I remember when we took those photos, how I moved around his apartment on the day of the shoot, and how we struggled to get the right mood on film. My eyes looked dead, or sad, or even afraid, though it wasn’t how I felt inside. And then he said: “Think of something dirty. Like, absolutely filthy.” And so I did. “That’s it,” he said, urgent. “Keep thinking of it.” And so I did, and the photos, afterward, were better, and a few were even what I’d call sublime. And the eyes, my eyes, showed me light and even joy, a knowingness I recognized as mine.

Sharkey had caught a truth about me and let me see it in his photos, and had guided me to another truth: that I am someone who has often felt betrayed by cameras and the people who took pictures of me. I learned that day that photos (of me at least, if not of others) are photos of how we feel about the person taking the photograph and the way we feel about ourselves around that person. The self that appears in the photo is almost like a summoning, the portrait a witch’s circle; calling a spirit into this world that has never been seen before, but that has always belonged to us.

M. Sharkey, “Brandon” (2007) (Miami, FL)
M. Sharkey, “Chanel” (2007) (Little Havana, FL)

As a result, Sharkey’s photos, rendered in the available light, certainly, are full of expressions that cannot be faked, arrayed in the subtle muscles of our faces — and this is what makes his subjects’ faces like doors to worlds of feeling. The face as an autobiography, the face as an oracle. That’s what I see in his photos. He’s an artist of light, but also, with his subjects, an artist of the way we are in this world. It could be a cute joke to say the expression in my eyes in the photos he took of me is the light of my dirty thoughts, but it is also the light of self-knowledge, self-acceptance, even self-love. Dirty thoughts and the pleasure of them are the cradle of all things queer. Our desires for others and for ourselves contain, in a sense, our real ideal selves. Knowing that is his mastery as a photographer.

M. Sharkey, “Mars” (2012) (Brooklyn, NY)
M. Sharkey, “Jay R.” (2007) (San Francisco, CA)

This, then, is what makes these photos of young queer kids so significant. They aren’t just created for their audiences. They are created for and with the people in the photos. Queer kids are among the most endangered members of our community. They are most likely to be kicked out of the home for their experiments in selfhood and visibility, and so they will often lack resources for basic survival, let alone success. They are subject to so many projections from the culture at large  — from older queers, their families, their enemies and friends and allies — and so to find the young people here photographed in a way that embraces their humanity is almost a shock.

M. Sharkey, “Andy & Tanner” (2007) (Orinda, CA)

As I look over these, I find I reexperience my own life in different ways. I remember the queer punk from my high school and his queer punk brother, and my crush on both of them that felt it couldn’t separate them from each other; the hustler I met one night in San Francisco, when I first visited there, who I stayed up all night with, walking the streets and talking; the queer Black lesbian genius musician friend from college who pushed me, constantly, to be a braver version of myself; the trans man I went on a date with, who felt his way into the world after his transition, almost like a new­born. It isn’t a spectacle Sharkey has given us in “Queer Kids,” but a dream about possibility made real, art that allows us to experience them and ourselves at the same time, prismatic in possibility and history, as revolutionary as its subjects.

M. Sharkey, “Demarques” (2007) (Denver, CO)

Alexander Chee is the bestselling author of two novels, Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, and of the essay collection How to Write an Auto­biographical Novel. He is an associate professor of English...