CHICAGO — A seven-week road trip isn’t something you just plan overnight. In fact, it’s a long-term project that takes significant strategizing and visits to couchsurfing.com. Once on the road, it becomes clear that not everyone has the stamina for that seemingly never-ending alone time, the ritual of tuning into local radio stations and trying to find stations that play more than just country. At the end of a long day, the yellow dashes on a road can easily start merging like a scene from Lost Highway. What’s a queer kid to do?
Documentary photographer and filmmaker Christian Hendricks decided to embark on this journey, and so he mapped out a route across the southern states for his appropriately titled project South of the Ohio. Beginning in Cincinnati, Ohio, Hendricks drove down through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi, interviewing and documenting queer culture and community along the way. When we spoke in late May, Hendricks was raising funds through his Kickstarter page; now, only a few months later, with a project completed and a book underway, we got back in touch and talked about South of the Ohio, which will be available as a self-published BLURB art book in late October.
Currently the project exists in a slick Tumblr format; here we see 35 portraits and five videos portraits of queer people from of varying races and classes, and who run across the gender spectrum. A lovely gender-nonconforming person in Tennessee named Spree stands in a field of yellow flowers wearing a dress covered in purple flowers, their red hair glowing in the sun and hands carefully stacked on top of each other. In another photograph, Hurricane Summers of Louisville, Kentucky, chills in what appears to be a massive dressing room reminiscent of insert here your favorite John Waters movie. Oh, and then we have two white queer ladies with their tiny dog (not cat-on-a-leash, mind you!!!).
Hendricks met the majority of his subjects through the internet and grindr, but also pre-planned meet-ups with communities such as IDA in Tennessee, and the LGBTQ organization of Millsaps College in Mississippi. Among colorful locales, he visited a gay nudist camp in Alabama, IDA, an intentional queer community in rural Tennessee, and a gay bar in Jackson, Mississippi, the Southern town that he says “sort of stole his heart,” and where accents were thicker than anywhere in the deep South.
“There’s the gay bar in Jackson, Mississippi, where young gays and lesbians are having drinks,” Hendricks tells Hyperallergic. “That bar in Jackson was sort of like, out of the way a little bit, a little building in the back.”
Whilst flipping through the South of the Ohio Tumblr, I was particularly struck by an entry about the Perryon Family, a group of African-American women living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who operate as a queer non-biological family that loves and supports one another. Photographs of members Duchess, Kenya and Marquise are accompanied by audio snippets that paint a portrait of each. “The gay family, we’re the people you can talk to if you can’t talk to people at home,” says Kenya, describing the importance of queer family.
Hendricks first became interested in queer culture of the South after living in Nashville in 2009, where he was doing volunteer work. Nashville, as this writer recently experienced as the buckle of the Bible Belt, one part of America where things start feeling Southern — there are more churches, quieter demeanors, and a sort of Faulkner-esque tone lurking between historic buildings leftover from the Civil War.
As far as queer narratives go, the South is often times portrayed as a dangerous, highly religious and completely queer intolerant region of the United States. It’s something that Hendricks was aware of, and careful to explain through the project itself.
“I’ve gotten in trouble with this a little bit — people online thought I was trying to dig up stories and shame it, which was not the point of the project at all,” says Hendricks. “The south, like any region, is changing.”
South of the Ohio will be available via BLURB as a self-published art book. The approximate release date is end of October 2013.