Jersey girls strike a pose in a book celebrating LGBT youth

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Alyssapersonal profile.

At 30, photographer Rachelle Lee Smith has already spent the better part of a decade working on her dream project. “Speaking OUT: Voices of Queer Youth” is a work in progress–a collection of photographs of LGBT youth and their personal messages, which she is compiling into a book.

Here’s the concept for the project. Smith photographs a queer youth in her studio, makes a large print and hands it over to the subject. Then, the subject puts a handwritten message on the print and returns it to the photographer. Among the youth whose portraits comprise the anthology are two young Jersey women, Nikki Thieman, who hails from Somerset, and Alyssa Hargrove, born and raised in Medford.

Nikki Thieman is one of the featured young people from New Jersey in the project.

Nikki Thieman is one of the featured young people from New Jersey in the project.

In 2001, Thieman was one of Rachelle’s first subjects. With a buzzed haircut and dressed in jeans and a tank top for her photo shoot, this is what Nikki wrote on her picture:

Coming out has been a pretty positive experience for me. It’s helped me to evolve into the person I am today, and be happy about it: since my sexuality is such an integral sense of myself.

Being open about my sexuality has allowed me the freedom to express my love for and attraction to women–to their sensuality, their emotions, and their bodies and minds. It has allowed me to be uninhibited in being the person I am, and not be offended or surprised when people recheck the sign on the ladies’ room door because they see a woman with a shaved head.

Thieman, 31, now an out geometry teacher and student mentor, looks back at her photo session with fond memories. “I think about how much that time in my life has helped make me who I am,” she reflects.

She recalls feeling like she didn’t fit in back then, as opposed to feeling fully accepted as she is today. “I think that at the time I wrote on that picture, I didn’t know if that was possible.” Nikki expects the voices of youth in the book to inspire others on their path toward self-awareness.  “It’s full of powerful stories and thoughts that I hope will leave queer youth feeling empowered to be themselves.”

Hargrove, 20, was photographed for “Speaking OUT” two years ago. Today, she’s a queer student activist and a photography major at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her message describes the playful expression of her face in the snapshot:

The first time I kissed a girl, I looked like that! ?  Smile  Such a geek!

 

“In retrospect, it was about revealing an emotion relative to almost everyone’s experience,” she says. Hargrove confesses she was only nine years old when she planted her first smooch on another girl. Although it may have been awkward, it’s an experience she’ll never forget. We had no idea what we were doing,” she discloses. “But I’ve never wanted a first kiss to be any less silly or unexpected or amazing as that one.”

Hargrove feels honored to be a part of Smith’s book. “It’s extremely important to stand up to prejudice with elegance and pride,” she declares. “I feel that Rachelle’s project is doing just that.” Hargrove is encouraged that people like Smith are fighting the apathy in our community and “still trying to make a difference.”

The inspiration for “Speaking OUT” came when Smith moved from the suburbs to Philadelphia to study photography. There she encountered a large, diverse LGBT community. “I met so many gay people–with different lives, different backgrounds and coming-out stories,” she says. “Nobody was documenting that. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Smith has photographed more than 75 youths so far. “This is an ongoing project. I will never consider this work complete,” she says. “Queer youth will continue to have a voice and I will continue to provide an outlet.”

Over the course of 10 years photographing young people from all walks of life, there is one trend that resonates with Smith. When the project began, more young people spoke about coming out, how to deal with “labels” and accepting themselves. Now, more of Smith’s subjects resent being “labeled” and fewer define themselves by their sexual orientation. It’s just a part of who they are.

Rachelle has had several exhibitions of this collection. In 2011, some of the prints were shown at the first annual federal LGBT Youth Summit hosted by the U.S. Department of Education in Washington. She was also the first photographer to have her work displayed at the Human Rights Campaign national headquarters.

With hopes of securing a publisher this year, the one thing Smith doesn’t want to produce is a coffee-table book that costs $100 or more. Her goal is to make “Speaking OUT: Voices of Queer Youth” accessible to young people, parents, educators, and community leaders at an affordable price.

“I strive to raise awareness with this work,” she says with conviction. “I believe there is strength in numbers, power in words, and freedom in art.”

For more on the Web: http://www.rachelleleesmith.com/ and click on “Galleries.”


 

Alyssapersonal profile.

At 30, photographer Rachelle Lee Smith has already spent the better part of a decade working on her dream project. “Speaking OUT: Voices of Queer Youth” is a work in progress–a collection of photographs of LGBT youth and their personal messages, which she is compiling into a book.