An Interview with Trent Kelley, Creator of Hidden in the Open
I recently ran across a link that pointed me to Hidden in the Open: A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Couples, an amazing collection of photos showing Black gay men. For a variety of reasons that the collector, Trent Kelley, describes in his accompanying essay, the existence of men who are both Black and gay is often erased. As a sexologist, I’m really glad to see this project, both because it’s an important part of American sexual and cultural history and because I want to be able to share this resource with people who are looking for images that reflect their own experiences better than those to be found in the mainstream media.
I emailed Mr. Kelley to ask him about Hidden in the Open. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And I highly recommend reading his essay.
1) Can you tell us a bit about your project and what inspired you to create it?
In some small part, the photographic collection amassed was a response the books Affectionate Men by Russell Bush and Dear Friend: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918 by David Deitcher. Both books contain photographic images like mine, the only exception being that the men are mainly white and, whether intentional or not, there is only token inclusion of men of color. These two books are brilliant in the the photographs they show. The author/collectors put together beautiful books. Yet, both books made me wonder about those images from the past featuring men with similar backgrounds as mine own. This is when I began collecting my own pictures featuring men of African descent.
There is this assumption that being gay is a white thing. It is not. There is this assumption that affection between men is only possible with two white men or a white and a man of color. This certainly is a false assumption. But, it is an assumption widely disseminated in gay culture and the larger culture in the U.S. There exist this perennial belief that men of color, especially those of African descent, cannot desire and love and be happy with one another outside the interest of white men. Such a belief is a fallacy I was determined to challenge it as false!!
2) Where did the photos come from? How do you find them? Do you ever receive any stories or information about the men in them?
Please understand, I AM NOT A PROFESSIONAL HISTORIAN. I am a playwright and a passionate history enthusiast. All the photographs are owned outright by me. The photographs collected come from a variety of dealers who specialize in the collecting of such general material for interested parties.
My goal was to choose photographs representing the wide social spectrum within the U.S. community of African descent. Within Hidden in the Open, one will find photos of various time periods represented,working class men, men of high material means, men of various ages, and men of varying skin hues. The latter was specifically important to me because there exist this “racist” perception that all folk of African descent look alike. They do not!
A handful of the photographs have little notations written behind them or on the picture itself. Reading them is subjective. What I may see, understand and feel, another person may read as innocuous words, never realizing that gay men of the past were more discreet in their sharing of manly affections between one another. For example, one photo shows two navy men sitting at a table. One of the men who has let his guard down is sitting rather effeminately as he and his buddy share a drink in some nondescript place. Written behind this card is small note where one of men introduces the other as a “running buddy.” to his mother. Maybe the words are meaningless. But, the image of the photograph hints at more—–to me.
As did their heterosexual counterparts, gay men recorded their relationships for posterity. Society is quick to say that a man and woman in an old photo are romantically involved with one another. In family albums, an anonymous female in the heterosexual pair is typically viewed as a romantic partner whose identity no one cares to learn. It is the family relative who counts for everything in the photograph. Prejudices against same-sex pairings in such photographs always dictate that the non-family member is a “friend.” Few want to admit that the “friend” might be a lover. Few are willing to acknowledge that gay and lesbian folk in general from the distant past indeed did record their affections. The gay romantic partner is typically lost to the ages.
I am always looking for that certain photograph, but I do not invite people to send me any they may have in their possession. My collection is relatively small but it is growing. Moreover, I determine how each image is used and who can use them without being beholden to someone else’s conditions etc.
3) What are some of the responses or feedback you’ve gotten about Hidden in the Open?
I am still in complete amazement toward the reaction to the photographs. So far, positives responses have come from those of every background and country. It does something wonderful to the soul to understand that at heart, we are a community able to cheer one another on and offer words of encouragement to one another outside our ethnic tribal groups and line drawn map boarders.
The most heartfelt responses have come from other gay men of African descent—-young and old. This is a group overlooked and largely ignored by mainstream gay culture.
4) In your essay, you also discuss one of the challenges with this kind of photo-documentary work: “Not every gesture articulated between men was an indication of male to male intimacies.” But you also point out that many of the men in the photos would pose in ways that signaled affection for each other while being careful to not “arouse the suspicions of a possible censorious photographer not inclined to have an open mind.” Were there photos that you decided to not include? What was your criteria for inclusion?
Deciding what to include and not include is sometimes complicated. For me, it involved looking at a photo carefully time and time again not wanting to see what I wanted to see before finally choosing it. “Exceptional friendliness or a romantic coupling” could be defined by slight touch of the hands and knees. Keep in mind there was such a thing as male to male romantic friendships—-platonic and non platonic and such isn’t always distinctively identifiable in each picture.
5) What are some books, websites, or articles you’d recommend for someone looking for other resources or information about and for gay men of African descent?
You ask a difficult question. To search for information on men of African descent, one must decide how he wants to define the male of African descent. Then, in all too many cases, the gay male of African descent is discussed in a brief paragraph of two or three or usually in two page or less and in footnote.
Most of what is out there (book, website, article) defines the male of African descent in relation to his white counterpart. The male of African descent is portrayed as one who much divorce himself from his “villainous” ethnic community to find self-acceptance and love. He is a victim in need of rescue. His experiences are largely assumed to mirror his white counterpart.
The defining the gay male of African descent in relation to other gay men of African descent within his own community who he does not need to divorce himself from to live and love requires detailed research and more than just a willingness to be patient. Some of the research must be done outside books dealing with “gay history.” One can sometimes find examples of Afro gay self-empowerment by looking into a book whose subject matter is an Afro American community and its history within a specific locale (e.g. Los Angeles or Chicago). One can even find the Afro gay experience by examining books on eary blues music.
6) What do you hope to do next with Hidden in the Open?
My desire is to put the photographs into a book with anecdotal stories and histories about gay men of African descent, absent to being defined by their white counterparts.
All images used with permission.