When a box is marked ‘private’, it immediately tells you something of what’s inside. Even if not labelled, sometimes little archives of documents and photographs are tucked far away from prying eyes, in attics, cupboards, or even under floorboards. Their concealment suggests that the contents are sensitive in some way, or so personal that the owner wants to protect them. The action of concealment has an air of the illicit.
Yet these hidden collections are often the ones that have the most to say, if only you know how to listen. They may not tell stories which the owners are comfortable or willing to tell, but it is more often the case than not that discoveries are made long after that person has passed. Across the world, photographs taken by LGBTQ+ people of themselves, their lovers, their communities and friends throughout the 20th Century have been emerging from their places of safety. Archivists, professional and amateur, private collectors and historians have been restoring them to their rightful places of cultural, artistic and historic significance.
Flora Dunster is a writer researcher and lecturer at London’s Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. With Theo Gordon she is co-author of the forthcoming Photography: A Queer History. Through the book, she has selected the work of 79 photographers, using their images to explore identity, community, aesthetics, the act of making and circulating images and, of course, discrimination. “When you have a good photograph of yourself, it's worth its weight in gold. So, to see yourself mirrored in a way that's affirmative is obviously hugely important,” she says. “But also, potentially quite dangerous. In a lot of instances, if the photographs are found, they become proof of transgression.”