For Dustin Thierry, a contemporary artist and photographer from Curaçao whose work is focused on the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in the Netherlands, photography is an urgency, a search for a sense of belonging and a way of processing very personal issues while telling a broader story. With his series “Opulence”, dedicated to the memory of his brother, he documents the queer Afro-Caribbean Ballroom scene communities in Europe in a series of graceful black and white portraits. Thierry manages to create timeless, poignant images of an underrepresented reality, all while learning to deal with his traumas. His work “Opulence” is on show at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven until April 4th, 2021, and has just been awarded the prix du public at the 2020 Hyères festival and the first edition of the “Berry Koedam Award”. Here’s our Q&A with the artist.
Opulence by Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Thaynah Vineyard at the 'We Are The Future And The Future Is Fluid' Ball organised by Legendary Marina 007 and Mother Amber Vineyard. Body painting by visual artist Airich. Amsterdam 2018Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Wolkoff and Wickid from the House of Garcon with the Grand Prize for Tag Team All American Runway at The United States of Africa Ball Pt.IIIDustin Thierry
Opulence, Ritchy Princess of the House of LaDuree at the 'On The Cover of Opulence Vogue' Ball under direction by Zueira Mizrahi. Berlin 2018Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Fetsayy 007 at the 'We Are The Future And The Future Is Fluid' Ball organised by Legendary Marina 007 and Mother Amber Vineyard. Amsterdam. 2018Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Sarah-Lou Maarek walked the category 'Femxle Figure Face' during the Cleopatatra Ball Pt.IIDustin Thierry
Opulence, Love necklace detail on Lesly Ebony at the 'Twinyx Birthday Mini-Ball Vogue Edition'.Dustin Thierry
Opulence, f.l.t.r.: 007, 007, Athena Ebony, 007 at the 'Twinyx Birthday Mini-Ball Vogue Edition'Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Enki Laduree after walking the category; 'Butch Queen Face' at the Cleopatra Ball Pt.IIDustin Thierry
Opulence, Mother Honeysha West outside at 'The Olympics Ball'. July 2019 The House of Balanciaga.Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Kiara Scarlett Banks Mother of the Kiki House of Mermaids. Member of The House of Balanciaga.Dustin Thierry
How did you get interested in photography?
I became interested in photography through scuba diving. I was born on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, which has one of the most beautiful underwater parks that I know of. As a teenager, I had to move a lot and began longing about going back home; back to the sea. The undervalued marine life was one of the main reasons why I felt that I should start looking at my life differently. This shaped my already curious nature into a more practical one. At one point in my life, I wanted to be a DOP, but wasn’t accepted into film school. Then, a friend recommended I try photography as a way to get more technical and intuitive understanding of how images work and how they work in relaying a narrative. This remark encouraged me to get rid of all the bells and whistles of a DSLR and I invested my minor savings into a Nikon F3 camera. I found solace in the darkroom and discovered how telling my story at the time, and those of others in similar situations, through photography became a powerful means of expression. Photography allowed me to slow down, observe and focus more profoundly on my encounters.
What is photography for you?
Photography is the main medium in my creative practice through which I express the narratives that I feel need to be heard or that I am drawn to.
What are the themes you are interested in tackling with your work?
The largest themes throughout my work have been representation with an undercurrent of healing. I have always been particularly intrigued by the visual theme of the family unit. These themes all intersected with the reality of the chosen families I documented at Ballroom voguing events around Europe for my Opulence series. Next to that, I have also started questioning my relationship to my family on my home island of Curaçao and Sint Maarten, leading me to approach and start photographing people from there that have made the city of Amsterdam their home, which is now a, work in progress, on-going project titled Dreaming Above The Atlantic.
How do you develop a concept into a long term project?
I have always been someone who likes being in the world, so this is an important part of developing a concept. My progress often comes organically, through a combined process of consistently working and shooting and periods of rest where I shoot absolutely nothing and simply think, write and discuss the seeds for ideas with a select group of people. It is during these periods of active resting, where my mind has the time to defragment and filter all the encounters, conversations, information and visual input I’ve gathered internally. Along the way, while conducting further research on the topic, I tend to take test shots and I intuitively know when it is time to move forward with it. It’s like an internal alarm going off, saying “Now. Do it now.” This is followed by a period where I am consistently and obsessively photographing. Once I feel that I have enough, I take time to review everything calmly; what is important, what does the narrative tell, what does the work want to be? From there on, I proceed forward. Plus, I think creating and designing a photobook is an indispensable - and incredibly fun - process. The tempo and the follow-up of images in combination with various visual aesthetic elements are aspects of the medium of photography that are able to absorb me every time.
How was your project “Opulence” born?
Opulence first came to fruition in 2013, when I was connected to Amber Vineyard - mother of The House Of Vineyard. She began organising her first Ballroom events and collaborating with her made me realise that my images could help amplify the voices in the Ballroom scene. A space filled with beauty, resilience and reality. It also made me realise that I wanted to create a project that would address issues of representation, exoticism, toxic masculinity, the importance of safe spaces and family structures. This urgency emerged from the death of my brother, who had never experienced such a community, but had a deep yearning for one. The title came to me from my former partner, who once told me when I was going through a tough time: "You're Opulence honey, you own everything!" referring to Junior LaBeija's infamous quote from Paris is Burning. She was inferring that I own my state of mind. This sentiment felt so invaluable that I chose it as the name of the project.
Why did you choose to shoot “Opulence” in black and white?
The reason why I chose to photograph in black and white is because I am interested in the characters, the shapes and the true spirit of those that I have the privilege of photographing. Use of colour has a tendency for exotification and, in this specific instance, this is the gaze I want to protect the community as well as my images from. There are certain links that are made in the visual language with the use of certain colours that I want to remove in order for the community at large and the individual within it to stand on their own and in their own power.
How do you approach your subjects?
Very intuitively. On a practical level, it’s an investment that goes both ways; a relationship. There should be a mutual respect, a mutual trust and mutual allowance of space that all parties are willing to honour. Within that foundation, I am transparent as I can be about my intentions and explain my intentions about what I am looking to do through conversation and, where possible, examples of photographs I’ve already taken. So - a constant active engagement.
What should be the role of an artist today?
It is not up to me to say what the role of an artist should be today; every artist works in their own ways, disciplines and has their own philosophies about what they want to add into the world or what they consider to be urgent. I can only speak of my own role, or hopes of my own role. Which is, that as a photographer and artist, social justice means to me telling stories from the point of view of people who suffer, or have experienced social injustices: not creating work about them, but with them. Thus, working with them in a way so they remain human and they remain in dignity. As such, the fight for social justice and reparation can be supported by spreading awareness, stimulating dialogue, creating visual narratives and highlighting injustices of the current issues we experience. I feel that it's my responsibility to at least address it with my work. My urgency lies in telling these stories, uplifting my people and disrupting the confinements of the institutions that passively sustain ignorance in the public domain.
What are the underlying influences in your work?
Influences are everywhere, and a lot of my influences come via conversations with others, daily random encounters, or snippets I find online. Currently, I am drawn to works that revolve around good storytelling with a distinctive mood; especially personal projects where you can clearly sense the various creative disciplines and presence of the artists’ personality. Currently, these are works such as ‘The Dream’ by Kahlil Joseph, ‘Jungle Fever’ by Spike Lee, Dana Lixenberg’s ‘Imperial Courts’, the score to ‘For A Few Dollars More’ by Ennio Morricone and all works by Alexandra Bell, a multidisciplinary artist who investigates the complexities of narrative, information consumption, and perception.
What emerging artists do you admire?
Currently, Naomi Pieter Balentien, an Afro-Caribbean Black Queer feminist with an active to-do list who has been been effectively shaking up the social structures in the Netherlands. Then, there’s Marlou Fernanda. Her work is currently the most surprising discovery I made; Marlou is a visually poetic, intrinsically personal and an innovative artist, yet unparalleled. If anything, I'm confident she'll belong to one of the greatest.
Do you think photography can have an impact in social changes?
Yes I do. I know it does.
What is the most thought-provoking and challenging picture you took in your opinion?
The photos I decide not to make and the photos I have not made yet.
How important is the political undercurrent in your work?
I am Black and therefore my life and being is political. So I would say that the answer is obvious. As a person who is an artist, I am inherently linked to my work. Therefore my work always has a political undercurrent.
How are current socio-political issues impacting your work?
Next to the socio-political issues impacting my work, I think it is important to address that I am very active and make conscious choices in making my work the way I make it. Meaning, also addressing issues of representation, marginalisation and systemic racism. These are all topics that are apparent in my work and might not be apparent to everyone instantly, but when people take the time to go deeper and research what I am addressing, I hope they become visible.