(From left) Aaron Milton and Terry Barnes
is a Harlem-based photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Vogue and The Wall Street Journal. Informed by his years of social work and exploring his own identity, his photos highlight the experiences of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people.
For NYCgo’s Pride Diaries, Valentine worked with friends, both queer and non-queer, making them the subjects of his work. The portraits reflect his experiences entering life post-pandemic and reconnecting with his community. He talked to us about the stories behind them.
What inspired this body of work?
Gioncarlo Valentine: I was thinking about what pre-pandemic life was for me. I can be pretty boring: coffee shop, sitting in the park, reading a book. One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic was that I couldn’t go to coffee shops anymore. Suddenly it wasn’t safe to sit in the park with friends; it wasn’t safe to be around people. So when I thought about what I had been doing with my friends recently, it’s really just been those same things.
(From left) Malcolm Hall and Mikey
For example, we [Malcolm Hall and Mikey] went to get coffee in Harlem. Then we were walking around while they had ice cream, and it was a cute little day of adventure. We went to Marcus Garvey Park and there was a 1970s revival concert happening—there were a lot of older people singing all the hits from the ’70s, a lot of Donna Summer. It was fantastic.
(From left) Terry Barnes and Aaron Milton
Tell us about the couple you shot.
GV: I started off with Aaron [Milton] and Terry [Barnes]. They just moved into an apartment in Harlem. They had a lot of tumultuous housing experiences and finally found a place, and they’re DIY-ing a lot of stuff—redoing the walls and painting throughout the house and fixing holes. I wanted to photograph them in that process.
(From left) Aaron Milton and Terry Barnes
They’re very cuddly and cutesy and intimate with each other. These photos, to me, are the perfect depiction of their relationship. They’re very much my dream relationship dynamic. They’re independent and they love each other very much. They live separate but full lives, and when they’re together it’s just such a beautiful thing to be around. I’m always really inspired by them.
What images from this commission stand out to you?
GV: There are images of Purav [Virdi’s] hands; those are my favorites. It’s just a very intimate thing. We had a park date, and a guy [at the park] had a parrot. I made some photos with the parrot and some portraits of Purav being himself, lying in the grass. I’ve been photographing Purav as kind of a muse for two years now.
For this project, it was really challenging because most of my friends are not queer; most of my friends are predominantly straight men. But when I was thinking of this shoot, I never thought that everybody should be queer. I was like, Who am I going to be around?
Rafael Sergio Smith
I felt a bit unsure about including non-queer people in the photos, because it’s an odd thing to wedge straight people into a space that is meant to celebrate queerness, but also it’s an honest representation of the way that I’ve lived my life. Moreover, I feel like I’m more challenged by that work of—as a queer person—building relationships with people who are not queer. It is the work of teaching people constantly, educating people constantly. I think that tends to be [the case] a lot of the time photographing non-queer people from a queer perspective.
What’s the story behind your self-portraits?
GV: Outside of making these images, I’ve been spending seven hours a day catching up on scanning film. I did not develop and scan, I think, for the entirety of 2020. I had about 250 rolls, so it took a few weeks. It was extremely intensive, but a lot of fun. Scanning film is really therapeutic.
What does Pride mean to you this year?
GV: I did all my Prides when I was very young. I understand the history of Pride really well. I understand the importance of that space as a unification space, a reminder for the community. If I’m thinking about what it means to just be proud to be gay…it’s a very strange thing to have to emphasize and celebrate during a specific time. I’m always proud to be gay. I’m very, very, very gay and love that about myself. I just couldn’t imagine a world in which that wasn’t my truth. Being gay every day is basically my investment in Pride, my investment and celebration. I don’t think Pride outside of that has that much impact on me.