Photographs by Matthew Papa
Photographer work is very autobiographical, so it’s not surprising he chose to chronicle Pride at his Long Island City apartment with a photo shoot that doubled as a backyard barbecue. “It didn’t get as crazy as I hoped it would,” he says with a laugh.
Papa also submitted photos he took more than two decades ago at the 1993 March on Washington and the 1994 New York City Pride March, as well as a personal essay. “I’m a book designer,” he says. “I still think in print, in terms of books. Two pages working together…trying to tell a story.”
Below, Papa discusses his journey as a photographer and where he thinks Pride is today.
Oh, I was really young. I used some babysitting money to buy my first camera, a Minolta XG-1. That was, like, 1980. I’d shoot my family and friends—when I got older I’d start throwing parties and turn them into photoshoots.
I use myself in my work a lot. Asking questions like, what does being HIV positive mean? What does reaching an age I never thought I’d live to see mean? While taking these photos, I started unpacking what and who I was in a very personal way.
Yeah, I specifically wanted to have it at my house. I thought a lot about what’s particular to me and my experience—it’s partying with my friends and with props. During the first dot-com boom, I worked for a gay financial services company and went to, like, 20 Prides in one summer. I felt like I had done the big parade thing already. So we had a backyard party at my place, with a barbecue and my secret cocktail, the Garden Rambler—tequila, chartreuse and a mix of herbs and lime. You can kind of see the story unfold as people drink more!
My community of friends is really mixed—some are gay, some are straight, older, younger. I wanted to find common ground for all of them in the community I’ve cultivated over 26 years. It started at 2pm and people stayed till about 11:30pm. I think we had about 20 to 25 people in all.
They’re pretty candid—though for some, I took people outside to shoot under the 7 train to give it a sense of place. I had thought about setting up a corner at the party for formal portraits but decided not to. I guess overall these images are more documentarian than my normal work, which is usually fairly constructed.
Oh, the flexing picture? [
] People have expectations about what you’re supposed to be like in your fifties, and I like to defy that. And the HIV connection I can’t deny either. It’s about putting to rest the subconscious fear that I was going to die young. Or that having HIV is about death and decay. It’s not.
I felt like the photos from the party weren’t the complete picture. In the archival ones, there are some from the 1993 March on Washington and a couple from the 1994 New York Pride March, which was the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. I’ve been out since I was 17 [but] the 1993 March on Washington was my first big gay event. It was surreal.
I titled this series Look at Where We Are, which is actually a reference to a Hot Chip song. But it’s also a reference to the LGBTQ community—and to me, I guess. I’m 52, just two years older than Stonewall. I wanted to say, sort of, Look at how much we’ve accomplished. But also be mindful of where we are.
There’s a normalization of gay culture that’s happened so fast, and people don’t realize it. The rapidity of change is something I wanted to reflect on—and also remind people that progress isn’t linear.