Art essays and curatorial commentaries

Gregory Herpe – Dragging Romania Away from Hate – Photo by Photo, Interview with French Photographer

Gregory Herpe was born in Paris in 1969.

As a photojournalist for press agency Sopa Images, Hong-Kong, and Polaris Images, New-York, he devoted much of his time to black & white & gray artistic photography, which he exhibited in many countries.

The human being, the urban, the organization of society, and the weight of customs are his favorite subjects and he always shows three things in his photos: a message, a perspective, and emotion. For him, removing the colors is like taking off the make-up from an actor, a woman, or a clown: only the essential remains, the truth, pure emotion, sometimes crude but real.

He photographed the Drag Queens in Europe, little girls rescued from prostitution in Cambodia, IRA soldiers in Belfast, endangered animals in Africa, the minimalist landscapes of Northern Europe, Gypsies in southern France, and war zones.

But also as a portrait artist and set photographer, he photographed celebrities of rock and cinema like David Bowie, Gérard Depardieu, Iggy Pop, Deep Purple, Nina Hagen, Jacques Dutronc, Patti Smith, Orelsan, etc. He regularly works with NGO’s to talk about their actions.

Everything he did so far also brought him the Medal for the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Elysee Treaty (Médaille du 50e anniversaire de la signature du Traité de l’Élysée), awarded in Paris, France, 2022, and also a nomination to the Scientific Council of CHEFAE (Centre des Hautes Etudes Franco-Allemandes pour l’Europe) in Paris, France, 2022.

Read more about him here.

Gregory is now in Romania with an artist residency in the program „Résidence de poche” of the French Institute of Romania. During his staying, his focus is on continuing a project regarding Drag Queens in Europe. For this, he visits countries in Europe to get a closer look with his lenses inside the drag community.

The French photographer brings forth moments full of emotion, cut from the daily lives of the people that pass in front of his lenses. Not carefully arranged for a photo – but rather raw, behind-the-scenes, shots this is what characterizes the technique that Gregory Herpe uses.

Regarding the project he is currently involved in (and also the reason for his visit to Romania), I think it belongs to a series of very important first steps towards a more acknowledged community in Romania. The LGBTQ+ representation is still at the beginning, therefore such initiatives will start to highlight not only their very existence – but also the limitations they are currently facing in terms of liberties, visibility, or even access to health or other otherwise guaranteed services that everybody should freely benefit just because they exist. Awareness has to go beyond the starting point, and this is one way of doing it.

To find out more about what he found so far in Romania, I took him to a short interview that you can find transcribed below. At the end of the article, you can also view a selection of photographs taken by Gregory for his projects regarding Drag Queens in Europe.

Interview with Gregory Herpe

AF: Gregory – before we begin with more in-depth questions, I’m curious to know what is drag for you? How do you perceive this concept?

Gregory: A drag queen is a person, usually a man, who intentionally creates a feminine identity based on archetypes of femininity and gender roles. The world of drag queens is typically associated with gay men, but drag queens can be of any gender identity or sexual orientation. There are also women and transgender individuals who are drag queens, although less commonly.

A drag queen dresses up to express their identity, often as part of live performance on stage, and they are often multi-talented artists. Some sing, dance, do stand-up comedy, or lip-sync. They often also have a role in representing the queer community at events such as Pride marches or beauty pageants and sometimes engage in activism to fight exclusion and inform people about advances in HIV medical treatment and safe sex practices, always in a non-violent and peaceful manner.

Drag queens play a more significant role in society today than one might think.

AF: What can you tell us so far about the drag scene in Romania? How is it different than other drag scenes you’ve seen?

Gregory: In Romania, this movement is still in its early stages. Based on my encounters since the beginning of my artist residency in Bucharest with the French Institute of Romania, I would say that there is almost everything to create here. The Drag Queen community is not large, and it suffers from a lack of places to perform on stage and earn money. Money is a very concerning subject here. The lack of financial means does not allow the queens to purchase quality outfits and wigs, most of the time, as in Western European countries. However, they are creative and make do with what they find. I have seen some Drag Queens with excellent makeup, look, and character level. On stage, it is more challenging, but always due to the lack of experience caused by the lack of clubs and stages!  What is also positive in Bucharest is that there are very different styles of Drag Queens. This is a good omen for the future!

AF: Drag is a lot about performance, sometimes about alter egos, and I believe, at least, that it speaks about something more than the eye can see – even tho the visual is the one that strikes, each time. Through your lenses, I’m curious to know what do you want to capture when you photograph people in drag? What do you see from behind the camera?

Gregory: What interests me are not the performances on stage. I have taken some photographs, but it is anecdotal to me. Everyone has already photographed that. I want to capture something else. Moments from the everyday lives of Drag Queens, moments when they are not playing a role but when they are authentic. I want to see their soul, their wounds, their strength to get to where they are. I like photographing them at home, in their cocoon, cooking, or doing a very common activity… but in drag. One of my favorite photographers, Diane Arbus, photographed people who nobody cared about in New York in the 50s, 60s, and until her death in the early 70s. Prostitutes, transvestites, those that society didn’t want to see. She did it with much humanity, truth, and authenticity, without masks, filters, or trying to make them beautiful, but simply by showing how they lived and how they were closer to Mr. and Mrs. Everyone than we imagined. That’s how I photograph people. I don’t want to take photos to entertain the public! I don’t want to say to them, “Look at the clowns! They put on a wig and a dress, put on makeup, to make you laugh!” No, it’s quite the opposite. I am on a quest for truth, even when it is hard and raw.

AF: There is also a certain duality that I can grasp from drag shows, an oscillation that plays around this tension between an apparent superficial, extra flamboyant outside – and an inside that usually comes with wounds, traumas, and a certain shyness. What do you think about this duality?

Gregory: Of course, there is a great duality within them! Imagine what the life of a drag queen can be like! They are often rejected by their families after coming out, harassed, often beaten on the street, mocked, and never taken seriously. It’s a difficult life. They also need to find a way to defend themselves, to breathe. The apparent superficiality and extravagance are illusions. They are screams, calls for help, “Love me because I also deserve it.” I deeply believe that many drag queens reveal themselves more, made up and dressed in such visible ways, than when they are in everyday attire. Ultimately, that’s where they want you to see their true personality. It’s true, by exaggerating, but it’s also a way of finally being heard and seen.  Of course, there are some who are really superficial! There are idiots everywhere and being a Drag Queen is not a guarantee of being exceptional. I was insulted a few days ago by one of them, whose name I will not mention because, anyway, she doesn’t have much talent but an oversized ego. Insults because she wanted me to give her money. I don’t have a budget to pay those who pose for me! With this project, I travel throughout Europe at my own expense 95% of the time! Flights, hotels, all expenses, equipment, etc. This Drag, who is far from being a queen, didn’t understand that my work has an informative and educational role for an audience that does not know them or does not like them. I am an ally! When I finish this project, I will do many exhibitions around the world, and I hope for a book. It’s a positive work for this entire Drag Queen community, for more tolerance, rights, and understanding. Too bad for her, she won’t be part of it.

AF: Drag queens and drag kings are far from having total liberty of expression in many places around the world, but yet again, in other places drag is something pretty mainstream, looking at RuPaul going for season 13. From your point of view, what is the evolution of this “topic”,  do we have the chance to see more drag in the future – or even better – is drag liberty something yet to be achieved, once it gets better understood by the masses?

Gregory: The main goal of my photo work with Drag Queens is to show the differences in tolerance, rights, and freedoms they have across countries within the same continent, Europe, with the European Union being so important. RuPaul has done a lot of good for Drag Queens by putting them in the spotlight on TV worldwide through Netflix. This TV show may seem trivial and comedic, but there is a real message behind it, a positive strategy to “normalize” those who may not necessarily be like us. RuPaul is someone intelligent and brilliant. I hope you will have this kind of show on TV in Romania someday. I started this series in Amsterdam, Netherlands, then in Helsinki, Finland, where Drag Queens have great freedom, can go out in the street without danger, and have a place in society. I saw the same in Liverpool! In Paris, there are many clubs where they can perform, and it’s a very supportive community. In the West, it’s much easier, and there are many TV shows where they are invited. But in Budapest, I started to see how their lives are difficult in the East! Homophobia is strong in Hungary, and I followed some Drag Queens who only went out at night, with a big coat and a hood, getting into a car to go to one of the few clubs in the city where they can perform on stage. Many get beaten up in the street! For no reason! In Bucharest, it’s a bit the same. Just yesterday, I was taking pictures with one of them at her home. Then we went out into the street in a seemingly quiet neighborhood. And we were attacked and insulted by a man with a motorcycle helmet! He wanted to hit her, and he pointed at me and asked, “Do you think this is normal?” It was shocking, and we came very close to a fight. Apparently, the fact that I am a foreigner and spoke to him in English calmed him down. But here, I have encountered a great deal of homophobia and an enormous lack of freedom for this community. We are all in Europe, so it’s time for attitudes to change. I learned that in Romania, homosexuals could go to jail until 2001. For a French person like me, it’s crazy! I think things will eventually evolve here, but it will take time. Perhaps with the younger generations.

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