Delphine has made a name for herself in the world of visual art and photography through her striking portraiture and desire to rewrite the rules of the industry. Devoted to upending the patriarchal white male gaze, Diallo prioritises underrepresented communities in her work to explore themes of Blackness, womanhood, and identity. In her new book, Lived Experience: Reflections on LGBTQ Life, published by The New Press, Diallo captures the older LGBTQ+ generation living in New York. Through her camera lens and conversations with the book’s participants, she documents a community whose lives have been defined by political turmoil, immense social change, and never-ending devotion to activism.
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 1.jpg
This project feels like a slight departure from your previous work. In the past, you’ve said your work looks more specifically at womanhood and Blackness. Although your new book also explores these concepts, what made you want to work on a project that investigates the lives of older LGBTQ+ people?
Well, I was commissioned to do this work. And it’s interesting because, if they had asked me to photograph a younger generation in the same way, I don’t think I would’ve been interested. Not that it wouldn’t have been interesting, but I didn’t want to do something just because I thought it was cool to do it. In regard to respect for the struggle of LGBTQ+ people, there is a lot of debt to the elderly community. I did this project because I wanted to be a student. It was a time that I had to sit and listen for hours. I listened to sixty-five people for an hour and a half each: their stories, their struggles. I think I grew up so much from it.
Many of the people featured in your new book, Lived Experience: Reflections on LGBTQ Life, are activists and LGBTQ+ campaigners. Did you have an idea of what type of people you wanted to feature in this book before you started working on it? How did you go about finding participants?
Diverse Humanity, the company I was working with, did an open-call on Instagram, and we reached out to the LGBTQ+ community in New York specifically. People heard about it and came to us, so it was very organic. I didn’t feel like it had to be people I knew personally. I was entering a zone that I wasn’t familiar with. I had a real issue with a friend of mine, who is a gay black photographer. I said to her, "Hey, I’m doing this project, I’d love to photograph you," – she’s fifty-something. And she said, "Hey, you know it’s not for you to do this project," and that made me reflect.
She wasn’t happy because she thought it should be an LGBTQ+ photographer doing the project. She didn’t realise she was talking to another Black female photographer who also struggles like her. I really was understanding of her issue, but it was up to me to say, "Okay, let’s get together and talk about this." I took the project because I’m a portraitist. That’s how I was found. She was taking portraits as well, but I didn’t feel like I was out of place, and I didn’t feel like I had to be LGBTQ+ to do it.
In New York, most of my friends are lesbian. So, for me, I could enter in as an outsider, and coming into a space where I have to give myself to these stories and struggles so I can understand them and reflect on them. This is what I do in my work. When I’m photographing human beings I can see their light. Society creates these boxes of race and gender, but we have to remind ourselves that this is a construction.
Much of your photography focuses on portraiture. Why do you lean towards this particular form of photography, and what do you hope to communicate through your portraits?
When we think of portraiture or fashion photography, the entire world of photography has been seen through the white male gaze. Around an 85% of the industry has been built on the assumption that the white male photographer knew what he was doing. He can legitimise this own Western view of the world to become the only point of view.
I’m French Senegalese. I was born in Paris but moved to New York. My point of view and my experience is different, and I had to experience that discrimination when I was on the outside. I perceive life differently from this white point of view. I choose portraits because I’m not interested in fashion, or photojournalism because those formats don’t serve the power of the persona. Before portraiture photography there was painting. Portraiture makes us think about the kind of people we have been shown throughout history. The face is the map of society: politicians, celebrities know this. They promote themselves through portraiture. For me, to fight this fake vision, and narrative, we need to create an art form that is as inclusive as possible.
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 5.jpg
You interviewed each of the figures you photographed in this book. These people have seen such tremendous change in regard to LGBTQ+ rights throughout the years. As far as we’ve come, we’ve still got far to go, do you think the figures you interviewed are optimistic about the future?
I was very impressed because they changed my perspective so much. As elders, I feel like they were all accountable. Most of them were activists and were born activists. They had all overcome a lot in their lives, and it felt like they’d lived many lives in the one body. They had created their own lives without caring about the approval of others. I related to that because when I was starting no one really believed in me, being a woman photographer. People didn’t believe in them either. Working on this book taught me how different the struggles of Black gay people in the '70s were from white gay people.
I learned making this book how dysfunctional life was for Black gay people during this time. They didn’t have help from anyone, they were at the bottom. So for me, that explains why they have never stopped being activists. They know their work isn’t finished. People always want to take your power away from you. I felt very connected to them because they’ve never given up, but we have to make sure that the new generation understands this fight. In Western society, the young and old generations are very disconnected. I have so much love for the younger generation, but it’s sad because there’s so much disconnect.
Speaking of activism, do you think everyone has a responsibility to be activists? While there is still such a great international threat to queer rights around the world, should we all be doing our part to ensure equality becomes a reality?
I think what we’ve learned this year is that for everyone if they believe they’re born free, their responsibility is to fight for people’s freedom. Activism is not a trend. I work on myself so that I can stay strong, and wake up in the morning with a healthy relationship with myself. If you do that, if you feel good about yourself, you can give back to others, and fight for the rights and happiness of others. I don’t just care about my rights as a black woman. I know that I’m a black woman in this life, and I know I understand better than anyone else the struggle Black women face.
White people have to wake up and realise they need to fight for everyone too. Society creates boxes and division, but we need to change that narrative of separation. LGBTQ+ people are put in this box: they’re separated from Black people and Black Lives Matter. This concerns me. We need to protect humanity, this is our duty. I don’t even have to argue about it.
Do you think people are starting to listen? Is the way people react to your work changing in recent years?
Yeah, you would be surprised. I’ve been creating work like this for 10 years, but it's only in the last couple of years people have started to understand it. My work is very connected to consciousness. The Black woman has been lost in history, and through my work, I’m trying to bring her back. I want to make new role models: Black women who can be perceived as goddesses, deities, healers. But this is just the beginning of my work. Now that I’ve created this structure and the roots of my work, I can portray any kind of protagonist.
I recently worked with a Venezuelan model for this underwear campaign I did. I realised that it was time for me to expand. I have to give platforms to other women now too. I’m studying every day how to create a different kind of photography. It’s like anthropology photography – I’m building a new narrative.
This is what we need right now. I don’t think we need more photographers. We need a different kind of photography to switch the narrative that has existed throughout history. It’s not that I’m against white men, but these are just facts. These institutions need to explain why they are consciously perpetrating the disappearance of the other narrative to maintain patriarchy. It’s very detrimental for society – for women, for kids, for elders.
For me, it’s a lack of creativity on some level. This is affecting everyone, not just Black women. I’m starting with Black women because they are the most oppressed, and I want to bring her into the light. But it’s the female energy more broadly that has been completely depleted. LGBTQ+ people have this female energy, too, you know? They have this nurturing, supportive energy – this is female to me. What we’re witnessing right now is the end of the patriarchal era. Any resistance is just fear. I don’t believe everyone in Western society is capable of changing, but the elite need to fall.
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Well, you’re living in the United States right now and Trump has just been voted out of office. There seems to be a change taking place in America. Do you think our path to the future is clearer now?
It’s a very slow process. You can’t just look at this year. This year has been violent because we’re all waking up a bit. There are more female activists, but some people just think, "Oh there’s a woman in power, this is great, this is the future!" but I’m not jumping like this. A lot of women have very masculine energy, you know? The nurturing and togetherness is not always present. Men can have this female energy, too.
We’re so superficial, and we focus too much on the physical, but societal manipulation is achieved through the mind, and society is encouraging us all to have a very masculine energy. They lie to you when they put a Black woman in power sometimes. For example, Kamala Harris doesn’t convince me, because I just see a masculine energy. I’m waiting for accountability.
We’re missing consistency and accountability in society. Politicians are just interested in short-term changes, I don’t see any politicians as visionaries who can change the world. We need people to wake up to this masculine energy, and understand how dangerous it is. If a human being doesn’t realise they’re in danger, they won’t change.
I’m sure it will be hard to pick just one answer to this question, but what was your biggest takeaway from working on this project, and what do you hope viewers take away from experiencing this body of work, whether they be LGBTQ+ or not?
As you can see when you look through this book, when you turn the pages you see Black women, Black men, white women... I insisted on this. I requested that a Black woman was on the cover. I’m proud that I created a story of wholeness in this book, and that’s my main goal in my work. I was devoted to the stories of everyone in this book, I was there to serve them, and show them in their best light. We need to remember that we are responsible for everyone. A lot of people look for reasons to believe they are better than others. But I think this is changing. We have to respect that everyone deserves freedom, human rights, a home. Treat people the same way you would a kid. Does any kid deserve to be on the street and not eating?
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Ken Kidd.jpg
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 13.jpg
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 14.jpg
Delphine Diallo Metalmagazine 10.jpg