These Tender Photos Capture Queer Culture In America's Deep South (NSFW)

"I grew up in a religious household – my mother was raised in the Sanctified Holy Church and my father was raised Southern Baptist. As a result of the beliefs I had been taught since birth, I did not feel comfortable coming out as queer until I was 21 years old," says photographer Peyton Fulford, now 24, about the motivation behind her project Infinite Tenderness. "This photo series came to fruition around the same time, so I publicly came out when I started sharing this project online."

Fulford grew up in Albany, Georgia, in the Bible Belt of America's deep south. "It was difficult to navigate the space I was growing up in because I could not relate to it or understand my place within it. I never felt like my truest, most open self when conforming to the culture and ideologies around me," she remembers. "I realised later on in my life that I was repressing many parts of my identity just to stay safe and not be ridiculed for who I really was."

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In 2016, inspired by those early experiences, she began using her camera to explore intimacy and identity within the LGBTQ+ community in the American south; the camera became a tool that enabled her to connect with people and access spaces that she hadn’t the courage to before. "I was still in my undergrad programme for photography and started this ongoing project with the intention to create an accepting space for queer kids growing up in small towns and rural areas. Most of the people I started photographing were close friends or people I admired from a distance, who inspired me with how open they were about their identities." For Fulford, the ever-growing constellation of pictures she has taken for Infinite Tenderness is a visual representation of youth across America, and one she’ll keep adding to as the years unfold.

Fulford has remained in her home state and now lives in Atlanta. In 2017, she received a BFA in photography from Columbus State University. Here, she shares a selection of the pictures she’s taken across the years, and talks about the sense of belonging that unites them all.

Photographed by Peyton Fulford.
"Many of the people I photograph for Infinite Tenderness I have never met prior to shooting. Usually the shooting process unfolds organically – if it is a group, I will hang out and observe how they interact with one another. Once I see a moment, I will pause and create a picture or stage a similar set-up later referring to the original encounter. Whoever is in front of the lens, it is important that I consider the presence of the camera in the space and we all reflect a sense of respect towards one another."
Photographed by Peyton Fulford.
"The title Infinite Tenderness is part of the quote, 'I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will. My whole life,' from the film Blue Is The Warmest Colour which I watched in my early years of college. The story really resonated with me during that time because I was exploring my identity and longing for a sense of connection. I began creating these images as a way to document a memory of a person during a specific moment and to further capture their physical and emotional changes over time. No matter how much or how little someone transforms themselves, they will have these images to look back on and see how far they have come."
Photographed by Peyton Fulford.
Fulford says she was initially inspired by a group of queer people in Athens, Georgia, who she had either heard of through Instagram or met briefly at parties there. "At the time, I was more of an outsider and observed the scene more than actually being a part of it. It was my first time being around individuals that were fiercely open about who they are. I did not grow up in a town where it was safe to flaunt your LGBTQ+ identity so this newfound freedom was what drew me to these people."
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Photographed by Peyton Fulford.
"When you do not identify with the community that is around you, it can feel very ostracising and limiting. Many of the people I have photographed are flattered to be a part of the project and thank me for helping them feel seen," Fulford says. She recalls a memorable anecdote from the making of the project. "One statement in particular has stuck with me through the continuation of the work, and it’s something Conor [photographed here with Hayden] said to me after shooting together: 'Thank you for photographing me in a way that made me feel comfortable in my skin. More affirming than you can even imagine.'"
Photographed by Peyton Fulford.
The people Fulford photographs are pictured in local parks and living rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms. The choice of space is collaborative, she says; whether it's a public or intimate place, it will often mean something to the person pictured, which is important for a meaningful and comfortable experience between photographer and subject. "I think visual cues within the photographs are important to piece together who the person is and what environment they are in. Sometimes the environment surrounding the individual holds a weight and adds more complexity to the image. For instance, this photograph of Trevor in their bedroom shares many facets of who they are as a gender queer stylist and drag performer, just by giving the viewer an insight into their private life."
Photographed by Peyton Fulford.
At other times, a portrait Fulford takes will be startlingly simple, stripped back and confronting us with the subject's gaze in ways that are equal parts vulnerable and empowered.
Photographed by Peyton Fulford.
Fulford describes what she has learned from her time photographing this extended community of people: "From my experience, I have understood it is imperative to go beyond the subject’s sexuality or gender identity and capture the essence of their humanity. As a queer individual living in the American south, creating narrative portraiture of other queer people, I feel a sense of responsibility. My hope is to bring light to more nuanced representations and to show that America is not black and white. I am attempting to find fluidity and capture the complexities that exist within this land and its people."
Photographed by Peyton Fulford.
What Fulford has found most touching along the way is the love between the people she’s met, and it’s something she’s worked hard to reflect in the images she takes. Often, her subjects are pictured in moments of quiet tenderness, as the title suggests, embracing or resting their head on a friend’s shoulder. "These pictures and the people within them are united by a sense of belonging. Each individual in this series is dependent on another for support and understanding of their ever-changing identities."
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Photographed by Peyton Fulford.
Ultimately, Fulford says, the camera has been an extremely important tool in her personal growth. "It has provided me with an outlet to be more extroverted and go outside of my comfort zone in order to meet new people and learn about different subcultures, and I have found myself gaining access to spaces and people that I otherwise would not have dreamed of without the power of a camera." She says she'll continue to take pictures for Infinite Tenderness for as long as she can.
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