In 2017, 33-year-old Los Angeles-based photographer Devyn Galindo purchased a VW Camper. Its exterior was a gorgeous olive green – real '70s style – and Galindo (who goes by both they/them and she/her pronouns) nicknamed it Sweet Pea. Within no time, they had transformed it into a travelling studio and it has been an integral part of their life and work ever since. "I wanted to be able to hit the road and make projects across the US to document queer stories," they recall. "I feel we are often written out of social narratives – especially queer POC folks – and I wanted to leave behind a project that documents our existence. I was travelling with a few cameras, and lots of rolls of film, and I started to photograph people in the van, around the van or in their spaces. Working and living out of a van is the kind of freedom that I always want to feel – to live simply and minimally and to connect with others has always been the dream for me."
The resulting series, The Van Dykes Project, conjures a sun-drenched, inclusive and seductive queertopia. Introducing us to LGBTQ+ folk across the US and beyond through portraits, oral histories and personal narratives, its aim is to preserve and promote contemporary queer culture for future generations everywhere.
Galindo grew up between Texas and California. "I had a very nomadic lifestyle growing up which I think allowed me to be in a constant state of curiosity and wonder. I was a little skater kid that got plucked out of California and forced into this machismo Texan culture. It all felt very alien to me at the time but now I try to embrace each part of my journey and incorporate it into my work." Inspired by everything from '90s skate culture to the tractor-driving, camo aesthetic of their later childhood in rural Texas, Galindo describes themself as "a true mixed bag of experiences" – their personality a constellation of lifestyles and environments.
"I’m also mixed race," Galindo adds, "so growing up with one side of your family that is living in poverty and lacking resources and witnessing the other side that is living comfortably (and horribly racist against my dad because he is Mexican and brown) really informed a lot of my vision for the world, the injustices within it and how I want to create culture change and shift conversations to make a better world for my community." Galindo's queerness now shapes their work and they use it, they say, as "a playground and a way to dissect the cis heteronormative white world we live in and reconstruct it".
The Van Dykes Project is inspired by a caravan of lesbians who travelled the US and Mexico during the 1970s, seeking "a life of radical rebellion and feminist empowerment". Galindo calls the group, founded by Lamar Van Dyke, "legends" and expresses admiration for the life they carved out for themselves. "They were rebels on the road just taking up space in a world that really wasn’t a safe place for a dyke to live in back then. They have a bunch of fun stories! You can find a few of them in the latest Van Dykes journal. Lamar Van Dyke is currently living in Seattle – her van broke down there back in the '80s and she’s been there ever since. We’ve been in close contact since the project began and she is so excited for this new generation of Van Dykes. I think we are just picking up from where they left off and continuing the legacy for the modern queer voice."
Warm evenings and endless summer days characterise Galindo’s images. With dreamy scenes of lake swimming, open roads and gentle embraces between friends and lovers, the pictures have an intimate and nostalgic feel. "My visual style is very sculptural and raw. In a world that is over-polished, I like to bring something real and deeper to the conversation. My gift is that I can really see people and make connections. Too often we are mapping projections onto people – especially with the influence of social media – but I love people just as they are and I think my community feels that when we create together. The Van Dykes images are more of a candid feel than my typical work and I love how liberating that feels. It's a very day-in-the-life approach." Galindo’s pictures are mostly of people from their extended network, or friends of friends, but there are also some people they met by chance along the way, because the photographer embraces an open and organic process.
Some of Galindo’s favourite images from the project so far are tied to special moments. In one such image, their friends Des and Cherish and their little dog, Dude, stand together looking down at Galindo’s camera, a cluster of trees stretching into the sky behind them. "Queering nature is one of my all-time favourite things to do. I took this picture last summer when we linked up at Alpine Lake. We got these two blow-up paddleboards and all went skinny dipping in the middle of the lake. For queer, non-binary and trans folks, being naked outside can feel very unsafe, so for us to all be together and feel that free on our own little island for the day was a sacred experience I’ll never forget." Cherish designed both books for the project too – further evidence of its collective, bonded nature.
Another of Galindo’s most loved pictures comes from Lamar Van Dyke’s personal archive. Awash with hazy, peachy hues, it depicts a group of the original Van Dykes at a picnic. "It’s reassuring to see this image," muses Galindo, "and it feels like we are living parallel existences in a way, with our queer elders from the past. We really owe everything to them." Elsewhere, an image of one of Galindo’s friends standing in front of a giant sign that reads 'YOU ARE HERE' feels perfectly apt. "It’s like a nice reminder that you are here. We are all here," Galindo says.
Through the title of the project, and its core mission, one of Galindo’s key interests is how we might work on redefining the word 'dyke'. "In the past it was a term that excluded trans and non-binary folks," the photographer says, "but in a modern context it can encompass not only queer women and lesbians but Two Spirits, non-binary and trans folks as well. There are so many labels and identities out there, this is just the term that feels right for me. I’m a Two Spirit Xicanx Dyke."
Recently, Galindo has been organising queer camp-outs in the California wilds and continues to find ways to engage and connect with their community. "This is a forever project, and it’s just getting started," Galindo says warmly. "I want to continue to document and make art with my fellow queers so we have a beautiful archive to look back on this time." The Van Dykes Project is a visual odyssey brimming with fun and the freedom of self-expression but it also highlights the importance of writing LGBTQ+ legacy into the history books. "I feel a deep sense of responsibility to create socially engaged work," says Galindo. "I want to live my life in the spirit of my queer elders and ancestors – with a sense of queer rebellion and liberation guiding me along the way. I let their energy flow through me and I tend to be very purposeful about the images I want to see in the world. There’s so much noise, I just want to disrupt that for a moment."