Queer Girls

Marjani Viola Hawkins. Self portarait.

By Caryn Bird, October 2017 Issue.

Even before Marjani Viola Hawkins completed her Bachelor’s degree in communication at Arizona State University, she was already submerged in her passion project.

In January 2016, the local photographer set out to capture 100 portraits of 50 women who identify under the queer umbrella for her forthcoming book entitled Queer Girls.

Hawkins, who does business as MVHPhoto, became interested in photography as an art form while enrolled in a beginner course at Northern Arizona University her freshman year. From there, she set out to explore the world through the lens of her camera.

Since that first – and only – photography class, she’s contributed to more than three dozen publications, podcasts and other platforms. And now she’s turning her attention to getting her own project published.

For Queer Girls, however, the photos are all shot with 35mm film and there are two poses of each model – either completely clothed outside for both photos, or one nude taken indoors.

This body of work is compiled, but still in the production phase. And Hawkins hopes to release the book early next year. In the meantime, Echo caught up with the young artist to find out more about what inspired this project and what she hopes to achieve with it, and here’s what she had to say.

Echo: First tell us a little about yourself as an artist, photographer, and queer identified lady?

Hawkins: I am definitely a woman of many hats. I have been doing photography for 10 years now, and I only started taking it seriously in college [at] around 20 years old. I also write a lot. I have a pretty extensive writing background. I used to work for a newspaper when I went to NAU, so it all just coincides. I think of myself as an artist, primarily a photographer, but all-around an artist. This whole book, Queer Girls, is basically a way to have my photography and my identity and the direction I want my life to go in … all intersect.

Echo:Following up on the intersection of art and identity, how does your identity come into play as far as the start and inspiration for Queer Girls?

Hawkins: With social media I wasn’t ready to say something [about my sexuality] online. And what is so odd about the whole thing, is that still to this day I am very careful about what I post in regards to my own sexual orientation versus what I post about my art in the book. So it’s like making this book is a way to constantly come out, and show a bit of my LGBTQ identity, but at the same time not be like, ‘This is what I did this weekend.’

I am starting to realize that people don’t really care. And the people who do care, you know who they are and you probably want to stay away from them. But, other than that, the barriers that I have in place about my own identity I kind of put them in my own head.

"Queer to me is not only an identity. It is an existence. It's an expression to accept those that do not fit in to society's conventional cultural norms. Being queer is the closet thing to being human, and as humans we have many complexities."

Charmaine | 25 | Queer.

Echo:So do you see your photography and this book as place where you are able to sort of work through those barriers?

Hawkins: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because I just got so frustrated, and I think that is where the book came from. I started it my senior year in college. I just left ASU in May of 2016, and I was almost out of there. I was feeling like my life was going to change again. It kind of became a catalyst to really be myself, and it was important for my artistic direction in general.

I feel like the photography market here is all about money and less about art. So I would have continued just doing things because I wanted to make money or get some sort of social presence rather than working toward something that meant something, and I could change my direction … the book is definitely a push in many directions for me.

Echo:So, Queer Girls is the book’s title. When you say ‘queer,’ what does that mean to you? And what can you tell us about your decision to use ‘girls’?

Hawkins: Well, first on the title, I didn’t want to say girls because they’re all women over 18, but I felt like it was catchier. A problem with that, side note, is that all my participants seem to be young women who are in their 20s, and that bothers me immensely. I feel like if it was called Queer Women then I would have a bigger range of people which I am going to strive for next time.

Ironically, I took a queer theory class my senior year … some of what inspired this project was learning about what queer actually means. My definition of queer is that it doesn’t have one, and that’s the best function of it to me because queer can mean something so different to every single person. It can, also, relate to so many different things. Queer doesn’t necessarily mean sexuality to some people. Some of the women when they hear queer, they may think about the way they dressed that day or gender representation …

"I first heard the term queer in my early 20s and had known it meant odd or different from the norm but I didn't realize it could be applied to sexuality. I aways had boyfriends growing up and, of course, girlfriends that I had to hide or keep secret. I was always kind of ashamed of that side of me. I had been told growing up bisexuality wasn't real and being gay was wrong but luckily I went to an art school and was surrounded by people of every different background. They led me down a very positive path and it was a long road to get to where I am. Today I am openly queer and so grateful to have been a part of this wonderful project Marjani has put together."

Ashley aka Vixiee Mallery | 27 | Queer.

At the same token, queer is kind of a mess when it comes to saying LGBTQ because for some people identify as lesbian or bisexual and they use those words or gay, they don’t like the fact that queer seems to be an erasure of specific identity that they have been fighting for or we have been historically fighting for. I understand that, too.

Say for example, … [if]  someone brings up sexuality, I am not going to go, ‘Let me tell you exactly what it is!’ I am just going to say, ‘I’m queer,’ to kind of cover all bases. It is like a middle finger, I guess. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m me and I am not really going to explain myself to you, so this is it. Be confused.

At the same time, I think it is a good term just to say that you are a part of a community, a specific community, a legible community. It is a way of pointing out difference, I think, in a really positive way. I think it makes a lot of people feel a lot safer being able to have a word that is not so black and white.

Echo:Who would you say is the audience for this work?

Hawkins: I want it to appeal to women. Again, same as queer, however a person defines themselves as a woman. I want that to appeal to them. That is the most important part about this book to me is bringing women’s’ voices and presence to the forefront of, I guess, a movement. Again, in Arizona especially, I think other states are known for being very LGBTQ friendly, and we’re not necessarily one of those states, so I wanted to bring that to a female audience. I wanted to create almost a safe space without being too presumptuous.

I want the audience to be women and women who relate to being queer in anyway that they relate to being queer. As far as the demographic, obviously it is going to appeal to young people if there is only young in it, unfortunately, but I hope that people who are x number of years and older will be able to appreciate the underlying message of why I am doing it, even if it doesn’t necessarily seem like it represents them.

Echo:How did you find the models for Queer Girls?

Hawkins: Actually the way it started a was few of the people I went to school with from that queer theory class. I just pretty much went home, made flyers, and then I came in the next day and I told the professor, ‘I need to plug something real quick. You’re going to have to let me do this,’ and he was like, ‘OK, go ahead.’ I got up there, and I am holding my files, ‘If anyone’s queer pose for my book!’ And like three or four girls immediately emailed me. From then, I photographed two of the women who were in my class, and from there it just snowballed in an unbelievably easy way where I’ve never had to search for people. The network just picked up.

"The word queer can mean one thing to one person and a whole lot to someone else, but for me queer means my community. I belong in the queers and I feel at ease when I’m with fellow queers. It’s another place to call home for me."

Shannon Humphrey (left above) | 24 | Lesbian.

"The word queer can mean one thing to one person and a whole lot to someone else, but for me queer means my community. I belong in the queers and I feel at ease when I’m with fellow queers. It’s another place to call home for me."

Victoria Giles-Vazquez (right above) | 27 | Queer.

Echo:How would you describe the diversity of the queer women represented in your book? What intersectionalities are taking place?

Hawkins: That has actually been a critique as far as racial representation. I have been critiqued that a lot of the participants, or too many of them are white or white presenting. I think that opens up a way bigger conversation about how race affects queer identity. Which is super problematic and a shock to me, but not really at the same time because people of color have an incredible journey to try and come out and be comfortable in their own communities. I thinks that’s why I don’t have very many women of color in my book, but I do have a few. Really the thing about it is the physical differences as far as terms within the LGBTQ female community in just the way that we define ourselves as women. I think that is the biggest difference. You have a woman who is super, super femme and then you have a woman who is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

Echo: How would you say your work fits into a larger body of queer representation? What is your specific spin?

Hawkins: One reason, not the sole reason, I wanted to put this together is I am a photographer first. The reason why I wanted to do this in photography, and photography only, as a way to present this idea was because I didn’t see anything like it when I go to bookstores – even today in Arizona …

Echo:What’s the next project you’d like to tackle after Queer Girls?

Hawkins: I’ve thought of taking the same premise and choosing a different demographic within the LGBTQ community to photograph. I have a few ideas of what my next project will be. It’ll definitely stem from this book, but I’d like to keep it to myself for now.

"What being queer means to me: It lets me appreciate the beauty in everyone, no matter what gender or orientation they are. It means that I can be authentic to the core, which is the most freeing feeling in the world."

Kari Lynn | 26 | Pansexual.

Echo: Where can readers catch you next/in the coming months?

Hawkins: In the next few months I will stop in at any highly publicized LGBTQ events around the Valley and up north [including Rainbows Festival], but the rest of this year and early next will be mostly devoted to fundraising to get the book published.

For more information on Queer Girls or MVHPhoto, follow Hawkins at  ageoftheaquarius on Instagram, MVHPhoto on Facebook, or by visiting mvhphoto.com or queergirls.squarespace.com.

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