"I'm not easily digestible and don't want to be digested easily."
There are few things better, than lying in bed on a Saturday morning, after a long week and posting a story about one of your new favourite photographers, Rakeem Cunningham. Yes, we are taking a moment to appreciate the work of this L.A. native who enjoys putting those usually behind the camera, front and centre.
We caught up with him to talk politics, categories of gay and our second favourite YouTube clip of all time.
I live in Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. I was born and raised here and I feel a special, almost spiritual connection to this city. I think the valley has really defined a big part of who I am and the kind of people I gravitate towards. A lot of people make fun of the valley for being boring or what not, which it can be, but I’m proud of my roots and rep my hood! Haha…
What do you do?
Right now I work as a Gallery Director for an artist-owned gallery in Santa Monica. Essentially my job is to write press releases, maintain the day to day functions of the gallery, help curate exhibitions, etc.
It’s funny though because I feel there’s this huge disconnect between the work I make and the work that the artists at the gallery make. Normally I don’t even show them work I make or even talk about it with them.
We heard that when it comes to your photography, you prefer working with ‘non models.’ Is that right?
Yes, I prefer to shoot ‘non-stereotypically model-esque’ subjects, but I think it’s a tricky situation. I hear the term ‘real people’ floating around a lot, and I hate that because models are real people too. They have hopes, goals, and fears.
There are models that are oppressed and not as sought after or rarely booked. There are models who were refugees, so I don’t like to erase them.
I usually say I prefer to shoot people who ‘society wouldn’t deem as stereotypically attractive.’ I think there’s something so profound and beautiful when you shoot people who don’t make a living from being in front of a camera. There’s a nervousness/awkwardness that I love trying to capture and the moment your subjects start to feel comfortable in front of the camera is a personal accomplishment for me. At that moment they know that me asking them to work together isn’t just a gimmick but that I’m reaffirming that they really are worthy of being documented and noticed. Not just by me, but others as well.
A while ago a friend asked me why the photographs I make are ‘so pretty’ and ‘lit’ like fashion photographs and that’s for a few reasons. I like to shoot my subjects in traditionally fashion like situations because for one, I think it’s a statement to say ‘Here is this person that would be denied a contract with an agency because of their height, the skin colour, their weight, etc and I’m going to shoot them in the same way I would a contracted model.’ On a more base level, I’m currently of the mindset that I just like that look aesthetically.
A critique of my work I’ve heard is that my lighting is reminiscent of fashion work which commodifies its subjects, but I like to think I use it to uplift my subjects. I’m always very aware of each person I shoot and take the time to honour them in a way that they are comfortable with – often using props to make the subject themselves into a piece of art to be documented. And it’s important to note that I try to mostly do this for people of colour. We are so often treated as tools or a token and I want to use my art to uplift us in a way where we can be humanized and not criminalized. I don’t necessarily find it difficult in treating myself or my subjects differently because the whole point of what I do is to confirm that we are different to society and that’s okay. I’m reclaiming that. I want my subjects to accept, revel in, and feel proud about the things that make them different and unique.
Whose work do you look to for influence?
I’m influenced mostly by Tim Walker, Olivia Bee, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus. I just think their work has something that is MAGICAL. But on the flip side, I actually don’t look at a lot of other photographer’s work because I usually look at my own body of work and try to figure out how to improve on myself instead of comparing myself to legends. In my opinion, doing that will lead to depression. Haha…
How do you find gay life? Do you fit into a sub genre?
When I first came out, I tried to find my little gay niche. Was I an otter? A bear? Those categories on Grindr really left me confused because I don’t fit in anywhere, but I don’t care to fit in anywhere. Those labels are nice and offer comfort for some, but to me they can be oppressive and take over one’s own personal identity.
By that I mean, I’m more than some Grindr label that essentially makes it easier for someone to digest me. I’m not easily digestible and don’t want to be digested easily. I’m complicated and appreciate people who see that complexity and accept me regardless. I think if it works for you then by all means, live your truth. But MY personal truth does not include those sub genres.
I 100% agree and identify with your statement on Facebook about how ‘the ideal’ looking guys have to do nothing to get attention – but I feel like I have to try much harder and have something to compensate for that. Ultimately your personality has to shine SUPER brightly online as the internet rewards looks over personality. Can you talk us though that and whether you see that changing?
I stand by my statement because I think that will always be true. Especially in gay communities, someone just has to be pretty and the world DROPS to their feet. People shouldn’t have to feel the need to compensate because I think people treat looks and personality or talent with false equivalency.
The best thing I did for my self-esteem was to stop equating someone’s looks with my talent or my personality. Someone looking good does not put them above me. I’m not compensating for not having chiseled cheeks or not having abs because it’s not the same. So now I look at it like, ‘Okay, you look good. AND?’
How is Trump’s America affecting you? What do you think the future holds?
Trump has got me fucked up. I’ve never wanted to fight someone so badly in my life. Haha…But, his being president really affirmed for me that a majority of the white electorate will choose whiteness over womanhood, over healthcare, etc., which has been oddly empowering because I gave myself permission to be myself fully.
He’s going to launch attacks on POC, our bodies, and our ideals. Because of that, I’m fully living in my truth and not censoring or watering myself down. Conversely, I’ve never been under this amount of anxiety in my life. I think trump (and I REFUSE to capitalize his name) is white supremacy’s last stand and republicans are showing their ass to try to ‘make America great (for white people) again.’ But I firmly believe that POC are not to be underestimated. I said this before on my Facebook, but I think black women are going to be at the forefront of this movement and I honour them for it.
Lastly we are named after the infamous Mariah song, ‘Loverboy.’ What is your favourite Mariah song?
I have to pick two. ‘Fly Like a Bird’ and ‘Cry’ from Me.I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. (What an EPIC title). ‘Fly Like a Bird’ because it got me through so many hard times in high school when I didn’t have friends and the Grammys performance of the song is literally what I picture the entrance to heaven to look like. ‘Cry’ because….if you have working ears, you get why.