Written by Ryan Lyons
One of the most valuable things about photography is that it grants us access into someone else's world. That’s why the medium has been so valuable in this generation. It opens America’s eyes to injustice. It opens discriminating minds to bias. Gioncarlo Valentine’s work is invaluable because of its sincerity and because the perspective is all his own.
Valentine's work embraces folks of many backgrounds, celebrating and bringing awareness to marginalized communities. He taught me things from the LGBTQ community that I didn’t know, and some things about black people that I wasn’t as hip to. For instance, we discussed the way the media reports the murder of transgender women: they might not be labeled as women at all. Many times their own families won’t identify them as transgender, so we can’t accurately tally the amount of trans victims who experience that abuse. We also spoke about the comradery between straight and gay black males, and the importance of us being able to communicate without homophobia disrupting our ability to connect. The end point is, there needs to be more collective union within all sectors of the black community, and if we allow gender, sexuality or socio economic status threaten our union, then we’ve lost.
We also walked through the west side of Baltimore in the hood together, shooting film, eating gravy fries, and enjoying the Baltimore scenery. Truth is, he gave me the valuable gift of aligning me back with my hood in Sandtown, a place I hadn’t walked around in quite some time.
We all scroll through Instagram, admiring the work of photographic visionaries, but I had the great opportunity to delve into the world of expression with a fellow photographer, and understand the reasons behind his creations. Peep our interview below.
When did you first pick up a camera?
I picked up my first camera on January 13th 2011. I’d been taking a lot of pictures of my best friend who has a serious androgynous beauty. I bought two cameras, the Sony Nex 5 and the Pentax k12 in Ruby red. I had always had an affinity towards photos it just took years for me to realize I had always been taking pictures, I just wasn’t aware of the continuity.
What makes film special to you?
Film is an anomaly to me. Film images on medium and 35mm always blow my mind. They are crisp and detailed in a different way than digital. Although I’m a primary digital shooter, digital doesn’t really have much soul. You have to make that shit up in post-production. When I look at a good film image it can’t really be compared to anything else. It’s completely evocative. It’s utterly timeless and I think that is one of the most important parts of an image.
Whose photography from now or in the past speaks to you?
I feel connected to the work of so many photographers. From the past Eli Reed, Gordon Parks, Joseph Rodriguez. From the present Jaclyn Martinez, Stephen Obisanya, Mark Lark, and you Ryan. Everybody in my life knows how I feel about Andre Wagner’s work. I’ve never seen someone so good; continue to groom his talent and his eye so continuously. He is the real deal. I have no doubt he is this generations Gordon Parks. I admire the work of Dana Scruggs. Her work has a serious voice to it. I can always tell one of her images, no matter where I see it, and it’s always stunning. There are way too many people to name. I could go on for hours.
"It makes me happy to do work that I care deeply about and I’m trying to explore many of these themes in my photo essay work but it’s difficult and I overthink way too much." - Gioncarlo Valentine
What's your favorite part of the photography process?
My favorite part of the photographic process depends on the format. In film, it’s the processing. I love the mixing of chemicals, and how attentive one has to be. It’s such a cool exciting process. In digital I love post processing, but I also love shooting. It’s one of my favorite experiences to shoot with a model who I really vibe with and who trusts me. That makes the whole experience incomparable.
How do you maintain a balance between someone who wants to make art, make a difference and be able to make a living?
This is a tough one. I have been struggling with that. I organize my life in a way that I’m always in service to the underserved. So I volunteer a lot and I get jobs working with certain populations that I feel connected to. I work the homeless because I was homeless a lot. I work with foster youth because I’m a former foster youth, the intellectually disabled because I have family members who are intellectually impaired, the Tran’s community because they are our most vulnerable population. So I’m always trying to do good work. So since none of these jobs pay shit, I’ve learned to live more menially. It makes me happy to do work that I care deeply about and I’m trying to explore many of these themes in my photo essay work but it’s difficult and I overthink way too much.
"This country owes a great and terrible debt to African American's and everyone knows it." - Gioncarlo Valentine
What venue would you like to see your photography in offline?
I would love to see some of my work at The Studio Museum in Harlem, MoCADA, The Brooklyn Museum, The Bronx Museum, The Reginald F. Museum and in print at Brick Magazine, W magazine, and maybe one day a book printed by Steidl. Just to name a few places.
What was your experience like teaching at the Reginald F. Lewis museum?
Well I was working with the youfs at the Gordon Parks/Robert Houston Summer Academy. It was a program that taught young people about photography and film. I only taught there for a session but returned to see all of their film screenings on the July 31st. It was a great experience for me. I’m no teacher, so it was certainly interesting but there were some very talented and inspiring people in that room. I think the academy is really incredible. It teaches young people many of the fundamentals of film and photography; it caters to their preferences between the two mediums, and gives them real world applications of learning. I’m glad that the museum gave it the space and opportunity. Shout out to Babatunde Salaam for inviting me and being amazing. After the kids screening I got to meet Robert Houston. He has been taking pictures for over 50 years and he is extremely talented. I’ve been a fan of his work for about 3 years so that was really unexpected and exciting. I wish his work received more acclaim, not only is he independently talented but he was the mentee of Gordon Parks.
There were many black homocides before Trayvon Martin. What about that specific tragedy woke you up?
I think it was the spaces that I occupied at the time, and I appreciate you for remembering that fact. You’re such a cool guy Ryan…lol. I was going to Towson University, one of the world’s whitest Universities. We were about to discuss this terrible thing that happened and I was anxious to be in a place where we could all feel the grief of this child’s murder. And ALL of the white people in this particular room, every single one, offered some useless alternative that made it his fault, or that layered him in this inauthentic coating of guilt and responsibility. I was one of two Black people in the room and I lost it. This was my first time opening my eyes up to this aspect of whiteness. Black deaths have taken the main stage in the Black experience as of late and this Anti-black sentiment that oozes out of so many white people, in the face of Black death, is like a viscous grease. It’s repellent in every way. That was my first time coming in contact with it.
Being a gay black man, do you feel liberated by shooting other gay black men? If no what does make you feel liberated?
Hmmm. I’ve never felt liberation from shooting other gay men particularly or because they were gay. I feel liberated by shooting Black and Brown folks. I enjoy the beauty of all Black people so shooting Gay men, Trans women, Dominican men always makes me feel liberated because their beauty is still thought of as alternative, or secondary. In my opinion it’s primary. Everyone should and can feel represented. So I always feel good about that. I also feel liberated being my regular gay self in all of these hyper masculine spaces, such as photography. I have very few gay photographers in my canon so getting close to straight Black photographers and being able to feel respected is very important to me. I demand it.
What does is mean to be a black nationalist?
Black Nationalism gets such a bad rap these days. To me, I identify my Black Nationalism as an internal philosophy. I believe that all African American people deserve to have spaces that are their own. Not ghettos that we are huddled into, that receive NO money from city or state, that receive NO maintenance, that if we say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing we will be thrown out of. We need authentic ownership of spaces. We need to have ownership in our communities and investment. It needs to happen at a state and local level. There are models of this in the Jewish community, in the Chinese community, and in many other places. Black people don’t have places that we can go, away from the gaze of whiteness. Where we can take off our masks and deal with our traumas. EVERY other group has these spaces. We actively allow whiteness to penetrate these spaces and I believe it’s really hindering us. This country owes a great and terrible debt to its African Americans and everyone knows it.