Filmmaker and photographer Elegance Bratton has spent the majority of his life immersed in New York’s underground black LGBT scene, firstly as a homeless, exiled teenager himself, and later to document the lives and stories of others following in his footsteps, forced onto the streets by their own families, purely due to their sexual orientation. His most recent venture, Bound By Night, documents the wildy creative and competitive House Ballroom scene, something that Bratton describes as "the most relevant new American cultural production around at the moment."
Originally stemming from the Masquerade Balls of 1920s Harlem, today’s scene – which spans the entirety of the United States – consists of numerous houses, founded by the black cross-dressing Queens of the New York underground in the 1980s. "These houses operated like families" explains Bratton, "they were responsible for nurturing tens of thousands of black gay and trans youth through adulthood, who had no other family to call on". The houses competed against one another in Ballroom Vogue dance competitions in which contestants "acted out scenes of Egyptian Hieroglyph, fashion poses and ghetto fighting within the context of ‘slaying’ the other opponent. Bound By Night chronicles the descendants of this generation as they offer the House Ballroom scene’s latest innovation, House Ballroom Music and Vogue Femme performance."
"My photographs are about the element of the human condition that makes strangers into family" — Elegance Bratton
The scene being something that Bratton could so closely relate to was what inspired him to create the tome. "I remember very clearly being a young gay person of colour and being unsure of how to ‘be’ in the world. Many of the questions I had back then I find answers to in the House Ballroom scene featured in my books pages. My photographs are about the element of the human condition that makes strangers into family. The House families of the Ballroom inspire me. I identify with the necessary real-time process of self-invention they undergo in order to survive and overcome personal hardship caused by the stigmatisation that mainstream society doles out to us. I really look up to these young people’s courage to self-determine their place in the world, and I am touched by their insistence on doing it together as a family."
Bratton met over 3000 individual members of the scene during the making of Bound By Night, "To each one of the individuals involved the scene means a different thing. Yzier – the young man on the book's cover – left home at the age of 12 to pursue a career in dance and escape a homophobic father. He joined the house of Extravaganza and has been in New York ever since. Softness, Kuntness and Realness are all meditations on the nature and attainability of power for the House Ballroom scene. To achieve any and all of these qualities through the scene is to say ‘I have the power and dexterity to pass through the outside world of the ballroom.' It says that I am worthy of acknowledgement and have the right to be proud of myself. Most importantly, to be in the scene means that you belong somewhere and have a family that respects you."
Text by Rhiannon Wastell