Liminal Space’: Refocusing Our Lens on Queer Americans

By Chloe Chang, age 16, Herricks Senior High School, New Hyde Park, N.Y.

Garish, loud and radiantly bright are words one might expect to describe a photojournalistic chronicling of life in the L.G.B.T.Q. community, however, Mengwen Cao’s latest project, “Liminal Space,” eschews popular stereotypes, offering queer portraits that are unapologetically ordinary and painstakingly in-the-box — and that’s the point.

With blaring headlines and outrageous glamorized magazine covers of self-expression — the queer community has garnered increased visibility in today’s cultural scene. Unfortunately, this step forward has catalyzed a largely spectacularized and glitzy-glam view of what it really means to be queer. This media trend comes from an industry that has largely shunned diversity in gender and sexual identity in the past. The result: an apologetic and overproduced portrayal of queer identity that neglects to detail the authenticity and vulnerability of their lived humanity.

In contrast, Cao, an up-and-coming Chinese queer photographer, is exactly what the photography scene needs. Choosing to explore the communal space between race, gender and cultural identity, Cao’s newest photo series reveals the seemingly-mundane privacies of queer life and redefines the sensationalized modern media image of the L.G.B.T.Q. community. In a culture that frequently transfigures the image of queer individuals into grandiose visions of violence and glamour — to see young queer adults fixed into a casual and authentic frame is enlivening.

Vitalized by intrinsically subdued hues and dreamy textures, the photographs in this series illuminate the “liminal space” of queer life by capturing its models during the prosaic and diurnal junctures of everyday life that are often neglected by the camera. By snapping friends during intimate and fleeting instances of privacy, Cao — the artist-turned-social-activist — preserves the delicate essence of human vitality with a click of the shutter — capturing the silence that frames queer life behind the exterior noise.

Featuring photographs softened by natural golden rays, Cao captures the intricate streaks and shades that highlight the vivid landscapes of their portraits: In “Suzy & Cristine,” a sun-kissed Sapphic couple lovingly embracing atop ruffled bedsheets. In “Grace Preparing for Hot Pot,” soy sauce and fish balls scattered across a wooden table, with warm, cozy light and tantalizing smoke rising from the heated pot. Grace, clad in a casual muscle tee, focuses on the traditional Chinese dish in front of them with a candor that reveals a slice of daily life without any of the camera’s performative elements.

A stark contrast to the eye-catching ostentatious displays of queer models in modern photography, Cao designs these quotidian moments to the familiar and authentic backdrops of everyday life. Through capturing nondescript instances of queer beauty in bluntly vulnerable moments, Cao brings to life a candidly realistic image of queer individuals that broadens the span of society’s camera lens.