Early in 2018, Halifax-born photographer Heather Glazzard launched a series called Queer Letters, inviting members of the LGBTQ+ community to sit for a portrait and share advice with their younger selves. Glazzard, who is currently on the Fashion Image MA at Central Saint Martins, started the project to shed light on the diversity of queerness, normally overlooked by mainstream media. A year later, it has been exhibited by Vogue Italia and Open Eye Gallery, and received funding from Arts Council England, an achievement recently toasted at twin exhibitions in Manchester and London.
You explore gender and sexuality a lot in your work. How did you get into photography and how did you develop your own point of view?
When my dad passed away, I used it as a form of therapy. I was already exploring photography, but not seriously, and when that happened, I needed a creative outlet. I went to study Fashion Styling at the University of Salford, with a focus on photography. I started photographing naked women – friends and people I was sleeping with – because I didn’t know what I wanted to say with my work. My tutor at the time saw that I was exploring sexuality, even before I realised that’s what I was doing. Then I went to intern for the photographer Richard Kern, who does a lot of nude photography, and he told me I should do something about being queer, because nudity wasn’t as interesting anymore. Originally, I started a collective for women, non-binary people and femmes called Moist. We did club-nights, events like queer speed-dating, poetry nights, exhibitions, residencies with Islington Mill. But it felt like a lot of work, and I realised if I was going to do something, it had to be in my own way.
Where did the idea for Queer Letters come from?
When I was growing up, I didn’t have something to relate to. I realised after Moist that I wanted to create a space where queer people could feel seen and understood. That’s how Queer Letters started. I applied for funding from Superbia, Manchester Pride’s year-round culture programme, in June 2018. It’s just grown from there. I got more funding from Arts Council England in January, which means I can pay everyone involved. It feels really good, knowing I can pay people, and I think it incentivises people to take part as well. The funding also included dyslexia support, which is so helpful.
The premise for Queer Letters is so personal and powerful. How do you find people to feature and make sure it’s inclusive?
The queer space is a community where you can be who you want. I don’t think we can escape labels, but queer feels more free. It’s how I personally identify. That said, I want to give visibility to new ideas of gender and sexuality. The project started with me photographing friends and people I knew, but now I find people on Instagram and when I’m out. I get quite paranoid about it, because I want it to be diverse and inclusive. I’m trying to do something worthwhile, but am I doing enough? There was one about being Muslim and someone told me it changed their life when they read it. I want as many people to feel like that as possible.
Why do you think the project resonates with people?
My therapist encouraged me to write to myself after my dad passed away. It’s so powerful, because you’re speaking to a part of yourself you might have forgotten. Writing feels like a form of therapy, so asking people to write letters to their younger selves provokes really interesting responses. When I see them all together I feel quite emotional, because even though they’re individual letters, they’re part of something bigger. People aren’t just writing to themselves. A lot of people write what they think would be useful for others to hear. Everyone keeps asking why I haven’t done one myself. I feel like I should. Maybe that’s the next step.
What were you hoping to achieve with the exhibitions you put on?
It’s quite a vulnerable project, so I felt self-conscious at first and hid it at the bottom of my website. Then Vogue Italia found it and featured it, and it ended up being exhibited at Open Eye Gallery. I realised that the project was about visibility, so I wanted it to be seen more. I would love to make it into a book. If kids in schools could read the book when they’re struggling or feeling marginalised, that would be great. I want the project to help people, but I need more funding to do that. Also, now that I’ve started paying people, I don’t want to have to ask people to do it for free.