Brendan, Queen of the Desert
"I thought being gay was wrong, I didn't understand my sexuality, I had to go away and find it”.
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In 2017 I was working on my long-term project exploring the Australian bush. The work is a contemporary portrait of Australia's vast interior and its colonial legacy. It's a counterpoint to the often romantic notions of the Outback that exist in popular culture and the Australian psyche. One of the things I explore is the tension between the fiction and the reality of living in the bush.
I met Brendan Barlow in Broken Hill, a remote mining town that came to prominence after silver was discovered in 1883 and is also known as Silver City. At the foot of 10 story high mullock heap, the relic of a boom-time that is both a scar on the landscape and an endearing town feature, is the Palace Hotel. The building is a landmark local pub where miners would fill the wide timber verandahs to drink off a shift; it was also an actual shooting location for scenes in The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert film. Brendan performed in a weekly drag tribute show to the iconic 1994 film.
I had called the Palace a few days earlier to arrange to photograph the show and spoke with Brendan. I met him at his house to photograph him doing his makeup. It was a brick and weatherboard single-story home; a hills hoist stood in the backyard over a lawn parched from the ongoing drought.
I could tell Brendon was nervous as I watched him transform into Shelita Buffet ("she will eat a buffet"), his drag character. Then we drove two kilometers to the Palace for the event. The sweeping verandahs were empty these days, but tourists traveling westward on the Ghan railway still tottled a block from the train station to the drag show at the pub—this performance was specifically for them. Shelita and another queen, Melody, paid homage to Priscilla. I photographed them parading about and singing, and the elderly crowd enjoyed the spectacle.
When the show finished, Shelita and Melody walked the tourists back to their train, blew kisses, waved goodbye as the tourists boarded. Two passengers who hadn't attended the show approached sheepily and passed Melody a bible. God bless you, they said. The train tracks cracked as the tourists pulled away, and Shelita and Melody were left in fucking disbelief, insulted under a hot January sun.
When we got back to his house, Brendan told me, "It was hard coming out in a regional town. My family didn't accept it, and I had trouble accepting it myself. I thought being gay was wrong. I didn't understand my sexuality. So I had to go away and find it".
I asked Brendan to sit for me under the hills hoist clothesline in his backyard. The hills hoist symbolized an archaic image of a domestic and female domain in colonial Australia. In my mind, juxtaposing Brendan in drag next to this conveyed the changing cultural landscape of rural Australia. I asked Brendan to take off his red wig; it was too much of a mask. Brendan was nervous because he thought he would look like a "cancer patient." I asked him to trust me and explained that the portrait would be more about Branden than Sheliita, and that him looking more vulnerable would tell the story of his struggle coming out. He let me make this image.
A few weeks later, on Australia Day, I met Brendan out of drag and didn't recognize him in a t-shirt and shorts. We drank several beers around a chlorinated backyard pool in Broken Hill and celebrated with cynicism the colonization of Australia. I sent Brendan the photo after my trip, but we fell out of touch. When I passed through Broken Hill two years later, the bartender at the Palace told me Brendan didn't work there anymore.
As I reflect on this photograph, I wonder about its success as an image. I wonder if Brendan liked it. Did I take a photo based on my own preconceptions of his sexuality? Or did I make an image that helped Brendan envision himself?
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I find not many of my subjects really like my portraits of them. Mostly people want how they would like the world to see them rather than an image that shows any weaknesses or frailty. Difficult work to convince them otherwise
This is why you're a great photographer. I love this photograph. She looks so vulnerable sitting alone in the openness of the backyard. I think the old clothes line humbles her in a way, yet she still exudes confidence in that beautiful formal dress and heels. There's a lot to think about in this portrait that is way beyond the obvious.