Alex Fradkin and Taz Tagore: Shattering Stereotypes of LGBT Homeless Youth

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 Derrick. © Alex Fradkin, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and The Reciprocity Foundation.

 

Transcending homelessness is about more than helping a young person find housing and employment. Transcending homelessness is about allowing yourself to be seen at your most vulnerable. — Taz Tagore 

 

BY BRITTANY WEBB | STUDENT CONTRIBUTOR| THE UNSHELTERED ISSUE  | WINTER 2017   

“What breaks your heart?” asks a stranger. It’s not a question that conjures up an immediate answer. You will feel caught off guard and maybe find yourself on the defensive. You may not want to answer the question, because it’s just too personal. It’s asking too much of you. You know that if you allow yourself to ponder, those memories you’d rather forget could flood to the surface, causing you to relive the moments you’ve tried to put behind you. What good would it do to be reminded of those moments that left you empty, broken, and bruised?

Taz Tagore and Adam Bucko, co-founders of The Reciprocity Foundation, believe the answer to this question will help you cultivate a purposeful life. Located in Manhattan, the nonprofit works with 100-200 unsheltered LGBT youth per year, providing emotional support to those who have suffered traumatic experiences as a result of their sexual and/or gender orientation. Many of them have been entrapped in a cycle of displacement from an early age, and find it hard to shake the various circumstances they’ve encountered. Being invisible becomes a survival mechanism.

How do you get someone to feel comfortable opening up, when all they’ve known is rejection? The Reciprocity Foundation sees themselves as enablers. Instead of greeting the youth with a stack of papers to fill out, they ask them to reflect on three questions that challenge them to delve deeper to envision the lives they wish to lead. To do this, the youth confront the past that has wounded their hearts time and time again. It takes a while, but by channeling into their potential and taking steps to heal past trauma, the youth have been able to pave a new path for themselves.

According to the True Colors Fund, LGBT youth represent 40% of youth experiencing homelessness.It’s important to realize that unsheltered youth are not only in need of housing and employment. They are left vulnerable, with limited resources and solutions. While these things may be vital for security, they can also be stripped away at moment’s notice. Oftentimes, unsheltered youth find themselves in and out of multiple shelters and jobs. The Reciprocity Foundation encourages each individual to figure out their passions by first taking holistic steps to heal.

 

A view of the interfaith shrine found in the Meditation Space at the Reciprocity Holistic Center. © Alex Fradkin. Courtesy of the artist and The Reciprocity Foundation.

 

To celebrate the foundation’s 10th anniversary, Alex Fradkin, a freelance architectural photographer and teacher, teamed up with Tagore and The Reciprocity Foundation to publish SEE ME, a book of photos and essays centered around the youth. SEE ME demands that readers shift their gaze to follow the individual stories of LGBT youth that have been through extraordinary difficulties, but have found the strength within themselves to transform their lives.

Fradkin was introduced to Tagore through a friend, and proposed the book idea after learning about the mission of the foundation. “I had been wanting to work with an organization like this to donate my time and work, and this was perfect,” he says. “The first day I met Taz and the students I fell in love and their stories deeply touched me.”

Over a period of almost two years, Fradkin mentored the youth. He wanted the right moment for the photograph to come naturally. “It took many, many months before the camera even came out. There was always a dialogue happening and the photographs were almost incidental to the process,” he says. The youth had control over how and where they were portrayed. The camera snapped when they were at their most relaxed and comfortable state, a result that came from a more personal connection.

Fradkin photographed the youth in places throughout New York City that had significance to them, including places of ambition and places that hold difficult memories. His biggest challenge was letting go of his control, and letting the narrative take its own form. A narrative that felt consistent and true to each individual story.

He waited for the youth’s personalities to emerge on their own. “Eventually they would go, and start to think about [their pose] for a minute, then kind of relax. I’m just kind of waiting. Their body posture starts to take on its natural figuration, and then it starts to look more authentic.”

 

  • Mahfoud
  • Angelika
  • Riya
  • Connor
  • John
  • Eleet
  • Lyssette
  • Jamal
  • Mysterie
  • Danielle

© Alex Fradkin. Courtesy of the artist and The Reciprocity Foundation.

 

Tagore, writer of the essays, captures each story with resonance. There is a reassurance that where you are, is not who you are. This group of LGBT youth are true testaments that knowing your power also means knowing your purpose, and knowing what breaks your heart could be the answer needed to compel you forward.

“Transcending homelessness is about more than helping a young person find housing and employment,” she says. “Transcending homelessness is about allowing yourself to be seen at your most vulnerable, and they leverage our support to transform into their most powerful self.”

For Connor, after years of being silenced, it was the power of the voice within that led him to fight for a cause he genuinely believed in. For Lyssette, her own hardships have inspired her to help others who are in need of healing. Derrick for so long shielded himself for survival, and it was dance that would help him put his best foot forward. Courageous Danielle, who suffered ridicule at school, found her freedom through dance as well. Creative Mahfoud’s ability to shapeshift himself landed him a career as a fashion stylist.

Geena Rocero, founder of GenderProud and also featured in SEE ME, believes that the power of being seen made all the difference in her life when she found the courage to share her gender story with the world. In order to be seen, the youth had to first allow themselves to see who they truly are. By knowing what breaks their heart and what truly makes them feel alive, they were inspired to envision the change they wanted to see in the world. This helped each individual cultivate the tools they needed to become leaders in the making.

By tapping into what makes them feel alive, the youth unraveled their deepest desires and answered the call to live their truths. SEE ME moves past statistic labels, and asks that you acknowledge the hearts and minds of each youth. Fradkin captures the portraitures in vibrant color, so you witness the beauty and raw emotion in every photograph. You’re up close and personal with each individual to witness all their potential. It will rupture any preconceived notions and offer a new perspective.

Homelessness has not defined these individuals, but it has refined their outlook on life. Patterns of homelessness may continue and sometimes there are no concrete solutions, or happy endings. For this group of LGBT youth, recognizing their potential was a step towards creating their own freedoms. What they have gained is intangible, something an external force can’t take away.

SEE ME is both emotional and breathtaking at every turn and readers will find themselves rooting for these individuals, and the greater responsibility to lessen the number of unsheltered LGBT youth. Besides using spirituality to help each youth heal trauma, the organization also places youth in media and art centered internships and higher educational programs. The Reciprocity Foundation has done well to take initiative of this issue by fostering connections and treating each other like family. These images, honest and inspiring, create another layer of visibility that we have yet to see.

All proceeds with each purchase of SEE ME go toward supporting the Reciprocity Foundation.

BRITTANY WEBB

BRITTANY WEBB

Brittany Webb is a grad student majoring in Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU. Born in South Carolina, she is a media, politics, and activism enthusiast seeking to further her studies around the complex relationship between media and society. Her focus is on the (under/mis) representation of people of color in the media that further perpetuates social disadvantages. She is committed to finding ways to reinforce positive imagery within the media to promote effective social change.
 

 

 

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