All relationships come with their challenges, no matter how healthy and harmonious. Humans are individually complicated, nuanced creatures, so it can take extreme care to move through life with another person. Photographer Ryan Pfluger has been interested in these interpersonal dynamics for years, particularly as they play out within queer interracial relationships.
As someone who has navigated many of these relationships himself, Pfluger set out to create a body of work that portrayed their complexity, which has largely been underrepresented in art. So in 2020 and 2021, Pfluger traveled around the country to take portraits of queer interracial couples in their homes. He visited with 120 couples in the span of 16 months, which culminated in a glorious photo book from Princeton Architectural Press entitled Holding Space: Life and Love Through a Queer Lens.
Holding Space is officially available to the public starting today, and includes 100 color photographs alongside thoughtful written reflections from the couples themselves. As a longtime admirer of Pfluger’s photography, Holding Space has been on my radar since he first began sharing portraits from the project last year. I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Pfluger directly about his experience of taking these photos and his vision for the book itself.
Did you always envision this photo series as a book? What was the impetus for this project?
I always saw it as a book. When I started, I didn’t know what form that would actually take, and definitely didn’t expect for it to take the form that it ended up taking, which is very different from a typical photo book.
I originally thought of starting this work probably about 15 years ago. I had a very long-term, interracial relationship that I was in; we were together for around four and a half years. Afterwards, I felt like I had a lot of processing to do, just in understanding it as a queer relationship, and also an interracial relationship— it was a lot as a young person to understand. Pretty much all of my relationships up until around my 30s were interracial relationships, just by happenstance.
Each relationship is so different, and all of the dynamics dealing with race and background also were. I never knew how I wanted to deal with it photographically, but I knew that I wanted to at some point, once I had the life experience and tools to do so. COVID really was the reason for propelling that forward, because it was the first time as a working photographer that I really had the time to process the work I wanted to make, and it was also a time that I knew that people were going to want connection. It would also be the first time that couples would be spending the majority of their time together, whether it be the beginning of a relationship, or people that had been together for years. We all know how life goes: a lot of things are left unsaid, or we just don’t take the time to process and talk about our relationships when we’re dealing with the exhaustion of life.
It’s interesting to think about how the photographs and the participants’ written responses would have been different outside of the context of COVID.
COVID shifted people’s priorities. Also the political landscape currently, and the state of social dynamics— people are really trying to prioritize self-worth, and processing trauma, and understanding their boundaries. For me, it was the perfect time to explore all of that.
During the height of COVID, I was trying to keep myself in a space where I could feel like I was doing something important. I joke that this body of work is something that normally a photographer would take three or four years to do, taking appropriate breaks and pacing, but I was just full force into it.
How did you go about finding the couples you photographed for the book?
I’d say about 90% of the people in the book were complete strangers to me. There are some people that specifically reached out to me, which is the opposite of the way photographers usually go about more portrait-based, documentary projects; usually you’d embed yourself in a community. This project is very much about a community that is not necessarily connected to each other, but they have this connection because of what their relationships are. I often say that when you’re strangers, it allows people to express things that they maybe normally wouldn’t, because there’s no risk; I’m a neutral party. I don’t know these people intimately, but I’m asking them to be intimate for me. Since they approached me, they went into it knowing that. So there’s definitely a different power dynamic.
That’s kind of what I’m trying to do with photography: shift the control mechanism. I find that photographers in general are very controlling, and they have very specific ideas. That’s why we do model releases, and things to keep everything within whatever our creative vision is. I’m very much about having a very specific idea, but then seeing how it will organically evolve once I start shifting those power dynamics.
How did you gain the trust of these couples so that they’d be so vulnerable with you? Was it hard to get them to open up to you, or were they pretty forthcoming emotionally from the jump?
In general, people were pretty comfortable being vulnerable with me. Especially since a lot of the people had reached out to me, they were already aware of the creative work that I make. This hasn’t been the case with a lot of my previous work. I make work on the road pretty often, which is also kind of an outlier for queer photographers— it’s not really considered a safe space. So a lot of times, in the past, people have been meeting me for the first time in the moment, not aware of who I was or what I did. This experience was very different, because I was photographing people who were very specifically wanting to share their stories.
All of the information that the couples gave me, everything that they revealed about their relationships that I may have found really fascinating, I didn’t push them to share that publicly for the book. I allowed that control to go back to them. I told them only to share whatever it is that they wanted to. I didn’t want to force people by being like, Oh, wow, that thing that you told me was so fascinating, and also really traumatic, and I really think people need to hear it. It felt inauthentic for me to do that. That felt like a journalist trying to push to get the story. Instead, I was treating this more anthropologically. I wanted it to be exactly what people wanted to share about themselves.
I would push some of them to get more intimate about things and not give me so many platitudes and generalizations. But in general, for the most part, most people did open up in a way that I expected, because they were just as invested in letting people know the nuances of what intersectionality is. To show what it’s like to be intimately close with someone whose sheer existence is completely different from your own, and how that affects intimacy, and communication, and being together in public and being together in private. Showing how that dynamic can change just based off of who the person is, what their background is, what their race is.
In addition to the portraits of these couples, you’ve also included text written by each person, in which they reflect upon their relationship. Why did you decide to have text be such a significant part of the book alongside the photographs?
The book itself has about 85,000 words, so it’s almost as long as an actual novel. To me, that’s actually the most important part of the whole body of work. I knew that the photographs would have made a great monograph without any text, but I really wanted to challenge what a photo book can be, and what a monograph can be. I wanted to show the difference between what an artist statement is, and what a subject statement is, and interrogate why that is not part of the vernacular in photography.
When it comes to bodies of work that are about marginalized people, or specific groups that don’t necessarily have such a public voice, why do we still leave all of the power to either the writer, or the photographer, or the director? No matter how much you’re trying to tell someone’s story, there’s still a lot of power taken away when you take all of the control. Every photograph in the book was specifically chosen and approved by the couple. The final images for about 50% of the couples are not the images that I would have chosen— which is not something photographers normally do.
I really wanted to explore what it means to be a vessel for marginalized people when you’re part of that community yourself, to allow there to be space for true collaboration. No matter how kind you are, you’re still, at some point, objectifying people in a way. By definition, photography is objectifying, whether it’s in good spirits or bad spirits.
Hearing you speak about the way you engaged with your subjects, it’s clear you were so careful and intentional to hold space for them, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that’s also the title of the book. Meanwhile, these couples are holding space for each other in another way, in their relationships. Can you speak about these themes, and your decision for the book title?
As a child of therapy, “holding space” is a phrase that came up in my life a lot. I’ve always found that, in every scenario in my life where I’ve felt like I was wronged or not listened to, I’ve thought about how it actually takes so little to hold space for someone else. It’s just consciously making the decision to do it; never treating people, especially marginalized people, like they’re a monolith. Amongst the queer community, amongst the trans community, amongst the Black community, that’s so often what’s done. Everyone is treated as if they’re the same.
With this body of work, I wanted to hold space for individualization. It’s also very much about how, despite very different backgrounds, couples have managed to hold space for love, and understanding, and respect, and communication, which we so often don’t do.
I thought “Holding Space” really defined for me what it means to actually listen to someone’s individual story. That’s also why doing the textual component became so important, because I wanted it to be from these people’s own words, without pushing it or directing it in a way that fit what my views were, because it was not about me.
In light of some of the recent detrimental Supreme Court decisions, and the uncertainty of critical rulings in cases like Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges, how has that affected the importance of what you’ve created with Holding Space?
I think that generally as a society, we forget that it wasn’t that long ago that Loving passed; it wasn’t that long ago that Obergefell passed. All of these things, historically, are actually very recent. This book is legitimately the first of its kind. There isn’t a book that is on interracial queer couples. There are actually very few books, especially monographs, that are even about interracial couples.
A publisher took a “risk” on me to allow a book like this to exist. I had smaller publishers reach out to me when I first started putting out this work, and not really knowing how I wanted it to live, and how long I would be working on this. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my biggest problem with photography books in general is that they’re really inaccessible. They’re often very expensive. They’re often very short print runs, especially for the nicer art publishers, and they become more of a status symbol for your home, instead of a resource.
For me, I wanted this to be something that young kids can afford, and people in middle America can afford, and could also access with a click of a button. The fact that this book does exist, and it’s coming out in a way that you can get it anywhere ($30 for a photography book is unheard of)—that was my form of activism; making sure that this wasn’t just for a specific group of people. Making sure that this was something that can hopefully be a resource for libraries and universities in places where you may not see these kinds of relationships on a daily basis, but they sure as hell exist around you— you’re just not aware of them.
I wanted to make this book for the people who don’t have access to this kind of material. We say that because of the internet, people have access to everything, but the ability to hold something, and have something physical in your space that you can share with family members or friends is so important. Especially for someone who might just be coming to terms with their gender or sexuality, or still processing what it means to be a person of color in the spaces that they live in. I wanted these people to have access to stories and photographs that show these relationships in a really loving, and also really complicated way.
I actually think there are about 15 couples in the book who broke up after I photographed them. They talk about that, and what led to that, and a lot of it isn’t necessarily that they just ended up hating this person. It comes down to a lot of other things: transitioning as a trans person, or realizing that they were non-binary, or being a Black person and realizing that they can’t be with a white person because they don’t feel good in public spaces, even though they still love this person, but it’s just not healthy to have these dynamics in two different places.
I’ve had a few photographer friends of mine be like, “Are you trying to show how brave interracial couples are?” and I’m like, “No, I’m just trying to show how complicated they are.” These relationships are a space that, because of their intimacy, allow for these complicated and nuanced dynamics and conversations to exist. That’s what I care about. It’s not like, “Look how beautiful interracial couples are!” Because that angle comes from a place of whiteness, and that’s not what this is about.