I first started taking photos when I was gifted 50 disposable cameras, dumpstered from behind a Walgreens. At first, I took photos for fun; I loved taking images of my friends and getting them developed, turning them into intricate collaged photo albums. I realized early on that photographing my friends held deeper meaning than just normal everyday snapshots as I watched my fellow weirdos grin big when seeing themselves depicted.
As I grew older and into my queerness, my photography began reflecting my queer community. I started exploring themes within queer culture, such as #QueersInNature, a body of work that explores the deep connection queer folks tend to have with flora and fauna, and #RadQueerSpaces, a place to see the holy queer interiors that house our dreams. This work is important to me not only because it makes my friends happy but also because it documents moments in time with and for a particular set of folks not often considered in mainstream history.
As I grew into my fatness as an identifier, my photography reflected that. I surrounded myself with people who I found the most magic, folks who lived in bodies marginalized by society, similar to mine. After starting #BodiesLikeOceans, I watched as my photography took on a life of its own. I started getting messages and emails about how seeing fat people, queer people, trans people, disabled people, often folks with multiple intersecting marginalized identities in photography was changing people’s views of their own fatness, and others. My photographs depict fat people as beautiful and powerful, happy and strong, and my work made folks of similar circumstance feel empowered.
So here I am. It’s my job now! I take pictures so people can see how beautiful they are. I also take pictures so people know they are not alone, and that there are fat happy beautiful people in the world living it up and loving their bodies, even if just for an hour.
My goals for the future are huge and unending! I want to have billboards of fat bodies up in big cities, my work blown up and displayed alongside other fat artists’ work. I want to meet other fat artists from different countries and collaborate on some kind of large scale world W I D E exhibition. I want to photograph 100 fat people loving on each other all at once. I just want to continue to prove, without any doubt, that fat queer trans and other marginalized folks are beautiful and valuable. I have one million other ideas, but that’s a start.
This specific photo shoot came about when Zaire messaged me on Instagram. I was pretty full, didn’t have much time in Oakland left, but something told me that I should take it. From the moment I met them, I knew they were someone I definitely wanted to know.
They are from the South, and we both come from religious upbringings. With their shock of fluorescent hair and their fluffy sidekick Spiky, they were photogenic as all hell. They were down to do whatever, which is so great for me because it lets me feel free in my artistic practice, to pose and place people where I feel like they look best. I had been saving these tiny little pine cones that I had collected on the coast of Oregon for like a month and a half, not knowing what to do with them, but I knew what I wanted to do when I saw Zaire. I asked them to lay on their side in the grass, and I arranged the pinecones in a circle. Something about the difference and sameness of the texture the pinecones created and the texture of their stretch marks felt really powerful, especially when they looked directly into the camera for my favorite shot. I really like showing connections that our bodies have with nature, because nature is often thought of widely as magical, beautiful, perfect – and that’s how I intend to prove the divinity of fat folks.
Zaire, photographed by Shoog
An Interview with Zaire
Shoog: What does being Southern mean to you in terms of how you think about your identity and how other perceive you?
Zaire: Whenever I think about being a Southerner, I always notice this split in my identity. I haven’t been in the South for almost 10 years now and I deeply miss it. I think I felt more settled in my identity in a lot of ways back home in North Carolina, and in a lot of ways I knew I could never exist in a way that would feel comfortable or true to who I am or my values there.
When I first moved the West Coast I intentionally stopped using my accent. I never stopped using it out of shame; I was just exceptionally annoyed with how many people would laugh in my face after I would say something and then ask me to repeat it for their amusement. But that act right there, of completely changing the way I talk, altering my own voice, to exist in a state of false comfort around others, is what stands out most to me. At the time I would have completely denied that that was what I was doing but in retrospect, it’s the bare-bones truth. And once I acknowledge that, that’s where the splitting I mentioned occurs, because I notice these parts of myself that I love intensely, like my accent (that I’ve since stopped hiding), that I suppressed to exist outside of my home. But also what is home if I can’t be who I truly am?
There are so many identities that I have that conflict with each other and I’m constantly in this process of reconciling them. I’m also going to be honest and say that I’m never sure how others perceive me anymore. I exist in this space where I have to be hypervigilant for my own safety and it’s completely overwhelming. Being black, queer, fat, Southern, uneducated, gender non-conforming all overlap in these very intense ways that often mean I’m not sure if someone is staring at me because they’re falling in love (out of fetishization) or planning my murder.
Often times I don’t know what people are seeing when they look at me until they open their mouths to label me as a thing; this process of constant dehumanization, erasure, and fetishization has been traumatizing in itself, in addition to the ways that I hide/have hidden and destroy/have destroyed parts of myself, makes it almost impossible for me to trust anyone’s perception of me because more than likely, even if they get to experience parts of me, it’s still only parts of me and never my full identity.
S: Are there places and/or people you have found safe haven in/around? I know for me I wouldn’t be alive if it was not for my friends who make me feel like my existence is important and crucial. How do you find relief?
Z: I think the safest space for me is typically my bedroom! But there are definitely times I feel safer in queer freak/slut spaces – but I’m still always on edge.
Queers aren’t as radical as they think. There are numerous ways that I see white queers replicating oppressive dynamics and refusing to have a more nuanced view on things. Social climbing is everything to a lot queers so you have a lot performative allyship with no actual actions behind it. You know like, the irony of being called a nigger in front of someone with a Black Lives Matter shirt just goes over so many queers’ heads.
If you’re not popular in queer spaces you really gotta pray that your survival never depends on the queer community. Like the number of black trans women I see fundraising for survival is ridiculous, especially when you think of the number of queers saying things like “protect trans women at all costs” but really what I see is protect them unless it inconveniences you; and really if I have explain the ways black queers and black trans women are left behind in queer community protection that just means people aren’t paying attention. Ignorance is still bliss, even within our queer spaces and I don’t trust that queers can get it together anytime soon.
The most relief I find is among a small handful of people I call friends and in bed with my dog. I don’t trust people easily and I’m always protecting my heart. My mental health is really a combination of a lot of things, growing up poor and black and in the South meant I experienced a lot of things at a very early age that could quite possibly break a lot of adults but that was normalized for me. Coming out of that and realizing that my experience wasn’t typical for a lot of people was shocking and heartbreaking and infuriating. Honestly there’s a lot of generational trauma and mental health issues within black families that no one talks about, we just don’t address it because we can’t, we have a bill to be paid, we gotta find a way to put food on the table, we gotta find a way to take care of a rotting tooth. We’re so focused on basic survival that focusing on mental health is a “white folk problem” you know. Like wellness is such a foreign concept to us we associate it with a different race.
It’s definitely been hard surviving in this body with all these identities I hold. I remember being depressed as a kid. The first time I heard “Bag Lady” by Erykah Badu, I cried because I knew that would be me. I was maybe 11 years old. Which is just like wow, how much baggage can an 11 year old hold to hear a song like that and be reduced to tears?
I can barely hold down a job, I can’t hear compliments without wanting to retreat into my shell, I’ve stayed in shitty relationships, I’ve allowed myself to be abused, I’ve been abusive, maintaining housing is a constant struggle, people are genuinely surprised when I’m knowledgeable on something and all of these things are just like a snippet of things that I carry with me and mental health is a constant uphill battle. I’m not even sure if wellness in terms of my mental health is a thing I strive for – I really just want to be okay. I want to feel okay.
My goal is to grow and to not leave this realm the same person I’ve been for so many years. I want to love myself, I want to be a better communicator, I want to identify my toxic behaviors and rid myself of them, I want to experience something truly good and believe that I truly deserve to experience goodness without feeling guilty.
S: What were you thinking going into the photo shoot? Were you excited or nervous? How was the whole experience for you in terms of being seen? And how did you feel about the results from the shoot? What do you see when you look at the photos? What emotions come up for you, when you see yourself shining? And how do you think that it has brought your attention to your beauty?
Z: When I contacted you about a shoot the things most heavy on my mind were all the ways that I’ve been slowly trying to destroy myself. I started secretly trying to kill myself when I was 12. I was a cutter until I was 21 and had the worst breakdown of my life. At some point in middle school I was gaining weight and a family member decided to stand me in front of a mirror and ask me how I could be okay with what I saw and when I insisted that I liked what I was looking at (which was me), pointed out everything “wrong” with my body.
I couldn’t be in front of a mirror up until a few years ago and that was only to catch a glimpse of my outfit or something. Almost 20 years later and I still couldn’t look myself in the eye and was only beginning to accept that I have an eating disorder (which I’ve had since I was 12). I was in a relationship, that was very damaging to both my ex and I, for almost seven years. We broke up a little over a year ago and I’m still finding ways that being in that relationship impacted me and my relationship with myself.
So I came to you in a state of exhaustion with all these things that have been weighing on me for so long and I wanted to find a way to celebrate myself. I’ve been having more days where I catch myself in a thought process that I’m finally able to interrupt and reframe in a way that feels conducive to growth. I’ve been having days where I catch myself in the mirror and I finally feel comfortable saying, “Goddamn! If you ain’t one sexy unicorn!” I’m moving towards these spaces I want to be in, slowly, but I’m still moving. When I’d seen your photography before I’d noticed that the energy I feel when I look at your photos is an overwhelming sense of contentment. Genuine celebration and genuinely being present in that moment, and I knew that I needed that for myself to move to my next phase of healing. Which is wild because I avoided cameras for so long for the same reason that I avoided mirrors.
I was definitely nervous as all hell when we met but I immediately trusted you and felt comfortable. I didn’t know what to expect from the process but I felt good the entire time. It’s kinda wild to me cause I’ve never seen pictures of myself that genuinely make me feel beautiful and these photos are just, wow. I saw them and I was like how on earth…! I think surprisingly I feel this overwhelming sense of grief. Almost like, I can’t believe this is who I’ve been trying to destroy for 31 years. It’s so rare for me to be able to see any good things about myself and when I look at these pictures I’m like oh yeah! And I can suddenly list all these good qualities I appreciate about myself. The shoot brought me home to myself.
S: Why do you think it’s important to document bodies like your own? Why is it important to share stories like yours?
Z: I don’t think black bodies are celebrated enough, at least rarely in ways that aren’t tokenizing or fetishizing. I don’t think black women’s bodies are celebrated enough, especially ones that don’t fit this hyper-sexualized, ultra femme, super curvy – slim in waist, thick ass and thighs – mold. I rarely see a celebration of bodies like women’s bodies like mine: big bellied and flat assed. Or a celebration of black genderless bodies that aren’t masculine or thin or look like they belong to models. I have an “I have my own chicken and waffles recipe” kind of body, an “It’s Tuesday and I’m too tired to go on” kind of body, a “Yes I do wake up early and make biscuits and gravy from scratch when I’m in a good mood” kind of body, a “Sometimes I can’t get out of bed because the pain is too intense” kind of body. I have a body that is all these things that we aren’t taught to do anything with but hide.
In the summer as a kid I knew to stay out of the sun too long so I wouldn’t be blue-black when the school year rolled around but fuck that, now I lay in the sun butt ass naked as often as I can.
Who’s ever celebrated a fat kid from the South whose only relationship to gender is the deep internalization of what it means to be a poor black woman from the South? Who’s ever celebrated a genderless freak with psoriasis scars the size of small dinner plates? Who’s ever celebrated that one that got out of being a Jehovah’s Witness as soon as they could? Who’s ever celebrated people who have nightmares every night and still wake up fighting to try/trying to fight? Who’s ever celebrated that little black girl still alive inside of them waiting for someone to show them a real kind of love? And not romantic love but what it really means to be held and supported and cared for and believed in.
I think that’s why it’s important to document bodies like mine and to share stories like mine. Because no one else will. No one is gonna push to give us a voice, to make sure we’re seen or heard. I guarantee there’s another little me out there needing to see this and maybe she or they won’t right now, but eventually she or they will.
I agreed to do this interview to mark the end of a very long time period of my life. Completing this interview marks the official death of me trying to destroy myself and the birth of the phase in me where I celebrate everything I was I taught to destroy.
Also, this is for that black, country ass, fat freak child struggling to find anyone or anything that resembles them: I hope you find this and know that there’s another side to all of this.
Artist’s Statement from Shoog:
When viewing these images I hope people keep in mind that this is a collaboration. I do not own or lay claim to these images. I could not have created this work without Zaire being an open participant in this art. As a white artist, I do not claim to own images that I co-create with black and brown folks, and if I make money from these images I do so with their permission, and we split the money evenly. This is a strict policy I have for myself to attempt to leverage some of my privilege as a semi-successful white artist living in a country that values my life and success more than a lot of my friends and peers. Folks who want to donate to Zaire’s GoFundMe for their and Spiky’s medical care can do so here.