At the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery in downtown Spokane this month, transgender artist June T. Sanders, 28, plans to show a half-dozen photographs of friends and acquaintances that will likely elicit an array of reactions both good and bad.
And that’s OK with Sanders, as long as the photos make a lasting emotional impact. “I don’t strive to make the quote-unquote perfect photo,” Sanders said. “What I strive for is to make people think forever about a certain thing.”
While Sanders may be able to make people think, she cannot control what they think. “People playing the gender guessing game with the photos … is so offensive, so not the point, but you can’t control that,” Sanders said. “I think it speaks to people wanting to pin things down and to have photography speak to the real world instead of letting it be more imaginative.”
Sanders’ imagination has sparked her first solo show, “Easy Worlds,” opening at one of seven local venues hosting LGBTQ+ artists as part of Spokane’s Second Annual First Friday Queer Art Walk to celebrate June Pride month. The opening reception is 5-8 p.m. at Kolva-Sullivan.
Sanders is a Kennewick native, arts writer, experimental publisher and prize-winning curator who has lived on and off in Spokane. She recently moved away to take a position as an assistant professor of Digital Technology & Culture at Washington State University. She now resides in a small town outside Pullman.
“I think I am a small-town person at the end of the day,” the soft-spoken Sanders said. “I think I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need a ton of stimulation. I need more security and sincereness, a place that’s slow and quiet.”
Sanders’ collection of photographic portraits of friends and artists she knows exudes an ethereal, nostalgic vibe as it quietly, yet radically explores portraits in queer and trans representations. Underneath a dreamy softness is the hard reality and contradictory title.
No one – not the subjects, the viewers or the photographer – could possibly believe the worlds these subjects live in is “easy.” “No, there’s nothing easy about it,” Sanders said. “The photos are very complicated and serious and opaque, but also loving, also kind of radical, also soft.”
Sanders’ photographs feel private, like they were secretly found in someone’s top drawer. One photo is of two men, anonymously titled “A+K.” Are they lounging lovers or locked in a fight? Content together or wary? All of Sanders’ photos tend to raise more questions than answers.
“I’m thinking a lot about queer and trans representation and the mainstreaming of that and what the consequences of that are,” Sanders said. “I make photographs more for the community I am in and the people in it and less for the public to consume on a really didactic or reductive level.”
The way Sanders creates her photos, with an antiquated camera and expired film, feels very personal. Even difficult. And rare. All the recent photos in the exhibition were made using an analog 4x5 view camera and expired FP100 peel-apart film, the kind typically used for practice photos, not finished product.
The clunky equipment translates into full consent: The subject always knows when the shutter will be released. Often, Sanders will even allow the subject to release the shutter themselves. Sanders has to pull out the film and instantly peel it on site. The subject and photographer can watch it develop together.
“There is just something really incredible about being able to make photos of someone in this sort of relational, collaborative way,” Sanders said. “And there is almost always something messed up.”
The resulting photos are usually marked with imperfections such as leaks, hairs or poor-quality exposure that open up ideas about mainstream accessibility and mass consumption. The dominant culture won’t be able to gobble up these images or sweep them into the sameness of assimilation.
The fact that Sanders’ photography practice is all analog is ironic considering she spends her days preparing students to be strong digital creators as an instructor at WSU. “I don’t even own a digital camera at home,” Sanders chuckled. “Having an analog and meditative, kind of inane, photographic process really helps me bring digital mindfulness to the classroom more.”
The parts of Sanders’ images that develop imprecisely are what she hopes will lead to expansion in thought. In her artist’s statement, she wrote: “In these cases, a photograph is neither a document nor a replication of the world. It is a reflection of desire. A transformation and an assertion; a moment to transfigure.”
“The greatest compliment I can ever get is to show someone a photo, and they have a guttural noise come out of them, like huh, or they have to say something,” Sanders said.
“I think having a guttural primordial reaction to an image will actually kind of shift your thinking just as much as being able to pontificate about it.”