I first ran across Ocean Morisset's work about two years ago and was captured by the emotion behind his lens and the fact that he was an openly gay black photographer who dared to focus his lens on the black LGBT community as well as other communities of the Black Diaspora. Here's my interview with him.
1. First of all, your name. Love it. Give me some history on it.
Well, my great great grandfather's name was Ocean. I have his name and take as much pride in it much in the way that people take pride in their family name. It keeps me connected to my familial ancestors.
2. How long have you been doing photography?
I'm totally self-taught. I began taking photos with serious intent in 2001. In the life of an artist, that's not a long time, but the journey from my discovery of photography has been as fruitful as any life well lived. An ex actually gave me a camera as a Christmas present. That relationship didn't last more than thirteen years, but my relationship with photography is evolving, and throughout this process, I'm making many new discoveries about myself. Photography, particularly photojournalism has trained me to be non-judgemental, and open to many different kinds of people and situations. I'm passionate about people, their lives and unique stories, especially in the LGBT community and especially youth. I do however, also love to explore fine art and abstract expressionism.
3. I know your photos cover a wide range of subjects, especially ones that cover the Black Diaspora, but often the black LGBT community is left out of that study and you’ve stepped up to fill that gap. What formed your decision to begin photographing black LGBT life?
The black LGBT community is diverse and complex. Yet the images in the mainstream does not reflect this. My images are not mainstream. They're to be considered a document, or a record of a period in history which shows future lgbt generations the path that was paved for them, and gives outsiders a positive view of black gay culture, life and history. It's important that the black lgbt story gets told within the broader scope of the black community and that our contributions are recognized and affirmed. And for lgbt folk, it's important that we see images that we can relate to and see ourselves in. There have been so few images of black lgbt representation that went beyond the norm and expected. I wanted to fill that void producing 'real' images of everyday black lgbt people, culture and life. I also set out to document the many ways black lgbt people express pride.
4. When did you make that decision?
In 2005 as I transitioned into a new life of learning to be alone with myself after a long term relationship. Photography has provided much needed balance in my life and has developed into a real passion of mine.
5. What story do you hope to tell by recording the black LGBT community?
I want to tell the story of black lgbt life in all it's nuances. I want black viewers in particular to have a better scope of what lgbt is and what it isn't. Images of black lgbt couples are so few and far between. I want the world to see the love that is expressed within the black lgbt community. I want to highlight specific issues affecting the black lgbt community such as HIV/AIDS, aging, homelessness, and homophobia to name a few. I want black lgbt people to feel a sense of pride when they view my images reflecting the community.
6. Recording a particular community sometimes speaks of a special bond or affinity for that community—I’m thinking of James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks and Teenie Harris, for example. Tell us about the special bond or affinity that informs you and your relationship to the black LGBT community.
Well, having been exposed to the lgbt community at a very early age (14), I became aware aware of the many issues that affected us in a very real way. I also became aware of how the broader black community viewed lgbt people in a negative light. I never felt any negativity about myself, nor was I going to let external forces or people make me feel bad about who I was. I was fortunate enough to have a relatively 'normal' and 'healthy' upbringing and I have my parents to thank for that. The issues that affect many lgbt people today especially youth, is disheartening. There aren't enough role models to look up to or resources for lgbt youth. I feel like in some way, my work affirms the community and reflects the diversity, spirit and pride within it.
7. Were there any particular photographers who were your influences?
There are many. Some of my early influences were: Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, John Dugdale, Nan Goldin, and David Armstrong. All these photographers have qualities of compassion, integrity, spirit, courage and thoughtfulness that inspire me and it comes through in their work.
8. Have you done a book of your work?
I'm in the editing stages for a forthcoming photo book about the Black LGBT Community based on my online photo exhibition titled 'Black is Beautiful, Gay is Good'.
Creating a book of photos is no easy feat especially when you have as many images as I do to go through. Editing is the biggest challenge to producing a book. Pouring over images that make sense and help to tell the larger story is time consuming, but I'm definitely enjoying the process. Plus, my partner always encourages me and wants to see this book come to life, so with that kind of support, I just have to do it!
9. Is there a book in mind based on your photos of black LGBT life?
10. In a community, like the LGBT community, that has been taught to live under the radar, is it difficult to find subjects?
I haven't encountered any problems with finding subjects for my various projects related to the black lgbt community. Many of my photographs are from public events like PRIDE, balls, and rallies or protests. When they are not, and I need single particpants for photo projects like Mukuru, my photo project based on black lgbt elders, I have found people to be very eager in participating. I think the subjects I shoot realize the importance of the work that I'm doing and also recognize the gap that needs to be filled. My subjects/project participants are very important to me. Without them, I wouldn't have a story, so I am eternally grateful to anyone who agrees to be photographed.
11. We know the black LGBT community is diverse. Are there any groups less obliging than others within the black LGBT community to allow their photos to become a part of your collection?
I can't say I've encountered resistance yet. Let's hope I don't!
12. How large a part does your Caribbean heritage play in informing your work, not just your black LGBT work, but any of your work?
In the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti there exists a whole different black sensibility than in the United States. I come from that sensibility. The culture is prideful, soulful and more humanistic. Having a Haitian background with this particular (black) sensibility has helped me SEE people and develop a real compassion for people in the black diaspora, especially if they are underprivileged or oppressed in the way the black lgbt community has been for so long.
13. I know black visual artists who are gay, who feel it’s necessary to avoid any semblance of being gay, including addressing gay subjects. Do you feel focusing your camera on the black LGBT community works against you professionally or in any other way?
I think creating a body of work around the black lgbt community has worked against me in that there are few people with the courage, desire or vision to show such work in their galleries. It's as if the subject matter is not relevant. Or if they are open minded enough to show the work, they are looking for typical images of muscle men and/or erotic images. The black lgbt community is more than "body" or sex, and I strive to show that in my work. I have also noticed changes in some of my straight peers (photographers) who have distanced themselves from me because of this body of work. It's a guilt by association type of thing. The fact that I'm shooting lgbt images, I must be gay, and that notion makes some photographer's uncomfortable. I find this thought pattern (and phobia) so limiting, especially for an artist. I should say though that none of these behaviors deters my work. In fact, it strengthens me, and I actually do get a lot of support from both straight and gay artists.
14. My husband’s a photographer. I know he’s always ‘framing’ things while walking down the street, etc. What elements first capture your eye when you say, “here’s something to shoot”.
Yes, as a photographer, I can relate. I do frame things everywhere I look. It's automatic. But more than framing, I'm acutely aware of the beauty and interesting elements around me. What motivates me to shoot something "found" are the way the light hits a subject, the quality of light, and my relation to to it. That's what photography is, painting with light. I often tell people that more than the subject, the real "star" of a photograph is the light. The light helps to convey the message or the mood of the photograph. Of course, composition is important also and can serve to present a new perspective. There is so much beauty in our environment that goes uinnoticed or is unappreciated. I take nothing for granted.
15. Do you consider yourself more journalistic in your approach to photography? Why?
Yes, I would say my approach to photography is journalistic in that I'm seeking to inform and to tell stories about the subjects I shoot. I don't like to manipulate images in post-production or shoot highly stylized photos. I like to shoot from life capturing a certain reality. Emotion is also a very important part of my work and in many cases is a motivator for the way I shoot an image and becomes part of my aesthetic. I want the viewer to 'feel' the image, not just see it. I photograph from my heart, not just my eyes.
16. Do you have any showings coming soon? Where can we see more of your work?
I was in a group exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman gallery in New York City that just came down after a month. I don't have another one planned for the moment, but these exhbition opportunities tend to pop up at a moment's notice. In the meantime, I continue shooting, organizing my files, networking and editing for my book. There is much work to be done in a photographers life apart from showing work. I do enjoy showing my work and seeing and hearing some of the repsonses though and look forward to future exhibition opportunities.
To view more of Ocean Morisset's photography, please visit:
About the Author, Doug Cooper Spencer
Doug Cooper-Spencer is a novelist, essayist and short fiction writer living in Cincinnati. He is the author of two novels, ‘This Place of Men’ and ‘People Like Us’, (books I and II of the ‘Place of Men Trilogy’) as well as a short story for Amazon Shorts (Bad Damon). He has also just finished his most recent story, ‘The Wounded Gardner’.
His writings and numerous articles have appeared in anthologies, reference books ('Carry the Word'), magazines and online sites including his blog: The View From Here (www.Dougcooperspencer.Blogspot.Com) and at his Face Book page. In 2006 Doug was nominated by Clik Magazine as one of the ‘Elite 25’ black gay writers.