Amsterdam-based photographer Dustin Thierry (Willemstad, Curaçao, 1985) began documenting the Dutch ballroom scene in 2013. This underground phenomenon originated in 19th-century America, where LGBTQ people gathered for drag masquerade balls where they could freely express themselves.
A contemporary manifestation of the ballroom scene is rapidly expanding on a global scale, with its epicentres in New York and Paris.
Following his ongoing series on ballrooms in the Netherlands, Thierry travelled to Paris, New York, London and Berlin to document the respective local scenes. His work testifies to a vibrant and timely revival of a centuries-old phenomenon, but also points to persistent discrimination and marginalisation of black and queer communities worldwide.
Thierry employs photography to empower, to reveal what is generally invisible, and to voice what is often muted. The balls he photographs are a ‘safe space’ for self-expression, but also a place where fierce competition forces its participants to stand up and defend their identity. Competitors engage in dance-off categories such as ‘voguing’: a highly stylised modern house dance inspired by hieroglyphs and modelling poses. The dance is said to have been invented by the inmates of Rikers Island, who were copying the poses struck by models in Vogue magazine in rapid succession. Others say it originated in ballroom culture of Harlem and downtown Manhattan in the early 1960s. The dance-style became popularised by pop-artists such as Jeannet Jackson and Madonna in her video clip for "Vogue" (1990), and by the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which chronicled the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities of the New York City ball culture.
Thirty years later Thierry shows that the spirit of resistance, manifested in uncompromised self-expression, remains vibrant and resilient. The so-called ‘house structure’ (a social system of self-chosen families that compete with each other during balls) that was implemented in the 1970s, has since generated new generations of ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ around which the scene gravitates. The houses function to prepare contestants for the ball, while constituting informal support structures for those facing discrimination or hostility in daily life. Thierry created powerful portraits of various members of the Dutch House of Vinyard and the Parisian houses of Mizrahi, Revlon, LaDurée and Ebony that followed in the wake of the very first House Labeija.