What artists and photographers have inspired you in your work?
In high school, I came across the work of Richard Avedon. He did a lot of black-and-white portraiture in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. He was a fashion photographer but he also did a lot of work in portraiture, photographing ordinary people in working-class towns and telling stories. I valued the intimacy that he was able to create in his portraiture so I really fell in love with his work right away. As I grew into my queerness, I discovered Catherine Opie, who is one of my biggest inspirations. She is one of the biggest icons in queer photography, and I fell in love with her work, very similarly, because of how she was focused on telling the story of the individual, with intimacy. Opie really drew inspiration from her own community, which is what I fell into as well.
How do you take a portrait that tells a story about the subject?
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last few years, is how I approach creating a successful portrait, and what I consider a successful portrait to be. In the age of everyone having an iPhone that takes really nice photos, everyone thinks they can just take a picture of a person and that’s a portrait. I don’t think of it that way. There are three components that I bring into my practice: one is technical skill, the second is the creative, conceptual component, and the third is the relational aspect between myself and the subject. The relational part is what I’ve been trying to explore more, because I think that is actually where the magic happens and where a successful portrait is created.
Taking a portrait of someone is such a vulnerable experience, and the photographer holds a lot of power in having a window into that person’s space or soul. So, the relational parts are really what I think makes my work stand out from other work, and what makes that intimacy come across. I work really hard to be vulnerable myself and not treat it like a power dynamic where I’m taking something from the subject. I also try not to overproduce my shoots. A lot of what you see is that I find someone interesting and I find the environmental space interesting in conjunction with their character. I try not to force too much of it, which can be hard. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and sometimes I take bad photos, but I think the key component is working with the person to make the experience feel really collaborative.
How do you approach the collaboration before, and during, a photoshoot?
Usually before, no matter who it is, no matter if it’s someone that’s been photographed 1,000 times or it’s someone I’ve never photographed before and I don’t know them, I always find it really important to ask the person how comfortable they are with having their photo taken. We can’t assume that somebody’s necessarily comfortable in front of the camera. I always like to talk about that, to see where they’re at, and then I’ll usually share that I’m probably nervous or feeling uncomfortable too, which usually immediately helps bring us to a level playing field.
If we’re using Elliot as an example: just because he’s in movies all the time and photographed all the time does not mean he’s comfortable with it. [My shoot] is a really perfect example, since that shoot was the first time [Elliot] had been photographed, publicly, after he came out as being trans. That was such a delicate situation. So much of that was just talking and trying to understand where his head was, and how he was feeling about the photos being released. So much of it is just easing someone’s anxieties about the outcome of the photos.
If I have an hour-long shoot, half of that is talking, and maybe more. A lot of it is just, “How are we connecting at this moment? How am I making you feel at ease, so that when I do take your photo, you’re not stiff, you’re not worrying about the way you look and you’re more present?”. I guess that’s really it: “How do we both feel present in this environment?”.
Your photographs of Elliot Page published in TIME made international headlines. Did that experience change your understanding of your work or what you hope to achieve with it?
At first it was like, this was it. That cover, the way all of that came about, what it meant, and the impact it had, is exactly what I was working towards for such a long time. Since I left school, that kind of thing is what I had been trying to achieve. So then when it happens, you’re like, “Now what? Is that a one-off or is there space for me to continue doing that kind of work and sharing those kinds of stories?”. It opened my eyes up and validated me in that my work is valued. But I think it’s also a perfect example of why it’s really important for trans stories to be told and shared by other trans people; this industry doesn’t have a lot of those stories to share that often.
It has made me reflect on my work in a lot of positive ways, but it’s also been sort of jarring in seeing how cornered I have become in this industry. And not because of the cover, but because of my entire existence in my practice. I think I am often cornered as the trans photographer who takes portraits of trans people, and I’m not really seen for much outside of that. So it’s this very interesting experience, where it was the ultimate pillar of success for me to do that cover, but then it shone a very specific spotlight on how unsupported photographers like me are in this industry.
Do you feel sometimes that you’re being pigeonholed by the industry, but you also want to represent the trans community?
One hundred percent. It’s what I’m faced with all the time. A lot of the commercial work I’ve done since the cover has been editorial work about other trans people. So, on the one hand, I’m so happy to be the person sharing the visuals of that story but on the other hand, I’m also getting really tired of that being the only thing people think that I can do. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. When I look at my track record and I see that this is the only thing I’m really being asked to do, it definitely starts to weigh on me and feels a little bit exploitative . Or it makes me question whether people are using me to tick a diversity box. These are general themes—it’s not like when someone reaches out to me from a publication, I think they’re using me. It’s just that when I look at the bigger picture, I question some of these things.
How does the context of where projects will exist, such as in print or in an exhibition, affect your approach?
I don’t really think much about the end result when I’m making the work. Projects I’ve done have evolved and transformed in different phases, depending on where they land. I might have the first iteration of something in one exhibition space but then if it’s set to be in a different exhibition space, I might totally change the layout and how someone observes it and interacts with it. I’m really just open to play and transformation in process. Also, I don’t think I ever consider a body of work done. I don’t think I have anything right now that I would consider complete. I leave things open-ended to be able to come back to them.
“Have / Hold” combines home interiors with beaches and rugged landscapes to form the backdrop for your relationship with Kyle. How did you approach choosing settings that reflected the project’s intention?
The reason we ended up shooting is that we both went through really horrible breakups within 24 hours of one another. We both were like, “Let’s go on a trip together, let’s escape our lives and go on an adventure.” We had never formally worked on a project together with an intended outcome, so we wanted to explore what that would be like on this trip. We were really interested in the way that our relationship was perceived, and the way we photograph each other lends to the sort of intimacy that I’m really interested in [exploring in] my work.
We wanted to roll with this idea of photographing ourselves and each other as if we were soulmates on this romantic vacation together. We went to Iceland, Paris, and Barcelona. The landscapes were just kind of there and we rolled with it. But I think now that we’re in different parts of our lives, and we’re rethinking how we navigate this as long-distance friends, we treat every visit with each other as an opportunity for staging photographs. We’ve pretty much been long distance friends for more than 75 percent of our friendship. We are staging it for the purpose of creating these scenes, but we are also genuinely expressing and exploring our intimacy with one another when we are photographing [ourselves].
What value comes from photographers making themselves the subject?
It really helps me, in terms of being a good photographer, by forcing myself to be the subject of vulnerability. I’m exposing myself by being in these, so it helps me to understand my subjects. As a queer and trans photographer, it’s been really important as a tool of self-exploration and of self-understanding. Also, in my practice, it’s been really hard to feel like my work is intended to speak for an entire community, which it can’t. Turning the lens on myself has allowed me to just tell my story—I can’t speak for other people.
“Have / Hold”refuses compartmentalization through representations of masculine platonic intimacy. What draws you towards subverting societal categories and expectations?
I’m perceived in society now as a straight, white, cis man. I am one of those things, but I’m not the other things. Artists and photographers aside, everybody wants to be understood. Everyone wants to feel like they are listened to and that their identity is seen. I think that’s ultimately what drives me, that you can’t judge a book by its cover and we need to let go of how we immediately try to assume things about people. That has been really blatant in my friendship with Kyle, which I call a relationship because we’re very close. We started a relationship when we were both masculine and butch-presenting women. The way that our relationship is read now is that we are assumed to be gay men together. People are always confused about the basis of our relationship, which I find so frustrating because it’s not like we’re walking around making out all the time or doing things that couples would do.
Society is so uncomfortable with intimacy between men. Seeing that shift in how our relationship is treated between when we were perceived as women versus when we’re perceived as men is very strange. Thinking about that more and more, it became such an interesting topic to explore: why our society has such a deep wound of toxic masculinity that we can’t handle when two men are friends and hold hands and giggle and touch each other. It’s so taboo. That was the starting point for us to explore, and then the layer of our trans identities added a lot more complexity to that.
How do you find inspiration when you’re in a creative slump?
I look to my community a lot. Now that I’m a photographer who’s shot for the cover of TIME magazine, it offers me a lot of opportunity to shoot people who wouldn’t normally say yes to me. I’ve been trying to reach out to people and ask if I can take their photo, people who I find inspiring, people who I meet through Instagram, other creatives.
This is the crux of the problem: I want to shoot trans people for me and my community, but then when I’m being asked to do that repetitively from corporations or publications or people who are not from that community, it feels frustrating. But that’s all I want to do, share stories of people in my community. That’s really where I draw a lot of my inspiration: who within my immediate community is showing me an aspect of themselves that I find intriguing and want to document? Who is someone who I look up to or who I’m inspired by who I want to shoot for fun to get myself going again?
What are your essentials for a photoshoot?
I am a really bare-bones photographer. I love natural light, and I really love leaning on dusk light. The perfect recipe is the perfect sunset mixed with someone who’s good company, who I can easily talk with, who is open to trying new things and exploring. I don’t like to over plan because I think that makes for a really closed-in feeling. A lot of the time, I find that the first photo I take is usually the best. It’s usually when I’m doing light tests, and the subjects are thinking they’re not really being photographed yet, so they’re totally uninhibited. Also, the best photos are the ones that are totally not where I planned to shoot them. So much of photography has to be left to the magic of the moment.
Where did you picture yourself post-graduation, and does it align with where you are now?
When I was in the middle of my second year at TMU, Kodak announced they were basically going under, that they were stopping most of their film production, and then the iPhone came out. The world of photography changed so quickly. It was pretty scary to be in the middle of school, like, “Wow, did I just lose my career?”. My identity as a photographer was really damaged from that because I think a lot of the industry was no longer looking for photographers. They were looking for someone who did design, photos, and video editing; you had to be this all-encompassing package. In the last couple years, I’m noticing more of an appreciation for the sole photographer again.
Then when you add the layer of being a marginalized, queer trans person in this industry that doesn’t have space for you, I already was going to be [working] against a pretty uphill climb. So, it didn’t really feel like there was space for me. I can’t quote this because I don’t know if this is 100 percent true, but I think I might be the only trans photographer represented commercially in Canada right now. I know there are a lot of trans photographers who are represented from a fine art perspective. I might be incorrect, but there are very few [who are commercially represented], other than me. Even though I am where I am now, it doesn’t mean in the slightest that the uphill climb is over. Right now, I’m really up against being seen for my skill as an artist versus being seen for my eye as a trans person.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned in university that you apply most in your work?
TMU’s Image Arts program was very fine art and conceptually based when I was in it, so it allowed me to figure out the voice behind the intention of why I was making work, and to understand why that part is so important to the work itself. Another thing is that, as brutal as critiques can be, it is so important to be good at receiving feedback. A third one is the networking component. People who I graduated with are my peers in the field now. It’s so important to build those relationships because you really never know when they are going to come up again in the future.
Do you have any advice for this year’s graduating Image Arts class?
Stop comparing yourself to other people, because we are all in our own lane.
Photographer and visual artist Wynne Neilly was drawn to photography as a high school student and was intrigued by the interplay between its technical aspects as well as its capacity as a creative outlet. After graduating from Toronto Metropolitan University’s Image Arts program in 2012, Neilly began his career in fine art and commercial photography. His work challenges societal conceptions of intimacy through striking and naturalistic imagery, while exploring queer and trans visibility in both a collective and individual sense. In 2019, Neilly debuted the first iteration of “Have / Hold,” an ongoing collaborative exhibition created with his close friend Kyle Lasky, featuring photographs they made of each other over the course of their 15-year relationship. “Have / Hold” challenges societal conceptions of acceptable masculinity, with the added dimension of both artists’ trans identity. Neilly gained international recognition for his work photographing actor Elliot Page for the cover of TIME magazine in 2021, Page’s first public photoshoot after coming out as transgender.
Website: Wynne Neilly