Milwaukee-based Vaughan Larsen’s passion for photography began in high school when their aunt gave them an old camera. They began taking self-portraits and uploading them to different groups on Flickr. “Art camp was also a big part of my teen summers, where I would repeatedly choose the photography ‘major’ as an excuse to keep shooting film and developing in the dark room,” Larsen says.
“I would also occasionally have small photoshoots with my friends, which I viewed as just something fun to do together. I still view shoots that way a lot of the time, thankfully! I always viewed self-portraits as a way to express myself in a very playful way.”
As well as photography, Larsen was also into theatre and they originally went to college for stage design. While they debated which medium to pursue, it was only after dropping out of college for three years that they rekindled their love for photography, but Larsen has kept their love for the stage close by in the kinds of images they create.
“My work has been strongly inspired by theatrics, whether it’s the lighting or how I frame figures within a space,” they say. “I have also learned to view my self-portraits more as a documentation of performance. I love people who use the camera this way, like Duane Michals or Nikki S Lee.”
While self-portraiture began as a practical solution to not always having a friend available to shoot, Larsen says the practice has given them space to learn about themselves and their relationships. Many of Larsen’s projects focus on queer identity and its comparison to heteronormative society, and by using themselves as the subject it’s given them complete control over the images.
Rites is a project that epitomises Larsen’s approach and is a series of self-portraits where they directly recreate snapshots from their family album, specifically focusing on moments Larsen felt they were missing out on due to their queer identity. “When I first realised I was queer at 16 years old, I remember crying to myself so much that night. Not out of fear of being queer, but of sadness and disappointment that I couldn’t have a family the ‘proper’ way I felt I was expected to,” explains the photographer.
“This feeling and expectation sucks and is so prevalent in many people’s lives – not just LGBTQ+ people. At the time of making these photographs, I was the same age as my parents when they gave birth to me. While looking back at the snapshots of them in their younger lives, I kept wishing I was able to have similar photos to look back on from this time of my life.”
By making this happen with their chosen queer family, Larsen feels they are creating a “visibly queer character in a space they are historically hidden: in the family album”. After finishing Rites, Larsen kept thinking back to that memory of being a 16 year old so they honed in on those specific feelings in Parenthood, a series that Larsen says is a continuation from Rites. “Rather than recreating specific snapshots, I’m creating and participating in fictitious memories that have been altered to fit my queer experience,” they say. “These images are in response to milestones surrounding maternity.”
By using friends and family close to them, there’s an added intimacy to Larsen’s images, and with the spot-on styling and lighting, both series transport viewers back in time. Though the photographer creates a warm and loving environment in their images, Larsen says they still sometimes get self-conscious making work that only deals with LGBTQ+ identities.
“But then I remind myself it’s the same as a non-queer person making work about their reality and surroundings,” they reflect. “It only seems like I’m always talking about queerness because we all live in a very heteronormative world and the queer content feels out of place. But in reality, I’m simply making work about my life and my world.”
Ultimately Larsen hopes to create work that encourages people to question what they know and to not always accept the traditional way of seeing the world. “It’s so much more exciting and honestly necessary to question everything,” they say.
“Learning about the perspective of people doing this, and pointing out these flaws in society, specifically surrounding LGBTQ+ issues and cishet societal norms can be very beneficial I think.”