Drawing from her own childhood in the bible belt, Peyton Fulford’s ongoing series “Infinite Tenderness” is an open-ended photographic diary honoring LGBTQ+ youth in small town America.
Peyton Fulford grew up in a religious household in a rural US southern town. Her community made her feel uncomfortable coming out as queer until she was 21 – out of place and unsure of her identity. “It was difficult to navigate the space I was growing up in because I could not relate to it or understand my place within it,” writes Fulford.
In 2016, as a response to this experience, she began her ongoing photo series Infinite Tenderness, a means of coming to terms and exploring the possibility and potential of LGBTQ+ community and togetherness in the American South.
Fulford’s images show a diverse group of individuals embracing their bodies, identities and connection to others unique, yet shared experience. “My intention is to empower others and create an accepting space for queer kids that grow up in small towns and rural areas,” Fulford writes. “Each individual in this series is dependent on another for support and understanding of their ever changing identities.”
We recently spoke with Fulford to learn more about how this work and her expansive commercial practice highlight the importance of empathy, intimacy and respect.
The Luupe: The title of this series “Infinite Tenderness” leads to so much possibility. What’s the story behind it?
Peyton Fulford: When I began the project back in 2016, Blue Is the Warmest Color, a queer coming-of-age love story, was one of my favorite films at the time. The title is from the quote “I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will.”
The Luupe: This concept of the “infinite” resonates optimism. Thinking of these kids as being shut down, subject to injustice, cast aside by their families etc, yet persisting.
Fulford: The American South, also known as the Bible Belt, is not an inherently inclusive region for those who present queer. I grew up in a religious household – my mother was raised in the Sanctified Holy Church and my father was raised Southern Baptist. As a result of the beliefs I had been taught since birth, I did not feel comfortable coming out as queer until I was 21 years old. This photo series came to fruition around the same time, so I publicly came out when I started sharing this project online.
I can not speak to the breadth of experiences for those who are part of this series. Many had a similar experience to me but others have a different story. In relation to the “infinite,” I consider these moments between these individuals as lasting. We’ll change, our bodies will change, but we’ll have these images for a long time.
The Luupe: What is your relationship to the people in your photographs?
Fulford: Some of the people I started photographing were friends and others were people I admired from a distance who inspired me with how open they were about their identities. I connected with many of them through Instagram and then we would meet up to make photographs together. Once I started this series, it made me realize that there were people out there that understood my experience and vice versa.
The Luupe: To that point, so much of this work is about trust – trust in you as a photographer, in the relationships of the people being photographed, and so much more. How do you ensure the people you’re photographing feel accurately represented?
Fulford: Usually the shooting process unfolds organically – if it is a group, I will hang out and observe how they interact with one another. If I see a moment, I will pause and create a picture or stage a similar set up later referring to the original encounter. For me, it is imperative to go beyond the subject’s sexuality or gender identity and capture the essence of their humanity.
The Luupe: Shifting focus briefly to your commercial and editorial work – you’ve photographed a range of public personalities from Ron Howard to Honey Boo Boo. Your approach, specifically your lens of care, humanism, and empathy, is so aligned to your personal work. Can you talk a bit about your process, way of seeing, etc?
Fulford: Whoever is in front of the lens, it is important that I consider the presence of the camera in the space and we act as a mirror of respect. I believe that no one person is better than the next, so I always have a similar approach to photographing a friend as I would photographing someone like Ron Howard.
Ultimately, it is about connecting with that individual even if it is for just a few minutes and attempting to capture a side of them that maybe they had not shared with the public.
View this post on Instagram
The Luupe: You’ve been working on this series for 5+ years now. Has anything shifted about your vision + approach along the way?
Fulford: In the past few years, the type of portraiture I make has changed through understanding new ways of thinking about picture making and viewing new research material. In the future, I hope to bring a new way of looking to the people and spaces I photograph for the series. I also would like to interview the individuals to learn more about their personal experiences growing up queer in the American South.
The Luupe: In your statement, you mention that one of your goals with this project is to empower queer kids in rural towns – to create more accepting spaces, to help shift culture. Have you seen that taking root so far with the communities you’re photographing?
Fulford: Most of the people I have photographed for the series have moved and they now live in Atlanta, New York City, or Los Angeles. I have seen many queers kids that grew up in small rural towns in Georgia that are now thriving in Atlanta specifically with the art and music scene here coming together to support one another. As I expand upon this series, I hope to learn more about queers that continue to live in rural towns and what spaces they have for a sense of community.
The Luupe: You mentioned that you’re about to embark on a new leg of the project and are looking for new subjects before you move to NYC. Where are you going to be traveling and how can folks get in touch to participate?
Fulford: I am starting to make new pictures this month of December. I will be traveling mainly throughout Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee but open to other states. Individuals or groups who are interested in being a part of it can message me on Instagram @peytonfulford or email me directly email@example.com