WorldPride Photo Journal: Matthew Papa

Photographs by Matthew Papa, Text by Dan Avery

Photographer Matthew Papa’s work is very autobiographical, so it’s not surprising he chose to chronicle Pride at his Long Island City apartment with a photo shoot that doubled as a backyard barbecue. “It didn’t get as crazy as I hoped it would,” he says with a laugh.

Papa also submitted photos he took more than two decades ago at the 1993 March on Washington and the 1994 New York City Pride March, as well as a personal essay. “I’m a book designer,” he says. “I still think in print, in terms of books. Two pages working together…trying to tell a story.”

Below, Papa discusses his journey as a photographer and where he thinks Pride is today.

When did you start getting into photography? Matthew Papa: Oh, I was really young. I used some babysitting money to buy my first camera, a Minolta XG-1. That was, like, 1980. I’d shoot my family and friends—when I got older I’d start throwing parties and turn them into photoshoots.

New York City Pride March, Stonewall 25, 1994

When did you first come to New York? MP: I moved to NYC in 1993, and after working in book publishing I went to design school, where they encouraged us to take our own photos. At first I didn’t have a clear voice on what I wanted to say. But I took some continuing education classes at the International Center of Photography and eventually got an MFA there.

How would you describe your photos today? MP: I use myself in my work a lot. Asking questions like, what does being HIV positive mean? What does reaching an age I never thought I’d live to see mean? While taking these photos, I started unpacking what and who I was in a very personal way.

Is that what inspired your Pride photo series? MP: Yeah, I specifically wanted to have it at my house. I thought a lot about what’s particular to me and my experience—it’s partying with my friends and with props. During the first dot-com boom, I worked for a gay financial services company and went to, like, 20 Prides in one summer. I felt like I had done the big parade thing already. So we had a backyard party at my place, with a barbecue and my secret cocktail, the Garden Rambler—tequila, chartreuse and a mix of herbs and lime. You can kind of see the story unfold as people drink more!

Who did you invite to the party? MP: My community of friends is really mixed—some are gay, some are straight, older, younger. I wanted to find common ground for all of them in the community I’ve cultivated over 26 years. It started at 2pm and people stayed till about 11:30pm. I think we had about 20 to 25 people in all.

Did you work to arrange certain shots or take more candid portraits? MP: They’re pretty candid—though for some, I took people outside to shoot under the 7 train to give it a sense of place. I had thought about setting up a corner at the party for formal portraits but decided not to. I guess overall these images are more documentarian than my normal work, which is usually fairly constructed.

You appear in some of the photos, posing and looking pretty hunky. MP: Oh, the flexing picture? [Laughs] People have expectations about what you’re supposed to be like in your fifties, and I like to defy that. And the HIV connection I can’t deny either. It’s about putting to rest the subconscious fear that I was going to die young. Or that having HIV is about death and decay. It’s not.

Why did you want to juxtapose your party photos with the archival photos? MP: I felt like the photos from the party weren’t the complete picture. In the archival ones, there are some from the 1993 March on Washington and a couple from the 1994 New York Pride March, which was the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. I’ve been out since I was 17 [but] the 1993 March on Washington was my first big gay event. It was surreal.

LGBTQ March on Washington DC, 1993

1990s Ephemera, Queer Nation and Sex Panic!

Do you think Pride has changed a lot? MP: I titled this series Look at Where We Are, which is actually a reference to a Hot Chip song. But it’s also a reference to the LGBTQ community—and to me, I guess. I’m 52, just two years older than Stonewall. I wanted to say, sort of, Look at how much we’ve accomplished. But also be mindful of where we are. 

What’s biggest difference between Pride then and now? MP: There’s a normalization of gay culture that’s happened so fast, and people don’t realize it. The rapidity of change is something I wanted to reflect on—and also remind people that progress isn’t linear.