Jasper Soloff isn’t afraid to call Hollywood out on its false virtue signalling regarding queer representation. In a comment on Instagram in May, the 26-year-old Los Angeles based director and photographer decried the casting of the upcoming movie adaptation of the Casey McQuinston novel Red, White and Royal Blue. It followed the systemic pattern prevalent in the entertainment industry that sees Hollywood ‘profit from Queer storylines, but not cast queer people’. Soloff has photographed many notable cultural icons such as Billie Eilish and Pete Davidson, and he is open about the role his queer identity plays when he approaches his work which has featured in Vogue, GQ and Cosmpolitan. We began with a discussion of his journey to creating such self-assured and dynamic content production:
Jack: Can you give readers a sense of who you are and how you got to be where you are today?
Jasper: I started photography while I was studying at Sarah Lawrence College, NY, originally using black and white, which I really loved, and then progressing onto colour. It was just a great way to express myself, but I felt that I really started owning my personal artistic style when I went to Central St Martins in London where I studied fine art; I started coming out more with my sexuality, being braver and had reached a new stage of my life where I was ready and open to showcasing that within my work.
I communicated being gay and queer through the colours I was using in my work – with a very energetic and ‘out’ style – playing with makeup, gender-bending, clothing, really just expressing myself and taking lots of self-portraits. This was when my learning was progressing into me from student into an artist.
After London, I came back to New York, and that’s when I started shooting pictures of a lot of my queer friends, mainly through run-and-gun shoots on my rooftop. I had my first celebrity client soon after with Brandon Flin, who was dating Sam Smith at the time, and the photos went viral on the internet. So I think that was just when I realised that this creative style I had developed could become a commercial success.
That was the beginning of the ethos that I bring to my work, which is about showcasing queer talent and identities and to really showcase them as strong people, and their brilliant individuality; its really been a great tool for me in that regard.
Realising sexuality is a big part of any queer person’s life journey growing up – and you call your work a form of expression: ‘colorful queer and bright’ – is this what initially attracted you to the field?
I was initially attracted to the field when I was a dancer as I thought that it would be a really great way for me to capture movement. But that soon progressed onto identity and personality and the ways that photos can evoke feeling and the way it can be used as a form of expression. Like dance, film could be used as a tool to express and be yourself and I could use photography to capture those moments in time and document them. I think that the honesty of the art form is really cool because you really get to learn about someone when you are photographing and directing them in a film. It’s unique in that I feel like it’s an incredibly vulnerable experience to be captured on film or photograph. You learn so much about people, the way they interact with a camera and it’s my goal and job to make the subject feel comfortable, as that’s when the most honest important work happens.
Growing up did you find many people on screen that you could relate to? Is the lack of this something that inspired you?
There was definitely a lack of representation within the queer community. I was really attracted to musical theatre, and I especially loved Cabaret and Chicago: The Movie Musical. I was inspired by the way that filmmaking could be a medium of expression through movement and dance, acting and singing. It was always so vibrant and fun and the creativity that surrounded it was so beautiful. Filmmaking could capture expression so dynamically, especially in Chicago and also the end-scene in Cabaret, with that character super fluid in their sexuality; it was really cool to see and made me feel that ‘Oh maybe I could be creating work like that someday. But definitely growing up there was a huge lack of queer representation for me, especially people who I could really look up to in the queer community like actors or singers even, it was just hard to find.
How have you navigated being in the media industry with your identity – can it be polarising at times?
Luckily I feel like I’m hired for my identity, rather that it being something that I am forced to hide, because they know that I am out, and queer and that my work expresses and showcases that. So while personally I haven’t really had an issue I do think it is really difficult for a lot of people to be open in their jobs. This is a really sad reality as it is such a huge part of a person’s identity. If you can’t feel confident that, as a queer person, you will be treated as an equal in the workplace then we as a society need to address that immediately. Everyone deserves to feel comfortable in the place that you are working, especially when that too is such a huge part of all of our lives.
What particularly frustrates you about seeing straight actors continuously cast for queer storylines?
What particularly frustrates me about gay actors playing straight roles is that straight actors have such a plethora of roles that they can play authentically. The power that we have as queer people to play roles that are about our lives is extreme. Growing up if you don’t see people who are openly gay playing openly gay roles on TV, its really hard to see that there’s a silver-lining to our struggles. If we’re continuously looking up to straight actors playing gay roles, its really unhealthy to believe as a child that ‘Oh one day I’ll gonna grow up to be like him’ because one day you find out that actors actually straight. I feel that there are so many people in the entertainment industry who are queer and we should be rewarding queer people by allowing them to play a truthful storyline that aligns with their identity.
You work with people from a variety of backgrounds and have worked with drag race winners – drag race is such a huge cultural phenomenon and media presence – how far has representation come and how far is there still to go?
We have come a long way in representation, particularly in the entertainment industry, but there’s always just so much more that we can do to make people feel included and make people feel loved. This is needed especially so that they can look up to the people on TV shows and in sports and feel like they can see themselves. There’s very few openly gay athletes and this representaton really matters in the media because so many more lives will be saved if we can look up to people and see ourselves in these successful figures. I think this is always going to be something that can be a place where we can grow from.
From an outsider looking into the US it seems the politics there is becoming more regressive – are you apprehensive for the future?
I think that a lot of politicians focus on the wrong thing. Right now there’s a huge gun violence problem in America and yet Texas is busy passing laws banning drag queens from performing in front of minors – it’s just really disturbing to see that. I hope that we can see through this hateful rhetoric and come to a place where we realise that these are just distractions. There is no point to being hateful towards the queer community; it doesn’t help anyone in anyway. Instead, we should be focusing on the real issues which would include regulating guns and saving lives in America, not banning queer peoples’ self expression.. Guns will soon have more rights in America than gays and women, and I honestly can’t help thinking that we are beginning to live in a dystopian nightmare.
What advice would you give to another queer person hoping to enter the entertainment industry?
My advice to content creators and artists is to really just be themselves unabashedly. You become stylized in your work by focusing on who you are as a person and how your perspective differs from the people around you; just stay strong in that. As a queer creator I can say that a lot of my success has been attributed to being honest and not being afraid to say ‘This is who I am’. I know that while I may have lost jobs for being who I am, I wouldn’t have been able to come this far without being unapologetically authentic. So really, just be yourself.