In 2006, TIME Magazine published an article that pondered whether Jamaica was the most homophobic place on earth. A deeply entrenched intolerance toward homosexuality persists throughout the country, often driving gay men from their homes at an early age. Never one to shy away from controversial subject matter, famed South African photographer Pieter Hugo travelled to Kingston at the beginning of 2016 to photograph members of an ostracised gay community known as the “Gully Queens.”
In collaboration with cult favourite menswear label Hood by Air, Hugo and his collaborator Carlos Nazario photographed these men clad in seminal pieces from the Hood by Air archive. It was an endeavor that in the hands of anyone else could have been exploitative, but Hugo’s images are arresting, dark and poignant. His photos make visible those who have been driven into the literal shadows.
A community of gay men who have taken to living in the storm-drainage systems of Kingston, the “Gully Queens” face massive harassment on a daily basis and are frequently attacked by police and citizens alike. Many of them are sex workers who have been forced to create their own community after facing rejection from their own.
A 2014 film by Vice Media explores the lived experiences of these “scary queens”, as they are sometimes known. Titled Young and Gay: Jamaica’s Gully Queens, the film examines their day to day life in relation to a colonial-era law outlawing sodomy – the Buggery law. If found guilty, perpetrators can face up to 10 years of hard labour. Despite the efforts of some to transform it, the antiquated law remains in effect today.
A unique intersection of Jamaican homophobia and classism means that those who do not have the resources (or desire) to blend into mainstream society often have no other option but to make the sewers of Kingston their home. Sex work, theft and petty crime are often how they get by, only furthering their isolation from society. In addition to Jamaican adult film actors, it is these men that form the focus of Hugo and Nazario’s work.
“Some of the people we met in Jamaica who were not homophobic had problems with the Gully Queens because they make their living off crime,” Hugo told Dazed Digital. “I guess it depends on how one looks at that because a lot of them are forced into a life of crime because there’s no way they could find work in Jamaica.”
The images have been immortalised in a coffee table book called PH X HBA. Published by See W, the book includes the arresting images of the Gully Queens, and includes an interview between Hugo and Nazario in which they discuss the challenges they encountered during the process of making this fascinating body of work.
Watch Vice's haunting film on the "Gully Queens" below: