Harry Rose - Velvet Youth (Interview)
Back in 2004, artist Harry Rose was put in hospital after coming out to a close friend, which soon became high school gossip and resulted in 50 school boys beating him, leaving him unconscious. He was just 14 years old. Rose spent the past 2 years creating Velvet Youth, a retrospective series featuring archival images that led up to this point.
Velvet Youth is deeply personal and openly airs fragments of your past- what has been the process of creating this project? I’ve been wanting to make a series about that time of my life since I started photography, and there has been points where I nearly started it- first time was in 2014, when I was in university, but my father passed away around that time, so I wanted to talk about that instead. I also suffer from a few sleep disorders and night terrors and I tend to relive experiences in a double nightmare/terror situation which could be quite traumatic. I started getting regular night terrors and memories which made it quite hard to work, so I stopped for a bit. Every now and then, I would go back to an image and play about how I could convey a closeted child being half present, so I was trying to figure out how to explain that. It's also really tricky to do, cause even though they are photos of me that I've got ownership over, I'm still a child in the images. I felt like there is a sensitivity to it and I was doing some quite brutal images, but I tried to be more subtle by placing it into visual iconography that people can understand. It’s been a slow burner and in time it will probably change- I went through my family archive yesterday for more images outside the school setting and I noticed a huge switch in my body language after the point where I knew I'm gay. I’m trying to work out how to insert those images because it’s very school/academia based right now.
Does that mean that Velvet Youth is an ongoing project? Yes, my dad taught in a school next to the one I went to and his office overlooked the field. He saw the attack as it was happening so he got me out of my school and put me in a Christian school, which came with it's own problems, so I ended up going back in the closet. During this time, I got a girlfriend and pretended to be someone I wasn't; I acted the way I thought a straight teenager should act... I became a bit of a monster! So yes, there is a second part of the project which explores that, but there is no archival imagery and it’s also very different to the first half. It is currently about understanding suppression, coming out and the violence that happened because of it. The second one is about going back into that suppression, so it's hard to tackle it visually. It’s a weird time and I managed to find pictures of when I went to college, where I was more comfortable with who I was due to having a better circle of friends- it’s all very different. I think Velvet Youth will keep expanding and I'll be telling my story up to my mid-20’s, or whenever youth ends! I think extending it would help people relate to it, but at the moment I'm digesting the first half of the project.
In addition of using the pink triangles, some of the archival images are displayed in a negative form. What is the significance behind this? It's a case of taking the image and deconstructing it. I knew from those moments I was not fully complete as a person. I wanted to have the idea of having a negative image, something that wasn’t fully developed. A negative is the opposite of what an image should be- I built that into some of the image to represent that it’s not fully there and showcase that it’s not fully formed. Regarding the pink triangles, they were originally big square blocks over my face which read as hiding behind my queerness to me, when in reality I was hiding behind everything else. When I discovered the pink triangle while visiting the concentration camp in Auschwitz, I sat and talked with the guide and questioned her about it. She gave me detailed, harrowing stories about queer people being badged in society and they had the worst things done to them. When I was making this work, I didn’t want people to think I'm echoing the experience of people who lived through the holocaust; what I’m trying to identify is that badging and labelling happens throughout history and once that label is visible, some people can exploit that for their own gain, especially school bullies and kids who are very good at sussing things out. I wanted to use the pink triangle in a way of empowerment, to say that I’m here while acknowledging its horrible history, showcasing persecution of queer people that happened for quite some time.
The reports provide an insight into the teachers and onlookers having a blasé, naive or even complacent attitude. Why do you think this was? A few female teachers did speak to me, I remember the English teacher from one of the reports would look at me and say “there's stuff going on”, but a lot of it was brushing it under the carpet. I understand why some of the attitudes existed and I kinda get it, but looking back I feel a lot of them were afraid to approach the subject. I believe they had an idea of what was going on. Teachers knew that I was out and of my absence when I got knocked unconscious and put in hospital. I found it emotionally and mentally hard to go back to that environment, especially since the school made no effort. All the violent kids were in every single class I had everyday, and the teachers did nothing to separate us, so I was around them most of the time. I had to physically take myself out of classes, so the teachers saw them as absences rather than approach it on a deeper level. There was definitely a lot of fear of speaking out; I vividly remember an openly gay RE teacher having so much abuse thrown at him to the point where all the PE teachers bullied him out of the role (he went to the press with his story). At the time, I saw this an example of how gay people are treated in society. I feel like the response would be very different now, if the same thing was to happen. These days, I sometimes bump into of the teachers and have open conversations with them while I'm with my boyfriend, which is actually quite nice. But at the time there was a level of fear of saying something to me- it's strange and hard to pinpoint but there was definitely no effort, which is a bit of a problem as some teachers are with the kids more than the parents. There was the duty of care that was never acted out, so I definitely feel that they could’ve done more. Has there been any feedback from people who were in your life back then? I don't really have a lot of people in my life from that period, but when I asked my mum for the school reports she started crying as soon as she saw them. Looking back, she saw the same thing that other people picked up on. I came out to my family 3 or 4 years later- at the time of the attack, they thought I was trying to stop a guy from being punched, so the whole thing got brushed under the carpet. The attackers also never admitted to the reason why they beat me up, when questioned. I also had an opportunity to come out to the police on video (they blatantly asked me if I'm gay) but I didn’t.
Did the process of making this project give you some sort of closure? Yes, I was able to view it as I was putting it together and it was a case of addressing it front on. There was a level of guilt and shame that I carried for quite a long time. I haven’t met a single LGBTIQ+ person who doesn’t carry a level of shame or guilt that’s manifested in some form, whether they're conscious or not about it is another thing. This project enabled me to identify it, knowing what it is, owning it, tackling it and changing it- I always felt that if I didn’t come out then, none of this (discrimination, attack) would’ve happened. Looking at it now, if I didn’t do what I did, I wouldn’t be the person who I am happy to be right now. I now look at my experience in an objective way. This wasn’t my fault and it was just other people and their attitudes. The social construct I grew up in, Section 28 still being in law when I started education. This part of the story helped me identify who I was back then, but also made me realise that I'm ok in the present regardless what happened in the past. The project has no hope in it, it's dark and sad to look at because I carried so much trauma for so long. It's really up to me to show that and have it in a place where people can understand it, hear the story and hopefully address their own issues or how they treat others. It’s done with the intention to make people feel sad!
Have you exhibited Velvet Youth outside of the online world, and if not, have you thought about it? It hasn’t been anywhere yet, it's been one of those things that I wriggled out in weird forms. The imagery now is very different to what it was 6 months ago and I only shared it online after lots of advice and tutoring. I want to exhibit it but if I had to do so, part of me would want it at the school or in an institutional place where it's got a history with LGBTIQ+ rights and activism. I'm not sure if a photography gallery would work, I believe it should be put somewhere where it would make a difference. I have been asked to go back to the secondary school where I was moved to, so I could talk about what happened previously, but do I want to make the second body of work and then turn up and show them what an awful school they were? I want to give closeted kids who might be there some hope rather than impact them negatively with my experiences. I visualise the project to be very small and very big and garish with unavoidable eye contact. I'm still fishing through family archives of me around the time, reading and decoding into the images and deliberately trying not to. My boyfriend has talked about taking portraits of me to put at the end of the project, but the person in the archival images is so different to who I am now. I look at the images and I think “was this me?”- I’m unrecognizable.
Interview by Bobb Attard