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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Humans of New York

By Brandon Stanton - 
Don’t Give a F*ck

I love the gays.  Always have.   I respect the hell out of them.   Because at some point in his or her life, every gay person has to look society straight in the eye and say:  “I’m gay, and I really don’t give a fuck what you think.”  And that isn’t an easy thing to do.  If everyone had that kind of courage, there’d be a lot less frowning faces on the subway.   There’d probably be more people dancing on floats, half-naked, covered in metallic body paint, and waving peacock feathers in the air.  Because you can’t really be free until you don’t give a fuck.  And not giving a fuck is just about the hardest thing there is to do.  And every gay person has to do it.  And I respect the hell out of that.  Always have.

I first met Robert on Halsted Street in Chicago.  I was just beginning to do street portraits.  It was the night before Chicago’s Pride Parade, and I was in the city’s gay district looking for interesting people to photograph.  There was no shortage of subjects.  At one point, I noticed a large black man, walking down the middle of the street, wearing a shiny red costume and clearly not giving a fuck.  Inspired by his example, I too walked into the middle of the street, dropped to one knee, and began snapping photographs.

Robert walked right up to me.  “Hey baby,” he said.  ”My name is Cyon.”
“Hi, my name’s Brandon.   Do you mind if I take your portrait?”
“Go right ahead.”

When I finished taking his photograph, Robert winked at me, and continued walking down the center of the street.  Great shots, I thought, and went on to find other interesting people.   As I walked around that night, I noticed several posters with Robert’s picture on them and the name “Cyon Flare” written in big bold letters.  He appeared to be a bit of a local celebrity.   The posters were advertising parties that he hosted at several gay clubs.
When I returned home that night, I did a little more research.  A quick Google search of  ”Cyon Flare” showed that Robert was also a DJ.  One of his songs, which I found on YouTube, had reached #34 on the Billboard Dance Charts.  According to his website, Robert had chosen the name “Cyon Flare” because he wanted a name “that could express energy without separating his masculinity and femininity.”
(Do I call you he or she?”  / “I am pure energy.” / “OK, but he or she?”)

This person is interesting, I thought.  I sent Robert an email, asking if I could photograph him at one of the parties he hosted.  Actually, he wrote back, my birthday is next week.  They are throwing a small party for me at Hydrate on Friday night. The show starts at 11.
I wrote back: Actually, I was hoping to photograph you getting ready.
The first thing I remember about Robert’s apartment was the feathers.  There were lots of feathers.  Feathers and colors. Big boots piled in the corner.  Headdresses, wigs, sequins.  Large tupperware containers stacked against the wall, filled with colorful clothing.  This didn’t seem like Robert’s apartment.  This seemed like Cyon’s apartment.  Every bit of empty space in the apartment was claimed by Cyon Flare.  Looking around, I imagined that every bit of empty space in Robert’s life was claimed by Cyon Flare.

“I’m going to shave really quick before I start painting,” he said,  ”make yourself comfortable.” But honestly, that was a little difficult to do.  I’ve always made an effort to be embracing of differences.  But this was almost too much.  Everything in this apartment was alien to me.  And there was very soft music playing on Robert’s computer.   Robert went back into the bathroom and started lathering up his face.  I started photographing. “Oh… you want to photograph this?”  he asked.
“I want to photograph everything,”  I said.

After he finished shaving, Robert took a seat in front of a large mirror.  A bright lamp shone down from behind.  Small bottles of paint, colored pencils, and brushes were spread across the tabletop.  Robert started painting his face.  Eyes first.
“Brandon, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Why did you choose me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, of all the people on the street, why did you choose me?”   He was staring straight ahead into the mirror.  ”It’s something I ask every photographer.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m not sure.”  Soft music was playing.  Robert was putting on make-up.  I felt the need to say more.  ”I mean obviously… you are a very visually intriguing subject.” I wondered what answer he was looking for, so I asked:  ”What do the others say?”
“Oh I don’t know,” Robert said.  He was painting green metallic streaks on his forehead with a q-tip.  ”Some of them say they were drawn to my energy.”

“Oh,” I said.  When we first met, I’d actually been drawn to his four-inch heels and red sequin headdress.  But I kept quiet, and the next few minutes passed in silence.  During this time, I did my best to photograph Robert’s painting process without getting in his way.  Then suddenly, Robert started to answer questions that weren’t being asked.  Questions he’d spent a lifetime asking himself.
“It’s not true,” he said “What they say about drag queens.”
“What do they say about drag queens?” I asked.
“That we’re attention whores– just desperate for love.”  I’d never heard that before.  He went on:   ” But I’m happy just the way I am.”  He wasn’t smiling. He reached for some bright blue lipstick and began putting it on.   ”But its hard.” (I know its hard, Robert.)  ”I’ll meet a gay man in a club, and they’ll like Robert.  Then I’ll bring them here.  And I’ll show them this.” He motioned toward the boxes of feathers and colors.  ”And they’ll see this, and they’ll be like, I didn’t sign up for this.” (That’s what you get for not giving a fuck.)   “It’s too much for them.”  (You’re just too different.) I’m too much for them.” (Even me Robert.  Even I’m a little uncomfortable.  I don’t want to be.  But I am.)  ”So I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this forever.”  He stared into the mirror for a second, and then Cyon came back.   He sat up straight in his chair.  He leaned close into the mirror, admiring his handiwork.   “But if they have a problem with me, that’s their problem.  Because it’s who I was born to be. I am living my energy.  And nothing could be more joyful.”  (Or painful.)   “Here,” he said, “come photograph me with this.”
He got up from his chair and walked over to the other side of the room.  On the wall was a framed piece of paper with a poem written on it.  Robert took it off the wall, and held it against his face.  ”This poem means so much to me.  Can you photograph me with this?”
“I’ll try,” I said.  ”But if I get your whole face, I’m not sure that you’ll be able to read the poem.”

When Robert finished painting his face, I took a few more portraits around the apartment.  Afterwards, we went outside and caught a taxi to the club where his “birthday show” was being held.   Cyon Flare was performing that night with a baudeville group called the “Stage Door Johnnies.”  About 40 people were in attendance.  The show was themed to celebrate Robert’s birthday.  At one point a cake was brought out on stage, and everyone sang “Happy Birthday.”  I snapped some photographs, but I was much more partial to the portraits I’d taken earlier at Robert’s apartment.

I’m not exactly sure why Robert called me last week.  It had been months since we last talked,  though every once in awhile he’d leave  inspirational messages on my facebook wall.

But I hadn’t heard from him in awhile, so I was surprised to see his name on my caller ID.  I picked up the phone.  “Hello beautiful,” he said.  Robert was always calling me honey, or baby, or beautiful.
“Hi Cyon.”
“Your photography is beautiful.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.”
“ But listen.  I want to know—why New York?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why did you choose New York? Why not somewhere else?”
“I don’t know…” I’d actually been asked this question many times, so my reply had become pretty polished: “The people, mostly.  And the freedom.  Because there are so many different types of people here, people feel free to be different.  Does that make sense?”
“It does,” he said.  There was a long pause.  “Part of me always wanted to go to New York.  Because I wanted to be in entertainment.  But I was afraid of the ghetto. I couldn’t go to New York because I didn’t want to live in the ghetto anymore.”
“I live in the ghetto,” I told him.  When I moved to New York, about the only place I could afford was in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.  And if the crime density map is to be believed, it’s one of the worst neighborhoods in New York.  But it’s not much of a ghetto anymore,” I said.  People were always talking about how bad Bedford-Stuyvesant used to be.  It really isn’t that bad anymore.  It isn’t Mayberry.  But it really isn’t all that bad.
“You see, Brandon.  I grew up in the ghettos of Detroit.  I couldn’t go to New York because I couldn’t live in the ghetto anymore.”  I imagined Robert walking down the streets of my neighborhood, in full costume. It would not be pretty.   Even now, even after the ghetto got “cleaned up,” it wouldn’t be pretty.  He was too different.  He might not be physically attacked.  But he’d be attacked.  Every time he walked down the street, he’d be attacked.
“When did you first start being Cyon Flare?” I asked.
“It started with the heels.  I started wearing heels when I went outside.”
“In the ghetto?”
“In the ghetto.”
Robert wore heels in the ghetto.  I couldn’t do it.  I don’t give a fuck but I couldn’t do it.  Even if I wanted to.   Heels in the ghetto.  (“Can I ask you something?”) Twenty years ago Robert went outside in the ghetto, wearing heels.   (“Out of everyone on the street, why did you choose me?”) Robert stood up to the entire ghetto.  By wearing heels.  Because he wanted to.  That’s not giving a fuck. (It wasn’t the sequins Robert. It wasn’t the heels either.) Choosing to be made fun of.  Choosing to be hated. (“Some of them say they were drawn to my energy.” / Its because you don’t give a fuck. That’s your energy– not giving a fuck.) Choosing to be lonely.  (“It’s too much for them.  I’m too much for them.” / You are too much for them Robert.  I’m sorry. )  Choosing to not give a fuck because rather than being loved, you want to be you and you want to be free.   (“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this forever.” / Yes you will, Robert.  You did it in the ghetto, you’ll do it forever.) Wearing heels in the ghetto.  That’s not giving a fuck.  And I respect the hell out of that, Robert.  I always have.

visit Humans of New York for more of this online photographic exhibition by Brandon Stanton.


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