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“Being Queer Is Very Powerful”: Michael Oliver Love On His Vibrant And Defiant Photography Practice

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As one of South Africa’s most promising, energetic, and talented photographers, Michael Oliver Love is putting out work filled with opulence and joy. With his fashion-driven portraiture and editorial imagery, the Cape Town-based photographer and artist hopes that beyond challenging the heteronormative gaze, people will simply enjoy his work for what it is: beautiful and necessary.

“I hope people get a sense of peace and balance from the frozen moments I try to capture, for the few seconds I can hold their attention in today’s world,” he tells us. “I am quite meticulous with my compositions and framing in a selfish way, to bring myself that sense of joy and balance, so hopefully it transcends to the viewer.” Often collaborating on shoots with close friends, Love, who is represented by Cape Town-based agency Hero Creative, is exploring, uplifting, and exhibiting queer life within his photography. “When I started, I was definitely shooting from my own perspective and what I like to see. Hence I was mostly photographing men and menswear, but through a queered lens,” he explains. “So I always try to create something that is balanced and organic, where everything works together in a way that is not forced or contrived.”

“I like my images to be harmonious to the eye, creating a sense of peace in the viewer”
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The photographer, posing in front of his artworks in his Cape Town studio.

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It all started when he moved to the city at the age of 18, “bright eyed and bushy tailed trying to get involved with everything I could,” he laughs. Love says he was fortunate to be able to pursue photography on the side while getting his Bachelor’s degree, after which he spent a year trialing social media management, marketing, art directing, and photography, “trying to make my parents happy with using my degree and just finding my place in the world.” Despite his talent, Love has never had any professional training, so his approach has always been trial and error, to find what works best and what is most pleasing to his eye. He started working with modelling agencies as his bread and butter, which grew into small local brands and designers. “So it has been years of ironing out my process, and I think I’m in a great space now,” he says. After signing with Hero Creative he was put forward to bigger clients, and with the help of social media, has built a strong portfolio.

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[His work] is an important example of visibility and a place of solace for the creative queer community.

After that, his career “definitely entered a new sphere, with a lot of exciting opportunities and international clientele,” he says. His impressive body of work includes a recent cover story for Kinfolk Magazine, an editorial for Vogue Arabia, and an editorial titled ‘Embodiment’ for the luxury fashion house Burberry, as part of the Burberry Generation collaboration series. This project is Love’s favorite yet, and the work he is most proud of to date. “Not only was Burberry a dream client of mine, but to be approached with an open brief to create what I like for them was so crazy,” he shares. “It was so amazing to be able to create whatever vision I had in mind, but this was also very daunting. Arriving on location that day I was so nervous, hoping I would be able to make something special. But through deep breaths, an amazing team, and letting the location guide us, we created some of my most favorite images ever.”

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The image of the two models dressed in white, mid-movement at exact opposite angles, was Love’s very first frame of the day. “Once the models were dressed and ready I said, ‘Okay boys, now run off into the distance’. This was my first click; it was crazy, and I was pretty impressed with myself that day,” he laughs. The image is indicative of Love’s knack for capturing spontaneity with perfect precision; many of his frames have subsequently gone viral on Instagram. His aesthetic in general is characterized by a bold, primary color palette, geometric asymmetrical shapes, and fluid movements of the human body, in an elegant and rich juxtaposition between bodies and the beach. “I like my images to be harmonious to the eye, creating a sense of peace in the viewer. I think because my brain is always moving a mile a minute it brings me peace as well,” he admits.

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“Having to realize you don’t fit in and being demonized for it gives you a duality to your vision”

Love is earnest and hardworking, and came into the South African photography industry to create more of a queer voice—yet along the way, he has shifted dynamics and portrayals of gender, too. “I loved having a muscled model wear a large straw hat with a feather sticking out and lots of jewellery, blurring the lines of masculine and feminine,” he explains. “This was something I was not seeing as much six years ago and needed to create, but has become relatively mainstream these days. So my perspective grew up in a way as I got older.” The photographer became more interested in color and organic, powerful moments, as opposed to purely challenging gender stereotypes through his work. “Although, that will always be my first love and is an inherent part of my work as a queer man,” he says. “We all come with our own experience and knowledge, and that’s what I bring to the table.”

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He is also the founder of Pansy Magazine, a men’s fashion magazine challenging the normative understanding of what it means to be a man; the magazine’s output clouds the separation of masculine and feminine energy and creates a space for free expression. “Pansy Magazine was the culmination of my university degree of media, writing, and gender studies, plus my love of fashion magazines and imagery,” Love explains. “I was seeing imagery floating around the internet and elsewhere of men in pearl earrings and feather boas and I wanted to see more of it.”

The iconic name subverts a term that has historically been used as a slur against queer men, in a similar way that the LGBTQIA+ community has reclaimed the word queer—which was also once an offensive and derogatory noun and still can be, depending on the context and who uses it. The etymology of the latter, for example, has roots in the German word quer, meaning oblique, diagonal, and transverse, or in other words, not straight. At some point this came to mean perverse; and among the synonyms that the Oxford English Dictionary lists for queer today include, strange, odd, dubious, criminal, and “not in a normal condition.”

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Pansy Magazine, as with many other queer cultural publications and institutions, pushes back against these archaic notions. On the magazine’s website, its ethos reads: “Pansy is about daring to be looked at sideways. [It] is about not listening to your dad when he says you can’t wear your flared, bedazzled hot pants. [It] is about pearl earrings, blush on cheeks, denim on denim, dewy skin, [and] flowers in the background as you parade across the dance floor.” The magazine is an important example of visibility and a place of solace for the creative queer community, at a time when people around the world continue to face horrific violence and inequality based on their sexuality, gender idenity and expression.

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Love sees Pansy now as an archive of imagery that challenges universal expectations of masculinity, and one that is ever-evolving. “I think it is something that can inform the next generation of men and the idea of masculinity, which I already see more and more of, allowing more space for softness and vulnerability, [qualities stereotypically associated with femininity].” Through this imagery, Love presents his own definition of what being queer means to him. “It means being able to look at things from another perspective,” he asserts, and “it means being different to what people consider the norm. Having to realize you don’t fit in and being demonized for it gives you a duality to your vision. Being queer is very powerful because you inherently challenge the norm. So using that as a way to inform your work, in whatever capacity that is, can be very powerful too.”

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All images © Michael Oliver Love, courtesy the artist. Interview: Steph Wade.