Last year we got a message from Sebastian Franke, a young photographer, and videographer based in Leipzig. He told us that he and his friend, the Jena-based student Paul Max, were going on a trip through Eastern Europe to document the local Drag Scene – on film! For their project Queens of Eastern Europe they traveled through Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Serbia and Hungary and photographed and interviewed local Drag Queens. The result is a moving and interesting project about a sub-culture that has garnered neither much attention nor encouragement from the Eastern Europe people. In honour of the opening of their exhibition in Weimar, we spoke to Sebastian about this project.
Hello Sebastian, welcome to the Lomography Magazine! We are happy to have you here. Please introduce yourselves to our readers!
I'm Sebastian, a photographer and filmmaker from Leipzig. After a few short films and a feature film debut entitled Königssöhne (2014), I began photographing drag queens in Germany in 2016 before the idea for the Queens Of Eastern Europe project on the drag scene in Eastern Europe was launched. For the photo project, I started my first trip at the end of May 2018, will probably continue for the next 10 - maybe even 20 years. Based on the photo project, a documentary film is currently being planned for which I and a small crew were able to produce the first test recordings in Warsaw.
Paul completed his bachelor's degree in 2018 and has already researched and written extensively on the societal situation of homosexuals and LGBTI+ people in different contexts in the sociology department. In the meantime, he is writing his master's thesis in the field of public communication and as a member of the QOEE team, he is mainly responsible for public relations, finance, and exhibition coordination.
You are currently working on the project Queens of Eastern Europe. Among other things, it is about getting to know the Eastern European drag queen scene and finding out how this subculture is lived in countries where the LGBTQ+ scene is still strongly stigmatized. This is a very exciting and important topic. So the question is: How did you come up with this project?
Ever since 2016, I have been accompanying a young drag artist with the camera and I knew that the subject of drag was exactly my thing.
Now, if you work artistically, in any area, you are constantly questioning yourself and your work and thinking about what you will leave to the world with what you do. For me as a filmmaker and photographer, an artist is defined by the concept of responsibility because of its external impact. So what responsibility do I have with the drag pictures? As a filmmaker, you want to tell stories that move other people, travel, ask questions about life. Every good story has a protagonist that we can identify with and want to know more about. A person who lives through inner and outer conflicts on their way, with dreams, wishes, and hopes on the one hand and antagonistic life situations on the other, in which we all somehow find ourselves again and again. At some point, I realized that I had shot a lot of interesting and very aesthetic pictures in Germany but I was wondering which journey I really wanted people to take with these pictures? Where do I start with my protagonists to tell a story about life? Thus, one evening I was sitting on the couch with a good friend at home, going through my pictures, discussing them and talking about the drag scene, and my role as a photographer. It was pretty clear to me that I would continue to shoot drag queens, but I wanted to go deeper and further - wanted to find characters and stories of life.
I have some friends in Eastern Europe and I know that the queer community is still having a hard time in some countries. Especially with the legal situation in Russia, the values and traditions in many countries of the former Eastern Bloc, but also the rhetoric of some national conservative politicians in many countries, which suggests that homosexuals pose a threat to the moral integrity and the traditional value system of the respective countries are already a pretty tough chunk.
I knew absolutely nothing about the drag scene in Eastern Europe. But that thought came to me that evening and I said to my friend on the couch next to me something like: "... what about the drag scene in Eastern Europe? I mean, what if I travel to Eastern Europe with my camera and explore the drag scene there?" The moment I said it, it was like throwing a burning match into a pile of trash. I jumped off the sofa and knew that I would start this adventure. "Queens Of Eastern Europe" the title was immediately ready. From that moment on, I've done everything to make this project a reality. I asked Paul if he wanted to participate in the project, lots of exposés, and applications written to finance the whole adventure... the full program just before starting such a project.
What difficulties or obstacles have you encountered during your journey?
The first hurdle was to finance the project. The many journeys, the film material, the chemistry for film development, baryta paper, the rent for a photo lab ... Sebastian wanted to finance a large part of it with a contract that would have earned him good money. The order was canceled two weeks before the start. With the help though of support from foundations and public institutions, we've got a very good budget. Sebastian then terminated his pension savings and added them to the project. During the first trip, it was difficult to get a drag queen, with whom Sebastian had agreed to meet, to be in front of the camera. It was a booked trip of 10 days and after 5 days of waiting Sebastian still had no pictures, because the Drag Queen had put him off repeatedly to the next day. He needed to be patient. He eventually received his pictures the last three days. In another country, an appointment with a drag queen was canceled because she was suddenly out of reach. By chance, however, we then met one of the main protagonists of the project.
You have been traveling for Queens of Eastern Europe for a few weeks already and have collected many impressions. Were there any moments you especially remember?
Yes, for sure. Especially the first encounter with Andrezej (81) and Lulla as a drag queen. In Warsaw, I had arranged a meeting with Kim Lee and another queen. The meeting with Kim was perfect. The other, however, was suddenly not responding anymore. There I sat with Kim in the dressing room and was telling her that my second appointment had probably been canceled and she said: "Oh, you know, tomorrow Lulla is visiting me, she has a gig at a party and I will put on her make-up... she is 80. I can call her and ask if... "How old did you say? 80? Wow!" The next day I met with Lulla and she took me to this crazy birthday party of a 60-year-old Polish guy. Since then I have met Lulla at least 6 times, although we can not even communicate without a translator. When I write to her on Facebook, I have to use the Google Translator. Lulla was born in Warsaw in 1938 and discovered her passion for drag when she was about 30 years old in communist times. Through her and her stories, my view of the entire drag scene has expanded completely.
How did you meet the people along the way and who knew about your intentions? Both, the drag queens and outsiders?
All the drag queens that are part of the project were really excited about the project and many supported me wherever they could. Outsiders were quite surprised. I once told a taxi driver in Poland about my project and he did not even know that there are drag queens in Poland. Warsaw even has a very lively drag scene.
How did you get in touch with the drag queens? Did you visit shows or contact them individually?
At first, I did not know anything about the drag scene in all the countries that I've been to. I did not even know if there was a drag scene at all and what was going on there. So I sat down in front of the computer and kept on researching LGBT organizations in the countries I contacted, searched for articles, went to the library, and searched specific articles, YouTube and noted down the drag names that I encountered. Then I just contacted them on the social networks like Facebook or Instagram, explained my project and hoped that someone would get in touch with me. Some got back to me, were totally enthusiastic and wanted to join, but didn't respond anymore then, some gave no answer, others wanted in return some money or the opportunity for a paid appearances in Germany... A few contacted me through writing and sometimes Skype, and gradually I was able to clarify some dates for my first trips. Along the way, I met some important people for the project rather by accident - like Lulla in Warsaw.
My favorite picture was shot in a gay club in Saint Petersburg of a drag queen who was there by accident. Central Station Club is the largest gay club in Saint Petersburg, with several floors. There are usually quite a lot of drag queens on the weekend. I had a meeting with a person in charge of the club before and we talked for a long time because I wanted to take pictures and talk to people for a few nights. I got access to all areas and the door codes to each dressing room, so I could move around freely. The art director went with me through every change, informed the queens about my project and I let him translate that whoever did not want to be photographed could give me a sign. And so I had some very exciting conversations, shot many pictures and at some point two of the Queens gave me a quick look to let understand that they did not want to be photographed in a certain situation. Then I took the camera down. I have never encountered rejection. Only in Budapest, an older drag queen did not want to get involved in the project because I could not (and did not want to pay) money.
What were the reactions to your project in Germany? How do you think the drag scene is perceived here?
In Germany, they were very positive and very curious. Many people only know RuPaul's Drag Race and do not even know that there is a very diverse drag scene in Eastern Europe with a very long tradition. For many people, I open up completely new horizons through my pictures and the stories that go with them.
Sebastian, how did you get into photography? Do you also photograph digitally or just analogue?
Cameras have fascinated me as a child. As a teenager, I bought my first analog camera - at that time with an external analog light meter. Then I was totally broke and sold the camera to get me some beer and cigarettes. Later I bought a Praktika MTL 5b. As a filmmaker, the path to photography is not very far and photography can also be very helpful for filmmaking. I only take pictures in analog. And if the material and the development were not so enormously expensive, I would also shoot my films in the same way. If there were no more analog cameras, I would immediately lose interest in photography. For me, photography is inseparably linked to the film material, the film's insertion and the whole process of analogue photography. For me, there is nothing else: to trust the mechanical and chemical processes in the camera when exposing the film as well as my own eyes, own abilities, and my intuition; developing the pictures at home, making hand prints in the lab. Of course, photographing in analog is expensive in all countries and time-consuming in the long run. But this is worth it, it is exactly what I love - the very best and most expensive digital camera could never give me what the analog photography gives me. I have never owned a digital camera in my life and never want to have one. If you look at the pictures and the prints on photo paper (the project is photographed in both color and black-and-white) - for me, these are pictures are live and tell stories.
The photos shown here are all taken with our Lomography Color Negative 120 ISO 400. What do you like about the look of this film?
I use different films for different situations. A standard B&W film and various color films. The look and color reproduction of your 400 color films are simply perfect for many of the project's situations. For example, when I shoot in clubs, the films bring out the mood and atmosphere of those places in Eastern Europe pretty well. I think it's a pity that you no longer have the 400 Tungsten. I loved that one! Please let me know when it is back in stock.
Thank you, Sebastian, for this interesting interview and all the best for your project.
If you enjoyed this project as much as we did and you happen to be in the area, you should not miss the chance to see Queen of Eastern Europe in Weimar. The exhibition runs until July and can be found in Weimar Central Station. The address is Schopenhauerstr. 2, 99423 Weimar.
And if you do not make it to Weimar by July, you can get an impression of the project on the official website of the Queens of Eastern Europe. On Instagram and Facebook there are also many interesting impressions.