In addition to being LGBT history month, February is the month of Valentine’s Day when we are bombarded with images of heteronormative couples.
Valentine cards, gifts and magazine and newspaper articles overwhelmingly depict a man/woman partnership, or assume such a partnership in the language that they use. You generally have to search well beyond the mainstream shops to find cards for a same-gender partner, and even there the assumption is of attraction to one stable gender and of monogamous coupledom. ‘Be mine’ say the cards, ‘you’re the one’, ‘you belong to me’.
For these reasons I worked with photographer Charlotte Barnes to produce an image of relationship diversity to provide a counterpoint to the saturation of pictures which suggest that there is only one, true, normal way to engage in relationships. We held a photoshoot with Dr. J, Neil and Maria who are in a relationship together which breaks the bounds of monogamy and challenges other assumptions about the roles and dynamics of relationships.
In the image here we might initially make out two bodies, but we soon realise that there are more than two pairs of hands present. The intertwining of the hands demonstrates the intimacy between the three and we are called upon to question conventional norms that romantic and sexual relationships are only possible between two people.
Neil, Dr. J and Maria refer to themselves as a trupple to emphasise the lack of any hierarchy in their relationship. We see that reflected in the image of hands entwined: none are prioritised over the others. The three people involved are all equally important rather than this relationship being any kind of extension of coupledom. There is no version of monogamy here: what bonds them together is the openness and freedom that they are all afforded rather than a set of rules about who can do what with whom.
Additionally it isn’t clear from the hands and bodies in this image what genders are involved, and that is important given the genderqueer nature of this relationship. All of the people experience themselves in differently gendered ways at different times and in different combinations, and this was reflected in the variety of clothes, make-up and facial hair they used during the photo shoot: each costume change shifting the dynamic between the three. This fluidity and switching of power is an important aspect of the trupple and something that they value.
There are many ways of conducting relationships and – as they rightly point out – the trupple represent just one form of one of the ways that has grown in popularity in the last few decades: polyamory. They have found a way of relating which works for them and which, unlike the Valentine industry, they are not keen to impose it on anybody else.
A queer image like this can make us curious. What is going on here? It can start us questioning the different kinds of relationships which are possible and equally valid. The recent acceptance of same-sex marriage is a starting point, not an end point. It is far more complex even than just monogamy versus non-monogamy.
Within those who call themselves monogamous we have affairs, adulteries and infidelities. We have one partner for life and serial monogamy. We have hook-up cultures and friends-with-benefits. We have relationships with exes which are closer than current partnerships. We have those who live apart together and long distance couples.
We have all kinds of online relationships developing which question the old rules of what counts as a relationship, as sex, as cheating. And when we turn beyond monogamy we have swingers, open relationships, and polyamorous forms of many different kinds. We have primary/secondary arrangements. We have triads, quads and poly families; line marriages and polyfidelitous networks. We have relationships influenced by all the various polygamies which – let’s not forget – are the norm in far more societies globally than monogamy. We have those who employ their own rules, contacts and rituals, and those – like relationship anarchists – who aim for a relationship based on something else entirely. We have ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ arrangements and those who want to hear everything, or even do everything, together. We have people who are happily single, and those who – like the members of trupple – maintain their own space.
Relationships can be romantic but not sexual, sexual but not romantic, both or neither. People are questioning the prioritising of romantic relationships over relationships with friends, colleagues, family members, companion animals, the planet, and themselves. They are rewriting the rules of living together, of sharing finances, of childrearing, of gender roles, of sex, of commitment, of breaking up and of staying together.
The queer image in photography can open us up to this diversity. By subtly altering a conventional kind of image the viewer is called to question the norms and ideals in the everyday images that they see. And if the world can expand to fit this as well, then how much further expansion might be possible?
About the photographer
Charlotte Barnes is a portrait and editorial photographer based in London working with a wide range of commercial clients, musicians and artists. She is also a volunteer professional for the Media Trust, shooting for charities and NGOs. As a queer woman, much of her personal work reflects her own life as part of London’s LGBT and poly communities and she is currently working on a project about gender fluidity and female masculinity.