Fashion photographer Leandro Justen had a conservative, Catholic childhood in Brazil. He learned his first words of English from the Spice Girls. Was outed, then moved to the United States to play college volleyball. His journey as a photographer documenting the LGBTQ scene from drag queens to the Supreme Court, from parades to protests allowed him to get up close and personal with Melanie C, his favorite Spice, at PRIDE 50. It's also helped him embrace his own identity and become an active campaigner.
Since 2012, Leandro has devoted much of his time to documenting the LGBTQ community in New York. Recently, he's become active in the Reclaim Pride Coalition and this afternoon (Sunday, June 28 at 1pm) he will be at the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality downtown to document the historic event.
"I started documenting the protests as a consequence of the 2016 election," he says. "I was furious with the outcome of the election and started going to protests around the city. There, I saw the LGBTQ+ community come together and I wanted to be part of that movement for change. I kept showing up at events and learned about the local activist groups, parties, gatherings of all types. That’s when I started to actively document what was going on around me. It felt energizing."
Nightlife and the glamor of the drag queens are part of the mix — and have helped him embrace his own identity.
"I love chronicling the social happenings in this New York City and the LGBTQ+ community because I am documenting history. This work has helped me to understand how diverse the community truly is." he explains. “I also started seeing the possibilities within myself that I had not even considered before because I was in a dark closet. I was brought up in Brazil, very conservatively, in a Catholic family, then came to the United States to play intercollegiate volleyball in Missouri, and later Utah, at Brigham Young University, one of the most conservative universities in the country. It’s been a process for me.”
Back in Brazil, he was outed at 19 to his parents by an ex lover. "After that, I was just scared and hurt. Life became really heavy and difficult and felt I had to leave Brazil. So I started looking for a way out. Shortly after that, I had an opportunity to play volleyball at a school in Missouri for my freshman and sophomore years. I then moved to Utah to play Division 1 at BYU and finish my studies in journalism. The whole thing was an adventure. I was a first generation college student in a foreign country. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just took the opportunities as they came to me. I had no safety net really, I had to make it work.
“For my entire college life, I was not out. In fact, I was mostly awkward and uncomfortable with being gay. I hadn’t truly dealt with the shame and trauma of being outed so I hid so much of myself because of fear of being found out or outed again.
“Going to BYU was tough on me because I relived the some of oppressions and traumas I had experienced growing up. Weirdly, everything felt familiar because being in a Christian environment was what I knew back home: Jesus, capital sins, and guilt."
Coming to New York, documenting the scene and meeting drag queens, changed that. He says: "NYC opened my eyes to what life could be. As I explored my way through the city and became involved in the LGBTQ+ community, life became less heavy. I started to come into my own. I became friends with people who are gender nonconforming, trans people who were living their lives with pride and courage. I felt connected and began to embrace all the unique parts of me that I had hidden or repressed for years. This process involved a lot of unlearning and deconstructing ideas and archetypes of what I thought being queer was.."
On October 8, 2019 he was in Washington to record the LGBTQ community gathering from around the country outside the Supreme Court for The Advocate Magazine. Leandro photographed Aimee Stephens in her wheelchair. Aimee died in May, before the June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. "She did not live to see this major victory." he says. "She lost her job when she came out as a transgender at her workplace. The moment that she told her boss she wanted to present herself as a transgender woman, she got fired. But Aimee fought all the way up to the Supreme Court and won. It was a remarkable thing because her victory was a victory for an entire community.”
Leandro has been spending time back in Brazil and worked on his TransBrasil project about Trans Women. “They face a real threat of violence every day of their lives.” Leandro explained: "I came to the States 16 years ago, so I never had the opportunity to connect with my own LGBTQ+ community in Brazil. You see the news in Brazil and there is so much violence that's committed against trans women of color all over the country. It is really shocking. I wanted to know more so I went to the cities of Teresinha and Brasília."
He connected with local nonprofit organizations. “Through these institutions I got to meet and photograph these incredible women for a series of portraits and interviews. Brazil is a particularly violent country, especially to trans women of color. It’s something that is underreported and needs to be talked about at a larger scaler.”
One of his subjects, Danny Barradas, says: “To have the courage to assume your transsexuality is to have the certainty of becoming free, but it is also a recognition that safety will no longer be present."
Last year's PRIDE 50 was a busy time for Leandro. He took portraits, he went around the boroughs to photograph the queer community during Pride month, and worked on a special assignment for the closing ceremony.
"Donald Gallagher – he's an amazing artist. He was at the Stonewall rebellion in 1969. He was one of the people who marched the first Christopher Street Liberation March in 1969 and there is he is at the Queer Liberation March 50 years later. What an icon!’.
This was with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez meeting supporters in Queens.
The highlight was the closing ceremony, when he got to go behind the scenes and front of stage with his favorite Spice Girl, Melanie C, aka Sporty Spice.
"I pitched the Melanie C story to Vogue Brazil and thought they were going to turn it down. But they agreed to do it and gave me freedom to produce the entire story. The Spice Girls are beloved icons in Brazil and Melanie went to Brazil for pride concerts. She performed for three million people on top of a moving truck in São Paulo, my home state, before she came to New York. Melanie C's PR team agreed to an interview and behind-the-scenes photos. I was so pumped for it, also afraid I’d embarrass myself in front of my teenage hero.
“The funny thing is that one of the first English words I learned were from the Spice Girls. I remember looking up in the dictionary, the word SPICE. Because I thought SPICE meant SPACE – the girls from space. (laughs).
"As a confused gay teen boy, I was a big fan of the Spice Girls. Their music helped me loosen up. They were fun and free. I just loved them even though I didn’t know what they were singing about. Melanie C was my favorite one because she was sporty like me and she sang the best parts. I’ve followed her solo career since so it felt very special, even surreal to work with her many years after I was dancing in my locked room to 'Who Do You Think You Are'.
"I ended up spending about four hours with Melanie C and Sink The Pink, a UK Drag Group performing with her, documenting the whole thing. I interviewed and photographed her in her hotel room while she was getting ready for her concert in Times Square. I just couldn't believe the access they gave me. I was up front with my favorite Spice Girl. I just couldn't believe what was happening. It didn’t feel real until I had to transcribe her interview and process the photos the next morning.”
Despite losing assignments because of the pandemic, Leandro has been busy in 2020. He started an instagram account about New York City during COVID, he's been documenting the protests, and today he will shoot the Queer Liberation March.
What next? "I'm thinking of doing a book just about NYC in 2020. It’s been an historic year. I’ve taken so many photos all over the city during the pandemic, then the protests started, the Queer March – and next there is the election and everything in between! It’s a consequential year. I’m living history right now so I might as well just document it all.”
Leandro is a photojournalist centering the LGBTQ+ community and fashion photographer working with brands like Carolina Herrera, French Connection, and Christian Siriano. You can follow and see more of his work at @LeandroJusten.