A Powerful Photographic Exhibition on the Resilience of LGBTQIA+ Dominicans

Photographic Exhibition on the Vulnerability and Resilience of LGBTQIA+ Dominicans BELatina Latinx
Photographs: Tiziano De Stefano

The photographic exhibition, “Sin etiquetas: retratos humanos” (which roughly translates to “without labels: human pictures), celebrates the positive outlooks of LGBTQIA+ Dominicans from different backgrounds via a series of portraits and short stories. The exhibition came into fruition thanks to the non-profit organization, The Tiziano De Stefano Foundation, based in the Dominican Republic and committed to promoting the value and importance of photography as a means of communication. 

Some of the featured images and stories wrap you in their warmth and the tenderness of humanity. One of the images features a lesbian couple, Lorena Espinoza and Denise Paiewonsky, who acknowledged their luck. In another shot, Jean Luis Sano Santana, a non-binary queer person, reflects on the negative connotation that comes from LGBTQIA+ people trying to promote perfectionism in order to validate their dignity. 

Putting vulnerability in front of the lens

Dominican photographer Yaisa Grassals Castillo, the coordinator of the exhibition, worked alongside The Tiziano De Stefano Foundation.  She knew that these visual stories would help change the island’s perception of LGBTQIA+ people. “It was created to try to highlight, give visibility to a community, and especially to those people, who, despite all the obstacles they’ve been presented within the Dominican Republic, have managed to get ahead,” Grassals Castillo said. “These are the people who have decided to live authentically to themselves, no matter what may have changed, and have shown that they, too, can succeed.”

The participants let their vulnerabilities flow freely behind Tiziano De Stefano’s lens, and through the words they wrote and shared, hence intensifying the need for narratives revolving around the strength of LGBTQIA+ people. 

It is known that the LGBTQIA+ community, regardless of where they reside, are subjected to rejection, humiliation, and antiquated social stigmas; this is especially true for the Latinx community. So, this exhibition sets the stage for a community that is often “othered” and allows LGBTQIA+ people in the Dominican Republic to share their stories in a positive light after overcoming the obstacles their mere identities may have caused or can cause. 

Grassals Castillo studied law in the Dominican Republic and specialized in human rights in the United States. After that, she focused on the LGBTQIA+ community of the island and has let her advocacy for social issues unravel ever since. With this artistic experience, she said that she hopes to promote human rights and sustainable development goals. 

The importance of elevating LGBTQIA+ Dominican stories

According to a survey of the National Board for the HIV and AIDS (CONAVIHSIDA), 64 percent of the gay and trans population in Santiago, Dominican Republic, experiences rejection in school/university. Unfortunately, the relentless bullying towards the community can affect their academic progress and, many times, lead to them dropping out of school. In fact, it has been reported that only 28 percent of trans people have completed secondary education and only 6 percent higher education; harmful stigmas and stereotypes associated with expression and identity are the culprits of this grim phenomenon. 

Grassals Castillo realizes that it is crucial to move the dial away from unjustified prejudices. She added that she has seen a general change in society in recent years but knows that there’s plenty of work that needs to be done. 

She stated that the Dominican Republic has created a society that is still very conservative and mostly because of its faith-based principles, “so that still affects many a lot, but at the same time there has been more openness in comparison to the past.”

As one of the foundation’s most prized experiences, the “Sin etiquetas: retratos humanos” exhibition paves a path many have not trekked on in the Dominican Republic before. 

“To get the digital event moving, those partaking in The Tiziano De Stefano Foundation alongside Grassals Castillo contacted people from different fields as well as made contact with a person within the PNUD in the Dominican Republic, who was also the one who put us in contact with activists and many others,” she said. 

Their intention was for the exhibition to be released last year during Pride Month, but it got complicated due to the pandemic. So, it ended up being released in October, Grassals Castillo told us. 

“But we really wanted to promote visibility in the LGBTQIA+ community because they are common, ordinary people, like you, like me, and they have the same rights as you and the same rights as me,” she said. 

Understanding the privilege of someone’s day to day life

“It’s really difficult, and sometimes it’s hard to understand, but apart from having that empathy, the first goal is to create empathy, and I believe that’s what we are doing with this photographic exhibition,” the ambitious coordinator said.

Please note that aside from the digital exhibition, which will feature the participants via its website and social media handles, it will also remain alive beyond Pride Month o El Mes del Orgullo and allow everyone to enjoy the exhibition

Aside from the heart-tugging “Sin etiquetas: retratos humanos,” Graffals Castillo has been working on other projects. For instance, she took part in the International Photography Conference: A look at the SDG’s through the camera lens or “Jornadas Internacionales de Fotografía: una mirada a los ODS a través del lente” last year. 

The “Jornadas Internacionales de Fotografía” is a series of international online conferences that seek to create a space to raise awareness about the challenges and problems facing our societies. The conferences aim to highlight the ability of photography to make visible, “focus,” and shine a light on important issues affecting human rights around the world.

The virtual event started off small as it didn’t count with lots of funding at its inception. But plenty of renowned photographers decided to volunteer for it after they reached out to them and, in turn, allowed the project to come to life. 

Grassals Castillo, alongside her colleagues, also has several training projects in queue that involve photography and ties into the social approach. These types of projects are open to people with disabilities, too, such as those who are motor or hearing impaired. They conduct photoshoots with them and intend to conduct photography workshops so that the same person can communicate how they perceive the world. In essence, let them show everyone their day-to-day, instead of anyone else dictating how their day should look like. 

The conferences mentioned above are completely free; they will be held via Zoom, and we will continue to announce them in the coming months and weeks so people can be informed. 

“Our social networks will also extend invitations to anyone interested as we look forward to hosting anyone interested in our projects.”

Catch her future work on her social media.