“Where a story happens is just as important as the subject of the story,” said grantee Michael O. Snyder to students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, a Pulitzer Center Campus Consortium Partner.
Snyder, a professor at Syracuse University and multimedia journalist, presented his visual contributions to Queens of Queen City. The Center-supported project was produced in partnership with writer Rae Garringer. Garringer and Snyder documented drag culture in Cumberland, Maryland, a “city on the edge of the wilderness,” according to Snyder.
Snyder, who grew up in a town near Cumberland, was surprised to find a print newspaper advertisement for an evening drag show on a visit home more than a decade ago. He and his sister attended: “What I saw that night—the courage and charisma of the performers and the diversity and complexity of the crowd—in many ways challenged what I thought I knew about my home,” he said.
He asked, “What is the source of courage, where do people find their source of courage to be able to do this?” He has since grown close with many of the Cumberland queens.
“I really like to work collaboratively with my subjects,” said Snyder. “A lot of drag photography is usually of folks who are on stage and off. I really wanted to play with this in-between space.”
Snyder’s work explores drag’s self-expressive and self-shielding qualities: “Drag is both outward and putting on a costume at the same time.”
His subjects often faced threats from religious and political groups hostile to their identities and performances: “What was telling to me was that they don’t really need to show up [after online threats] to do damage [...]. The fear that’s done by those threats is damage alone,” said Snyder.
“Your story,” he advised students, “is only as good as your access,” a sum of trust and time according to Snyder. His portraits of vulnerability, joy, and ordinary life in Queens of Queen City are the result of building relationships over six years.
“Just because a storyteller shares knowledge, experience, and identity with their topic or subject [...] does not mean that they will tell the story accurately, ethically, or excellently,” said Snyder. As the storyteller moves away from what they share with their subjects or topic areas, said Snyder, “you increase not only the difficulty but also the ethical risk.”
By combining place and rich characterization Snyder was able to engage deeper truths like “courage, [...] brotherhood, [...] asking deep questions about what it means to live well, [...] acceptance, [and] change [...].” Even if we’re telling a story that’s timely,” said Snyder, “what we really want to do is reach [peoples’] hearts. Then there’s an opportunity for understanding.”
A special thank you to professor and Pulitzer Center grantee Bill Freivogel and photojournalist, professor, and 2011 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow Julia Rendleman for helping arrange Snyder's visit.