The up-and-coming photographer captured pairs of siblings in his latest project, referencing the intersections of race and queerness
For Elianel Clinton, photography is more than a medium—it’s a means of creating an atmosphere of care and support along the intersecting lines of sexual orientation and race. This mission was the starting point for Brotherhood and Sisterhood, a visual series that centers the unique bonds that siblings share, letting that extend outwards to encompass all members of the queer of color family.
“I’m speaking to my community,” says Clinton. “Those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, or cousins who have disowned their own flesh and blood for being a part of the LGBTQ+ community. No matter who we choose to love or what the color of our skin is, we’re all human beings and deserve to find refuge, peace, and love in this lifetime.”
Document caught up with Clinton last week to get a closer look at the ethos behind Brotherhood and Sisterhood, the cultural periphery that informs his work, and the reasons to stay literal in artistic endeavors.
Morgan Becker: As a portrait and documentary photographer, what kinds of subjects are you drawn to?
Elianel Clinton: I’m drawn to capturing all types of subjects, and evoking their beauty through my eye. Beauty is so multifaceted. I find it necessary to create more images of people who look like me—not only physically, but internally. I want to make images to look back on years down the road, and continue to push the doors open to show younger Black boys and girls out there that it’s possible to be in these places and spaces. I also enjoy working with subjects who rarely get in front of the camera. They trust my vision enough to show them what they look like in a different light, which I’m honored to do.
Morgan: Would you say that your upbringing and cultural background play a significant role in forming your work?
Elianel: Definitely, a million percent. I was raised by my amazing mother and father, Carmen and Gerald Clinton, so I’ve automatically embedded empathy, resilience, integrity, compassion, creativity, and perseverance into my bloodstream. I approach all my shoots with that in me. My father plays a very important role, aside from teaching me about life—he’s the reason behind why I picked up a camera and started storytelling through a lens. As a young child, my father would always document my mother, brother, and I—and not just on special occasions. There’d always be a VHS camera in our faces! Something drew me to that aspect of being able to freeze moments, capture them. They’ll last for eternity, way beyond you. To make a picture that tells a story about that moment—I was sold on that at, like, 10 years old.
Morgan: What’s the story behind your latest project, Brotherhood and Sisterhood? What’s the meaning of these terms for you, if they diverge from their literal, biological definitions?
Elianel: I’m beyond blessed to have [my family]. We’ve always been there for one another, throughout all our endeavors. After I ‘came out,’ it took my family a bit of understanding and getting used to. But over time, I’ve managed to teach them while fully expressing my true self. Throughout that journey, they’ve loved me the same way.
That isn’t the case for so many others with their biological parents and siblings. With up to 40 percent of the 4.2 million youth experiencing homelessness identifying as LGBTQ+, I wanted to show the world that disowning your own flesh and blood for how they choose to identify is inhumane. We are humans too. Through these portraits, I wanted to visually reinforce to family members that we are no different, and that you can coexist next to us.
Morgan: You speak about the ‘intersectionality between sexual orientation and race’—can you break down how that manifests in this project? Why did you choose to photograph actual siblings rather than, for instance, members of a queer ‘chosen family’?
Elianel: I wanted to be as literal as [possible] by utilizing real siblings as my subjects, who are either Black or Hispanic—[both of which are identities] I can relate to. I saw this project no other way. In each pair of siblings, there was one who identified as LGBTQ+, and one as heterosexual. For years, I’ve intended to photograph actual twins or siblings. So when creating the baseline of this project back in 2019, I thought to myself, How can I do this in a way that speaks to me and others who look like me, but also create something I haven’t seen before?
Morgan: What was the process of shooting like? Did you find that it was easier or more difficult than normal, considering the subjects’ bonds with one another?
Elianel: It was a breeze working with my subjects. I had shot with Aaron and Adam back in 2016 or 2017. I worked my old nine-to-five with Alyse and Shalyse in 2019. I just met Sherrod and Sean that day, but I felt like I’d known them all my life. All of them were super patient with me. Going into the process was a little intimidating at first, because this was my first time producing something at this scale, with an actual production team there to help me bring it to life. There were about 20 hands on deck that I’m so grateful for—Jacqueline Eastzer of Babe Studios, Vinny Davino and his production team at VSNY Films, my assistants William Pippin and Anthony Nazario who really came through, stylists Megan Carter and Cali Smith, makeup artist Liz Villavizar, hairstylists Ro Morgan and India Williams, nail tech Beverly Lynn, prop designer Rosemary Gonzalez, and the video team John Izarpate, Hydeeah Johnson, and Jonathan Alvarez.
Morgan: What would you say are your values as a photographer?
Elianel: I would say that my main values as a photographer are remaining true to myself, and staying passionate in my storytelling through my creative eye.
Morgan: Something that you hope people will always be able to recognize in your work?
Elianel: That they can see themselves in some way, shape, or form, little or big.