Berlin-based photographer Pepper Levain is a real pro at capturing queer (night)life and personalities. In our interview, we talk drag queens, shooting analog, inspiration, and sharing important messages through one’s work.
Interview & text by Anna Wim
Pepper, who was born in Germany but has managed to travel the world already, could be proclaimed the queen of queer nightlife. Her photographic work often focuses on the diverse characters popping up in the local LGBTQIA+ community as well as on the alternative fashion scene, gently capturing fragments of their quirky lives on celluloid film. On her pictures, gender is fluid, fashion is both glam and underground, the poses are styled but oh-so-real. Her work serves as a documentation of a world that might be a bit artificial and made-up, but incredibly truthful and authentic.
Read our interview with Pepper below.
Hi Pepper, how are you?
I’m good thanks! Just sitting at the airport waiting for my plane to Vienna, where I’m working on a shoot with a female Turkish rapper this week.
You shoot exclusively on film or Polaroid. Have you ever considered switching to digital?
Not in an artistic way. I have shot digital for pure commercial stuff but for my own work I prefer the analogue way. The grain, the imperfection; it’s a unique result each time. You can not take a million pics in a raw. When working on film you need to look carefully, breathe and value each shot because you only have a limited number of films to fill. It’s a ritual rather than this fast pace way of consuming the world around us. So I dare to say analogue is an own philosophy. Unfortunately shooting on film is pricy, so I learned to develop myself to be able to keep doing it. In terms of Polaroid material I’m blessed to be sponsored by Impossible, who provide me with films.
Your work is a documentary of queer nightlife of sorts. Where does your fascination with the scene come from?
I have studied Performance Art in the U.K. My shows were always quite drag; obscene, loud and over the top, also dark and intimidating. I’m queer and most of my friends are so the scene is my natural habitat. I had drag queens performing with me several times and they’re literally the best people to collaborate with. Lots of fun and inspiration… when getting a sponsorship by my art school I could finally travel to NY and explore the nightlife scene there. In NY I initially started photographing and haven’t stopped since. At the moment I don’t shoot in nightlife so much since I enjoy to be active at daytime. So I create sets and artificial landscapes to shoot in and am involved in some alternative fashion projects – in the end it’s all linked together though. Last year I shot my first film, on 16mm. My cast were different individuals from nightlife but the story is fictional. We shot in nature as well as in artificially built sets.
You’ve been moving around quite a lot – how has this influenced your artistic practice? And why did you decide to settle down in Berlin in the end?
My artistic practice is pretty much based on the fact that I’m working in so many cities and with so many different people. I’ve hung out with trans street prostitutes in Hollywood, glam queens in London or queer raver kids in Jerusalem. They’ve all shared their stories and posed for me. Some became friends and the more connected you are around the globe, the easier it is to keep on traveling and diving into different worlds. I never stay in hotels. There’s the misfits and the freaks everywhere and it’s a big beautiful tribe spread all over the world no matter how fascist and ignorant the system is. That’s part of the message I put across through my work. As long as there is homophobia, people being hurt and murdered in the world because they simply love someone of same sex or look different, there is an urge to raise our voice and hold together. In my work I raise my voice visually.
Berlin is the most interesting city in Germany for me right now since I have many like minded people there and can shoot a lot. Also after being in England for so long it’s good to be close to my family in Germany for a while. However, I am already figuring out a second city to live in. I will probably live out of a suitcase forever.
Are all the images unplanned or do you scout your models and prepare shoots?
Both. I attend many parties and shoot people straight at the venue, we may stroll through the streets after the party and shoot more or swap numbers for a set up shoot. Sometimes I see someone on social media and approach them or people ask me if I want to shoot them. Recently I started to work with model agencies. I’m being approached when model pics shall look more artistic, less polished and I’m booked especially to work with alternative fashion models that do not represent ordinary Western beauty ideals. This again is queer content; going away from the conventional and the mainstream but instead embracing diversity and the beauty of individuality. I also create own figures, completely fictional. So me myself, friends or also performers that are not necessarily related to a particular scene are being transformed for a story to be told. I’m experimenting.
What or who is your biggest inspiration?
Surely the personalities I shoot with and also my Mama. Strong women. Even a sad depressed phase can give me a good bit of inspiration for a character I create and shoot after. I’m inspired by the process of transformation. A drag queen is somehow artificial but simultaneously not at all. It’s a character, an atmosphere and spirit becoming alive. Each look can represent a new story or complete new personality. It’s all like aspects of a bigger whole that go beyond the surface, beyond definitions of gender or whatsoever. Drag is a very powerful art form. Cynical, sharp, witty and wise; in a dirty way.
We’re always looking for new talents to feature on Kink. Is there someone you like you would like to recommend to us?
I’m exhibiting with Jessica Yatrofsky from NY in Berlin in September. Her work is very strong and I’m really looking forward to be working with her! Check her out.
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