Text JF. Pierets Photos Belle Ancell
Belle Ancell is a queer community photographer living in Canada. Amongst her series there is “Unveiled”, portraits of the Vancouver Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. In-depth photographs and representations of people who are, just like Belle herself, looking for a way to give back to and to strengthen their community.
Why choose the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as a subject?
Because they are so beautiful. I used to see them around and at first I thought they were drag queens, or performers, clowns. I didn’t realize they were philanthropists who contribute a lot of their time and money to the community. As an order, they take their commitment very seriously and are actually taking vows for life. I just wanted to do something to honor them because I don’t think a lot of people understand who they are and the importance of what they are doing. At least I didn’t.
Are you a part of the order?
They made me an Angel. An Angel is someone who, in some way, has contributed to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. It’s an honorary title and a way for them to thank me for the project and the portraits.
The project is your way of giving back to the community, can you elaborate?
It’s to give back, to highlight and to acknowledge certain aspects. I love my community and I truly think there’s not enough imagery out there that is positive and beautiful. I want to put that out into the world by documenting our lives. I didn’t know anything about queer history when I was younger. Not via schools, not anywhere. Now, as I’m getting older, I’m starting to learn more about the activists that paved the way for me to sit at my job and be completely ‘out’, to be queer and feel more or less safe. So yes, I think it’s important because there is still so much work to be done.
Talking in terms of ‘we’ is a very recent development since you didn’t come out until you were 32 years old?
And until then I had absolutely no idea. I was 32, living in a tiny town in Canada where there was nothing but stigma, negativity and homophobia. There was no queer content available in the late ‘80’s, nor were there any movies or TV-shows on the subject matter. I didn’t know where to find the reading material and the Internet wasn’t as evolved as it is now, so there was absolutely no way for me to find those queer artists. I slowly clued in via a same-sex couple that moved into my village. All of a sudden it just clicked. So I can say it took me a while to wake up. I wasn’t self aware and very, very much in denial.
‘I feel like it’s my purpose to use this gift of photography to make all the wonderful things that happen in our community common good. Yes, these personal projects are definitely the core of who I am.’
And all of a sudden you find yourself in a community.
I feel so fortunate; I wouldn’t change this for anything. We’re minorities, however you interpret it, so we look out for each other and support each other. We have our own culture, art, music, and it’s an amazing feeling to be part of that kind of queer movement.
You use the word queer. What’s your personal definition of the word?
I discovered the word queer about 15 years ago and it just clicked. To me it’s everything I am. I’m not lesbian or gay; I’m queer. Finding the exact language to describe your community is an ongoing discussion, but I feel confident with the word. That some older people feel uncomfortable with the term – because it was used violently against them – is something I try to respect in our conversations. But it’s evolving every day, everything is changing, language is changing and I’m open to everyone’s perspective. There are a lot of people who are working hard to make space for everyone and trying to find the right language and even working on their own prejudices. Because we’re all human and we all have misconceptions. It’s an evolution and we all need to be open to listening and caring.
What would you like to achieve with your work?
I’d like to be remembered for contributing to the community. Documenting it, showing the beauty of the community, the challenges. I’m currently working on a series called ‘Aging Out’ and it’s about LGBT elders and the unique challenges they face as they age. People are starting to realize the value of connecting with our past. We need that. Recently I was at a circle with LGBT people from all different ages, ranging from 20 to 70 years old, and we all told our coming out story. It was exciting to discover that although there were differences, there were also many commonalities. I feel like it’s my purpose to use this gift of photography to make all the wonderful things that happen in our community common good. Yes, these personal projects are definitely the core of who I am.
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