ROSEWATER: Picturing a queer coming of age

the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Taylor Dolniak

ROSEWATER: Picturing a queer coming of age

February 19, 2018

I spoke with GLAAD Campus Ambassador Taylor Dolniak about their latest photo series ROSEWATER—a collection of images from Dolniak’s childhood that have been doctored and infused with new purpose. ROSEWATER is a queer coming of age story with a great sense of humor.

When asked to describe the series, Dolniak said simply, “I basically took photos from my childhood that I thought represented a characteristic that I had, and recreated them to show that time changes, physicalities change, but you’re still the same person.”

And there is definitely truth to that statement--Dolniak first had the idea for the series when they were looking at the original old photos with their mom. While Dolniak’s relationship with their past-self had historically been fraught, Dolniak’s personality still shined through heavily in the childhood photos.

“For a change, I saw myself for real. It was sort of closure for me to finally look at old pictures of myself and not be angry at who I saw. I knew that I wouldn’t be the person I was today without being who I was a kid. I wanted to thank my kid self for letting me grow up to become who I am.”

Sometimes it can be hard for queer people to reconcile their past selves, but ROSEWATER is a reminder that there are aspects that don’t change, even if everything else seemingly does.

“I made this project for myself, but after it was finished, I realized that people can relate to it whether they know me or not. Anyone struggling with self-identity or reflection on who they used to be can look at this and relate. I think that the idea of loving yourself can be hard, especially for people going through a transition of any kind in the queer community. But knowing who you are and the person you want to become is only possible because of who you were in the past.”

The project wasn’t just about creating a healthier connection with the past. On the phone, Dolniak explained that ROSEWATER was also a way to come out to their parents and old friends.

“I showed my parents this project and they, of course, loved it because it’s something creative that I did, but I was faced with negative comments like ‘why are you dressed like a boy’ and ‘I wish you would've done this without the baseball hat’, etc. Not being out to my parents, or many people in general, this project kind of became a sort of coming out without actually saying it. People started to think ‘Oh, maybe there’s something Taylor’s trying to say here’ and them beginning to understand.”

Gender politics and expectations are definitely present in the photos.

“When I was little I was always a tomboy--my parents bought me a pink Barbie jeep and I didn't have any Barbies. Instead of playing with it normally, I would put it on a stack of books under the wheels and roll myself under it and pretend to fix it.”

They also felt pressure from their family to conform to gender roles in terms of expression. “When I lived at home I had to wear clothes that my mom bought. Coming to college was a liberating feeling. I finally got to express myself! The past year has had a lot of self-discovery.”

• • •

“I like this one because the original image shows me hugging a gumball machine--which I think is very telling of the kind of person I am. The finished version one really hits me in the heart because me giving my bigger self a hug and vice versa sends a ‘you did it, I’m proud of you’ message, which I feel reflects the core meaning of the project.”

“In this pic of young me I’m just standing by the tree--my parents forced me to and I looked really pissed off. But I’m still a goofball--what’s better than me covering my face? It’s the kind of the thing you’d do to your kid sister.”

“I still own this stuffed elephant and sleep with it nightly. It’s something I can’t let go. This one looks the best, and feels the realest.”

“The original picture of me with that hat and puppy is on an afghan at my house. My mom loved that picture so much that she blew it up to a life-size version and put it on a couch for all to see. What better to do than to remake a picture that everyone in my family has seen?”

• • •

When asked what their younger self would think of the photo series, Dolniak responded, “My young self would probably be incredibly proud. I’m living my life now how I've always meant to and I think that my younger tomboy self kind of understands now that tomboy means a little bit more than just buying camo pants when your mom takes you shopping at Kohl’s. I think I would get a kick out of ROSEWATER—My common thread in life both then and now is just keep laughing. I think it's important. Make someone laugh. There’s a lot of comedy in this piece because I'm not a serious person by any means. That hasn’t changed, and I think I conveyed that pretty clearly.”

Positive portrayals of queer people’s pasts are a rare find in today’s artistic and media landscape. ROSEWATER is a refreshing project among the multitude of narratives currently represented that disparage the past in order to focus on an “it gets better” future. This project reminds us that it’s important to recognize the path that brought us to where we are today, especially in a way that doesn’t solely focus on the hardship of coming of age as a queer person.

You can check out the full project here, and follow Taylor Dolniak on Instagram and Twitter.

Taylor Dolniak is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and senior at Point Park University studying Cinema Production. After graduation, they hope to move to LA to work filmmaking in order to be a voice for anyone out there who has been made to feel like they're inferior due to their gender, race, or sexuality.

Micah Prussack is a Campaigns Intern at GLAAD and a graduating senior at NYU Gallatin studying social anthropology. She is passionate about using media and culture to better the lives of marginalized individuals.

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