Open Shutters

Photographing radical Faeries, elderly grandparents, and homeless kids, Keri Pickett pulls subjects from the edges of public awareness to the center of the frame

"Do you want to sit and talk?" she asks, pointing at nearby chairs at a long dining table. She keeps her eyes steady on the crowd of men, saying, "I may have to get up in a hurry because I want to shoot one man when he gets up to the food table."

Pickett has begun to apprehend the rhythms of this place. For even as Faeries, the product of seven years of labor, is being shipped to booksellers by its publisher, Pickett has been shooting here for several months already. This current book project, which has no prospective publisher yet, began with a magazine assignment. That is, the homeless shelter's director, Mary Jo Copeland, was featured in a run-of-the-mill profile last year in People magazine. Faeries, too, began as a magazine story.

"From the beginning I didn't know I was doing a book," says Pickett. "It started as an assignment I was doing for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine in 1993 about 'Daisy Care'"--a home hospice for a man named Daisy who was dying of AIDS. "It was through this person that I became exposed to the Faeries and the Faerie culture for the first time. When my article came out, I felt close to Daisy and kept on shooting him. I went with Daisy, as he was dying, to Kawashaway in 1994. One of the Faeries, who was a home-care worker, was getting married. He brought Daisy on a stretcher for a five- or six-hour stay.

"Right away I could tell Daisy was at peace there. He almost completely changed. And I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. It was so colorful. That was my first year at Kawashaway. I even did a couple of set-up portraits that year. I did not do any reportage though, because I was worried about people's sense of privacy."

Kawashaway Sanctuary, according to its mission statement, is a 17-acre spread on a lake in Finland, Minnesota intended to be a place "for the empowerment and fellowship of queer folk (who may identify as bi, butch, dyke, fag, femme, fruit, gay, homo, lesbian, nellie, nancy, queen, queer, transgender, or transvestite) and their friends." Each year, in the high summer of early August, the Sanctuary runs a gathering at the preserve for "Faeries," a sort of eco-queer movement that has been active nationwide since the early 1980s.

A large part of the gathering at Kawashaway, as is evident in the book, involves the performance of rituals that are Wiccan or pagan in origin. There are many pictures of nighttime bonfires and naked drumming and dancing. Pickett tends to gloss over the religious aspect of the gatherings when asked, stressing instead that people of all creeds attend, citing the services one year of an Episcopal minister and a Hindu priest.

As Pickett recounts her experiences at Kawashaway, she is often interrupted by men in the shelter who are curious about us or who know her already from previous visits. One man thinks Pickett is doing an exposé on Sharing and Caring Hands, and so he rants for about five minutes on how the organization treats its inhabitants. Pickett nods sympathetically, her face open and curious. When he is gone she continues speaking.

"Everyone has a different definition of what a Faerie is," she says. "A subculture, perhaps, of the gay culture. Yet I consider myself a Faerie even though I'm not gay. I have friends I'd consider Faeries, too, even though they don't know it."

In time, men begin loudly moving chairs, ordering people out of the dining hall with shouts. Pickett's attention seems to go four or five places at once; she's answering questions but also watching the movements of the crowd of men as they are herded from the room. She points out one man as he passes. He is muttering to himself and shouldering a bag of clothing that is larger than he is. "That man's bag is made of a quilt that has been sewn together up the sides. I took pictures of him before."

"Let's go," shouts one staff member, sounding much like a drill sergeant. "Last call." We move through the back door of the hall to another part of the shelter, where its director is in wait. Mary Jo Copeland appears in a flurry of activity as we stand around, smiling at Pickett and Nelson, then sets off with a small group of people speaking about the tasks at hand. "The children are going to be crowning Mary at the other part of the shelter where people live," whispers Pickett as we walk through a corridor to the back door, which opens to a complex of parking lots and alleys separating the two parts of the facility. This day happens to be the Feast of the Ascension, the day Mary entered heaven, which the Catholic Church commemorates by crowning statues of her with wreaths of flowers.

"I have to get pictures of this," Pickett declares. "You don't mind, do you?"

 

The 17-year professional career of Keri Pickett began after she graduated from Moorhead State University in 1982 and found a job as a photographic intern with the Village Voice in New York. At the Voice, Pickett worked under celebrated photographer Fred McDarrah. Even today she considers McDarrah her role model and mentor, in particular because he has published 11 books in his time, including one on Jack Kerouac and the beats called Kerouac and Friends: A Beat Generational Album.

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