Dustin Thierry – nominated by Erik Vroons – gives voice to those who share his Afro-Carribean heritage in his adopted Dutch homeland
Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 19 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 750 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Every weekend throughout May, BJP-online is sharing profiles of the 19 photographers, originally published in the magazine. Discover more here.
Curaçao-born, Amsterdam-based Dustin Thierry’s work is often deeply, powerfully personal. “I can’t make it if it’s not personal,” he says – though it might not immediately seem it. Take Opulence, for example – a defiant journey into underground ballroom culture in the Netherlands. After his brother took his own life in 2016, Thierry began to photograph such scenes in earnest, locating within them a fragment of resistance against the uncomfortable reality for many living in the country today; that, in spite of the Netherlands’ pro-LGBTQI+ policies, its complex colonial history has left it inhospitable for a black queer diaspora.
“His suicide inspired me to dive into a world that could have been his,” Thierry says. “A tribute not only to him, but to all people of Afro-Caribbean descent who aren’t free to be who they are.” The resulting images deal with social challenges, but they do so by centring on celebration and, importantly, pride – making it a story about the families that we create for ourselves, in all their many forms. “Every house has a mother, and every mother has children who come to her for advice and support,” he continues. “It’s a family. I’m witnessing that grow and evolve in front of my eyes. I feel so much of myself in it – it’s the family I never had.” It’s this series that drew Erik Vroons to Thierry’s work. “Each photo shows the uniqueness of the individual, in an aesthetic that lifts the image from its documentary quality and delivers it to a more mysterious realm,” Vroons explains.
Thierry was 14 when he left his native Curaçao for the Netherlands. His was not an easy start in life, and as such he’s better placed than most to identify the obstacles to true equality in his chosen home. Another project, Dreaming Above the Atlantic, is ongoing, too – it will eventually comprise 52 portraits of 52 people from Surinam and Curaçao, who are now living in the Netherlands. This project was born out of frustration that, in spite of all his efforts, Thierry was not getting the commissions he loved to do. “I decided to host my own,” he says. He began by approaching strangers in the street to see if they shared his heritage, and interviewing and photographing them in their own safe spaces if he discovered that they did. “I’m trying to find out who I am and how I fit into society–as an entrepreneur and as an artist,” he says.
He shoots most often in black-and-white, thus imbuing his photographs with a sense of the melancholia and isolation that he is conscious of carrying each day. And though their role is small, these poignant images do play one – locating Thierry as a vital and too-long-overlooked member of a photographic establishment which, in the Netherlands, has historically been dominated by white faces. Real, tangible change is overdue. But with photographers like him at the helm, it is, at last, on the horizon.