Rob Tennent: Not Waiting For A Miracle

Artist Rob Tennent

Words Tom Czibolya

One of Australia’s hottest queer exports and a key artist to our Visible Love exhibition series, Rob Tennent is a photographer with a unique view on the world. We sat down with Rob to talk about how his dad came around to accept him for who he is, why he thinks that cis gay men have had their time and why it’s their turn now to use their hard-earned privileges to put the focus on trans and non-binary people.

I remember me thinking that I’m not supposed to look at this because it’s gay if I do.

Tell us a little bit about your upbringing. How did you and the people around you handle your own querness while growing up?

I was born in Cambodia before moving to St Lucia, Papua New Guinea, then New Zealand and finally, Australia. My mom is from Vietnam and my dad is from New Zealand. And my earliest memories of being different were of just playing with barbies and running around in heels. Obviously, I knew that I was a bit different compared to everyone else. I remember one time when I was four years old, my mom bought me a barbie doll and my dad took it and returned it to the store. That was the first time I felt like I’m supposed to hide this. I mean, if your dad doesn’t approve of it, it means it’s just not how you’re supposed to be, right?

I’d just be playing with my dolls in secret and then I turned ten and my dad bought me the exact same barbie doll he took away years ago. He gave it to me reluctantly. He was trying to get around it for years and finally got to a turning point. Why am I making it harder for him? I must accept him for who he is.

My mom has always been so supportive, she used to put me in girl clothes, she sneaked and bought me toys I wanted because all she wanted was me to be happy. To this day, they both have been the most supportive parents ever. It’s very normal and definitely not a taboo as my whole family knows about it. I definitely have better experiences than some. Some of my friends’ parents are very religious and took it very hard. Compared to theirs, my case was quite easy. 

What is you first memory related to queer content and how do you feel about it?

Probably seeing a Calvin Klein campaign at the underwear section at the mall. I remember me thinking that I’m not supposed to look at this because it’s gay if I do. Funny, that it’s still something that serves as an inspiration for a lot of my work. I think I pull a lot of references from Calvin Klein or Abercrombie & Fitch campaigns even though the later one is problematic now. My style is rooted in the same skater and grungy street vibes, while queerness comes from my silly little ideas for scenes.

Wouldn’t it be weird if someone had licked an ice cream off the floor or what if these guys would pretend to give a banana a blowjob? I ask for everyone’s consent, telling them that I have an idea and you can say no, but I think it would be really good and if you look at the picture after and don’t like what you see, we can delete it and never show it to anyone ever again. I think everyone around me has a lot of trust in me and knows that I’m doing things respectfully and with a stylistic eye as opposed to just trying to exploit models.

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No one wants to be represented incorrectly or for the wrong reasons.

How bold of a stand is to create queer art nowadays?

I think there is always space for queerness to be more visible. Obviously there are kids out there that need it as much as I’d have appreciated content coming from queer creators when I was younger.

How has your perception of intimacy changed since you began taking pictures?

Whether it’s for a fashion campaign or a personal project, I spend a lot of time getting to know the subject and help anyone to feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable in front of the lens. To me, it’s all about trust, building a relationship that is so respectful and making sure that no boundaries are crossed. When they look at these images, I want my models to see a different side of themselves, a side that they’ve never seen before.

With that in mind, these people are way more open to allowing me to put them in positions. I direct where the eyes should go, I direct where the chin goes, every single detail is sorted out because I’m so OCD and organized in my head that this is the only way I can work.

Your work is very inclusive, featuring not only queer folks, but everyone. What does inclusivity in and outside of the queer bubble mean to you?

I think there is always more than I could include and I never claimed to be the most diverse and inclusive casting director, photographer out there, but I do try my best. I think before shooting a single picture, one’s gotta talk to these communities, to these people and get guidance, get their approval.

I shot a campaign once with a brand that wanted to include disabled models. It didn’t feel right to me to just cast someone and throw them in there only because they had a disability. I think we should listen to a community before talking about them. No one wants to be represented incorrectly or for the wrong reasons, especially making money for a brand that has no care for that community.

A lot of the guys in my book, I’m Going to Miss You, are in fact straight and were willing to participate because they are allies and wanted to enjoy the experience. I embraced a lot of different people with different stories into my life that I could learn from and I wouldn’t be who I am now without them.

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If your blood family isn’t supportive of you, there is always a chosen family out there that is waiting to nurture you and teach you everything.

What does being visible mean to you?

Being visible to me means amplifying your own voice and using any platform you have to help others to have their voices heard too. Whether on social media, in interviews or with my photography I can only tell about my experiences. I believe in sharing your platforms with other people as opposed to speaking on behalf of them.

How do you imagine the normalization to queerness in mainstream society?

Until there are laws in every country allowing queer people to live safely, freely and fairly, we can’t say that we are there. Yet, in terms of representation we dominate television, fashion, art and music. I think queerness is all around us now more than ever and it’s pretty inescapable, especially during the month of June. It might be because of my echochamber, but I believe that even the one person who lives in nowhere, they can turn the TV on and see queer people on the news, shows, in film. I think we are at a turning point and we have to use this opportunity to make a difference in laws and actually educate people on what homophobia and transphobia is.

I think being gay is pretty normal now. If I was white, and wouldn’t open my mouth then I could be the least bothered person walking down the street as opposed to the openly loud-out-queer Asian boy or a queer black woman, a trans person. We still don’t get to just pass as normal as white straight men do.

I remember when I was young and Ellen came out as lesbian, it was a big deal, when Adam Lambert came out as gay, it was a big deal, but now I feel like the world just doesn’t care as much anymore. This is why we need to redirect all of our energy towards trans people, making sure that they are safe, that they have all the rights that they want and need and have access to healthcare, gender forming surgeries and counseling.

As gay people, we had our time to normalize everything and get the whole world to be comfortable with us. We should all come together and use this privilege to make trans people feel like the world is changing around them for the better.

What is the single best piece of advice that you could give to a queer person living in a not-so-liberal environment?

I’d say, you are definitely not alone. And there is nothing wrong with you. You’ll find your people and you’re gonna make friends that are gonna look after you for the rest of your life. If your blood family isn’t supportive of you, there is always a chosen family out there that is waiting to nurture you and teach you everything.

I’d say, it gets better the second you leave whatever environment you’re in. And that’s tacky and cliche but it really just does. You just need to get going and start making those things happen to yourself as opposed to waiting for a miracle to happen, the family to switch their mindset or the town to be less conservative. I think neither of us have the time to just sit around and wait for other people to come around to us.

Rob’s latest book I’m Going to Miss You can be purchased here.

Visible Love Exhibition

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