PORTLAND, Maine — Photographer Kyle Warnock stood atop the footbridge in Deering Oaks Park on a sunny, frigid day in December. He was waiting for his next subject, Hannah Lord, to arrive.
When Warnock finally spotted Lord in the distance, he didn’t hesitate. He immediately waved, shouted a greeting and ambled her way, eager to make contact. For most of the next hour, the two chatted while he made pictures of her for his website, Queers of Greater Portland.
The photo-based website started out as Warnock’s personal antidote to pandemic-fueled isolation. Nearly two years later, it is a full-blown personal and professional directory for southern Maine’s LGBTQ community, complete with business networking events and group camping trips.
“Photography is the medium of connection for me,” Warnock said. “It lessens the awkwardness of meeting, and talking to, strangers.”
Warnock began photographing strangers for the first time in May 2020. At the time, he was coming off a long overworked, underslept stretch which left him feeling disconnected from his community.
“It was work, sleep, repeat,” Warnock said. “I didn’t know who I was. I was lonely.”
With last year’s pandemic shutdown came time off from his professional life as an American Sign Language interpreter. Warnock picked up an old camera collecting dust in his closet for the prior decade and put word out that he wanted to meet other queer folks and take their pictures.
“About 40 people responded and it blew up from there,” Warnock said.
As of this month, he thinks he’s photographed 300 people in the LGBTQ community between York and Augusta.
“This is not exclusive,” Warnock said. “Anybody who reaches out will be included.”
After he makes pictures of his subjects, Warnock asks them to write a caption about themselves. Some write a single sentence; others get more in depth. The website uses first names and pronouns only.
“Currently, I teach preschoolers and I love them,” wrote a subject named Elizabeth.
“I read 73 books during quarantine, I’m at 109 so far this year,” wrote Landon, under his photo. “I still don’t feel like I’m reading enough.”
All the subjects on Queers of Greater Portland are organized into categories including, artists, health care, business, education and politics. The idea is that queers are normal, everywhere and involved in all facets of Maine life. It’s an idea Warnock feels the need to stress, especially outside of Portland.
“I’ve been mocked in public, had bottles thrown at me,” he said. “I’ve been out since I was 12 and I’m well aware of how people get treated.”
By separating his subjects into searchable categories, Warnock tries to introduce strangers to one another and help them find each other within their own safe community, which he said was especially important for “people who are just finding themselves.”
Lord, a doula and lactation counselor, reached out to Warnock because she wants the Greater Portland queer community know that she exists.
“That there are resources, specifically for them, out there in the community,” Lord said.
While making pictures of Lord, Warnock used his camera’s rear screen, rather than looking through the viewfinder. This allowed him to maintain eye contact with his subject, while also keeping up a steady stream of conversation.
It is clear from his smiles and insightful questions, the running talk is not just a portrait photographer’s trick. Warnock is genuinely interested in what Lord has to say. By chatting, he also keeps his subject comfortable and unconcerned by the camera.
Smiles and joy are a constant thread running through all of Warnock’s portraits. His own open, personal warmth is reflected in each of his sitters’ faces.
Clockwise, from left: Photographer Kyle Warnock makes a portrait of Vin Mercury on Thursday; Queer doula and lactation counselor Hannah Lord poses for photographer Kyle Warnock on Thursday; Photographer Kyle Warnock makes a portrait of Vin Mercury in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park for the Queers of Greater Portland website. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
In addition to business and art connections, Queers of Greater Portland also brings members of the local LGBTQ community together to enjoy the outdoors. In the past year, Warnock has led camping trips to Swan Island, Baxter State Park and Mount Blue State Park. There was a sloa foraging workshop in Brunswick.
Warnock sees nature and the outdoors as a healthy alternative to queer folks meeting in bars, where socializing inevitably revolves around alcohol.
Right now, Warnock sees no end to his project. He still has plenty of people ready to be photographed and added to his website and Instagram feed. But he does think he’d like to turn Queers of Greater Portland into a nonprofit someday.
Until that happens, he’s happy to keep snapping pictures and chatting with folks.
“The ability to learn from other people every day is priceless,” Warnock said. “Connection is the most important thing over everything else in life.”