Two years ago, self-taught photographer Rachael Zimmerman began a photo project titled What Does a Lesbian Look Like? Through portraiture, she hoped to highlight diversity within the lesbian community and break down stereotypes caused by lack of representation. The project now spans two countries and an island nation, and includes more than 70 portraits of queer women and their experiences in the community. The project now bears a new name: Inside the Black Triangle.
The reasoning behind the name change was three-fold for Zimmerman. One, she wanted something that was a little more thought-provoking, something that caused the viewer to ask more initial questions. Two, the original title didn’t feel as inclusive as it could be, and inclusivity is crucial. And three, Zimmerman wanted to honor the LGBTQ community that lived through Nazi Germany’s Concentration Camps.
“The black triangle was used in Nazi Germany to categorize a-social and atypical behavior. Queer women fell under that category,” Zimmerman said. “Later on, after Nazi Germany fell, the symbols were reclaimed to mean solidarity and pride.”
Reclamation is an important piece of the project for Zimmerman in terms of word choice as well. She has found a general aversion to the word lesbian. Her photo subjects typically identify more with the terms gay, queer, and other alternative words.
“One of the first people that I interviewed and photographed, Alex, she came out as bi. And then came out as lesbian. And then she was dating someone who was transitioning and she was like, ‘What am I?’ And she’s queer,” she explained.
While it’s important to identify and use whichever term fits best to the specific person, Zimmerman wants to move the word lesbian away from the stereotypical view and stigma that she is often met with. This she believes is a hard task, but can be done through sharing experiences and engaging in conversation.
Besides confronting stereotypes, Zimmerman, 29, also hopes to dig into the gender hierarchy that exists within the community. She explained that in this hierarchy, androgynous and butch women are at the top. Feminine women sit in the middle, and bisexual and trans women are at the bottom. The main factor in determining this scale is skepticism.
“Not only do feminine women have to come out every day in society and hear those same things, ‘You haven’t found the right man,’ or, ‘You’re too pretty to be gay,’ then they come to their own community and want support, and again they have to prove themselves.”
Zimmerman has heard women compare their gayness to that of others and has always wondered what claiming to be gayer actually means, especially when referring to clothing and hobbies.
Finding a diverse group of women to photograph proved easy when Zimmerman decided to use apps and social media, what she called “a grassroots method.” When she initially started reaching out on dating apps she received mixed reactions. Some users thought she was spam; others questioned her legitimacy and motives. She has been flagged a few times on Tinder and has been 86’d from Bumble.
Now though, after growing a following, she doesn’t have as many issues, and even gets Instagram followers who reach out personally to have their photographs taken.
Zimmerman is not sure where the project will take her or what the evolution will be, but that is all a part of the fun. Once she hits 100 portraits, she hopes to turn the photos into a coffee table book to keep the conversation going.