Grown around the world, cannabis is in many ways a unifying culture for humanity. But there are certain sub-cultures whose paths, historically, have crossed with cannabis more than others. The queer community, having been politically marginalized much the same way as cannabis has been, thus has an especially close proximity to weed culture — particularly in terms of contemporary art. Queer artists incorporate cannabis products into their work consistently and noticeably, as this beautiful intersection of cultures seems only to expand with time.
One such artist strengthening the bond of queers and cannabis is San Francisco-based photographer Alec White, whose digital book series Naked Boys Smoking Weed, Parts I and II, explores moments of, as promised on the cover, naked boys, the weed they smoke, and the artist’s camera lens. The books feature portraiture of a diverse cast of LGBTQ male models, all buck naked, with various forms of weed in their hands; some with joints, some with blunts, some with vapes. The shots are inviting, yet pensive and suggestive. They evoke an intimacy between subject and viewer that is rarely captured so simply, so obviously. White clearly appreciates the places people can go, visually, when they smoke and become high; and more specifically, where queer people go when they’re high.
“The entire reason we have legal recreational marijuana today is because of gay activists,” said Ryan Patrick, a.k.a. RP, who White chose to be the cover model for the most recently published Part II (his direct blue-eye contact is caught in stark detail by White’s lens). In 1978, Dennis Peron, who was an advisor to Harvey Milk, helped pass "San Francisco Stop Prosecuting Marijuana Offenses, Proposition W," which directed the city's district attorney to stop arresting people for cannabis. Though Prop W passed, it wasn't implemented, but was nonetheless the country's first marijuana decriminalization bill. "Queers are always on the front lines of activism, and marijuana is just another example of that," RP said.
And about being photographed in the nude while smoking weed for the sake of art?
“I love the idea of being naked and smoking weed,” he said. “I indulge in ganja before sex and I know many other queers who do." To get into the photo shoot flow, RP described how he began partially clothed and without smoking. "But once we lit up and stripped down, it was just as great if not better! I was most nervous about having that infamous red-eye, dead-eyed stoner look end up in the shots, but thankfully it ain't my first time at the Cannarodeo, and it didn't end up being an issue!”
Civilized spoke with White soon after the release of Part II to discuss his art, his process, and his hopes.
How did this project take form?
When I was 18 I took a photo of my friend letting out a long drag of smoke from his hookah and the image went viral on Tumblr. Six years later it remains one of my favorite portraits I’ve taken. It was also the first time I got that large of a response, so I knew something about that image really resonated with people. I think Naked Boys Smoking Weed is a fun way to elaborate on what it was that I captured six years ago.
Why is it important to feature cannabis and queer people together?
I’ve noticed that queer social life, especially nightlife, is dominated by the sale and consumption of alcohol, which for a lot of people can be addictive and damaging. Especially when you take into account the higher rates of depression and mental illness in the queer community, I just find weed to be a good alternative substance that has less harmful repercussions at its very worst. For some reason though, it still gets a bad reputation. I’ve also bonded with a lot of other queer folks who share the same sentiments as I do towards weed, but rarely see that represented in media or advertising.
How do you hope Naked Boys Smoking Weed will affect both weed and queer culture?
My goal for this series isn’t necessarily to sexualize marijuana, but rather to evoke a sense of freedom and vulnerability that I associate with being stoned and naked. To me, marijuana strips away a lot of mental baggage and puts me into a more open and honest state of mind that is closer to the essence of who I am. The same happens when you are naked in front of someone, so I pair the two together and make art. I try not to overanalyze how other people interpret my work, whether they be straight or queer identifying. I just know that I enjoy making this series and if it resonates with other people, great, but if not, that’s fine, too.
How did you choose your models?
In the beginning I asked a couple of friends who I thought would be interested in posing for me. It can be a challenge finding models because a lot of the time people are uncomfortable either being nude on camera, being high on camera, or both. So it takes a special person who shares a certain level of trust with me to agree to participate in this series. These days I tend to work with people who reach out or express interest in posing first, because I never want to put a person in a position where they feel pressured or uncomfortable to work with me.
What are you trying to capture in your subjects while they’re high?
I like to capture moments that feel raw and honest, whether that be a state of relaxation, laughter, deep reflection, or even arousal. Since marijuana affects everyone differently, it’s fun to capture what comes up in the moment.
Which strains did you use during the photoshoots?
I believe the last strain I used was Mango Kush during my shoot with RP for the cover. I personally like indicas so there’s usually a kush or OG strain around the house. I always ask my models up front if they have a preference and try to provide that for them before the shoot, but most of the time they will specify if they like sativa, indica, or CBD.
What role does cannabis play in your life?
Cannabis has played many roles in my life and my relationship to it changes all of the time. As of right now, it serves as a creative inspiration as well as a social ice breaker.
What's next for you?
In the next few months I want to take this series up and down the west coast and photograph people in LA, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver B.C., and my current home town San Francisco. Eventually I’d love to take the series around the U.S. once legalization becomes more common and weed is safer and easier to buy as an outsider in a new city. I also have my eye on taking the series to London, Amsterdam, and other European cities where weed is more common.