Peyton Fulford started out photographing the people she wished she could be. She shot Annie and Trevor, two genderqueer friends, their heads intertwined and their hair coloured in shocks of chemical dye.
There was Graham, sitting soft and ethereal in the fields just outside Athens, Georgia. Another captured Rian, her eyes fixed on Peyton’s lens amid a melange of genderless bodies wrapped in plaid skirts and tube tops.
All were among the first to pose for what would become Infinite Tenderness, an ongoing photography project celebrating queer youth in the American South – often those suddenly free from the shackles of small-town repression.
But for Peyton, it was a photo of another artist named Maggy, radiating defiant cool at golden hour, that best represented her personal ideal.
“She’s fearless, open and free with who she is,” Peyton explains over the phone from her home in Atlanta, her voice hushed and thoughtful, but occasionally slipping into an almost theatrical Southern drawl.
“She had always been a part of the queer community that I’m a part of now, but previously was not. I was more of an outsider. And I was always intrigued to meet her and be her friend.”
Until she started taking photographs in college, much of Peyton’s relationship with her own genderqueer identity came at a remove. The 23-year-old had long been aware of her otherness, but was starved of the connections so necessary to properly explore it.
Born in Albany, a small Georgia town with a population of around 70,000, she would look on intently as neighbours and family members gossiped about figures in the community coming out publicly – a friend’s father, one or two of her fellow students.
When she was 16, one of her best friends came out as gay, but the treatment she experienced as a consequence – from discreet condemnation to more aggressive locker-room taunting – convinced Peyton to stay hidden.
“People would just say the meanest things about her,” she remembers. “People that were very good friends with her would just say, ‘Oh, I’ve been naked in front of her and I wonder if she’s had fantasies about me.’ They were just idiotic situations where, if you did come out, a lot of people would speak badly about you.
“Growing up in Albany, any sort of information that came out about someone that did not conform to the society we were growing up in was immediately seen as people seeking attention. It just became very dramatic where it didn’t need to be.”
Religion was another factor. Peyton’s parents divorced when she was young, forcing her to bounce between two conservative churches for much of her adolescence. Her mother was steeped in the Sanctified Holy Church, her father a devout Southern Baptist.Neither were places of fire-and-brimstone proselytising, but anything outside of convention was frowned upon.
“Within the Baptist Church, there were definitely people who would keep it hush-hush because they didn’t want to bring up anything about the LGBTQ community or anything to do with queerness,” she recalls.
“The church my mother grew up in came off like a very accepting space, but then once you were there and you were experiencing what they were preaching, [all of a sudden] it wasn’t. They still remain very traditional in their ideologies.”
Like many LGBTQ people who grew up in close-knit and repressive environments, Peyton envisioned college as her personal utopia, a place where self-discovery was inevitable and sexual exploration was supported.
But as a first-year medical student at a university in the Georgia city of Statesboro, she struggled to find fellow queer students amid a culture that revolved so heavily around sororities and frat houses.
So she began pining for the creativity she’d explored in her younger years, where her mother pushed her into art, dance and music classes.
“I went through a period where I didn’t really feel like myself,” she says. “I got depressed and then I realised that I needed to [either] drop out of school or pursue an art degree, so I ended up going with an art degree and that was honestly the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Enrolling at Columbus State University to study fine art, Peyton took to photography and garnered immediate acclaim for her work, but felt reluctant to use her own experiences as inspiration.
Her first major piece, the crowd-sourced art project Abandoned Love, explored the romantic lives of others, with Peyton taking melancholic love letters and private messages, turning them into banners and then hanging them up in unexpected and sometimes contradictory environments.
But while Abandoned Love skirted the edges of queerness, with quotes deliberately free of gender pronouns, Peyton felt as if she’d explored that sexuality at a remove.
At the same time, however, she had finally begun to identify as genderqueer herself, interacting more and more with the likes of Maggy, Annie and Trevor – openly queer teens in the midst of self-actualisation.
Prompted by a teacher who wanted her to embark on a long-term project, Peyton began photographing her friends.
The majority of shoots took place while roaming the forests and farmland of Athens, a college town three hours outside of Columbus with a rich history of queer-friendly culture. Most of the photographs are staged and shot on film, with Peyton’s subjects improvising their specific positions.
“I had spoken to other people who had identified as genderqueer online, but I had never actually associated with genderqueer people in real life,” she says.
“In Albany, that term didn’t even really exist at that time. But the people living [in Athens] were just so radically different to the kinds of people that I had grown up with. They’re fiercely open about who they are.
“They were here and they were queer, and they were not going to repress it in any sense just because of the environment they were in. I think being around that sense of freedom was just really empowering.”
As the project’s concept grew tighter, she began to see the connections between her personal story and that of her friends.
Most, if not all, of Peyton’s subjects grew up in small towns in the South, exploring their burgeoning sexualities and gender identities via late-night Tumblr binges, living vicariously through digital existences while staying largely closeted in reality.
That sense of youthful isolation plays a significant part in Peyton’s images, as does the power of IRL connection.
“When you grow up in a very small town and you don’t identify with the community that’s around you, it can feel very ostracising and limiting,” she says. “So I think a lot of [my friends] felt very flattered to be photographed for the project… They felt seen.”
Having graduated in December, Peyton plans to continue her work on Infinite Tenderness and envisages it as the first part of a trilogy, with the second collection of images capturing the homes and personal spaces of her subjects, and the third being self-portraits.
But while Infinite Tenderness continues to evolve, the work so far has helped create a much-needed dialogue between her and her parents. “My mom was a little more accepting of it,” she says. “She definitely understands where I’m coming from. I’ve explained to her my sexual and gender identity and who I am and who I’ve always been.
“My dad is not as accepting of the series as I would want him to be,” she adds, but suggests that he was potentially less bothered by the LGBTQ representation as he was the nudity.
Looking over the project, Peyton admits to being moved by how the photographs reflect her own journey coming into her own, along with the friendships she has made in the process.
“It can be very hard to figure out who you are, depending on your environment” she says. “I think my circumstances were pretty difficult because I was repressing a lot of emotions and I was just very confused. Then meeting all of these people, and having all of these incredible experiences photographing them and being a part of this incredible community that exists within the South – I think that can be very rare to find.”
That rarity fed into the project’s title. At the very end of the 2013 queer romantic epic Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a character explains to her former lover that despite the end of their relationship, she will always have “infinite tenderness” for the time they spent together.
Peyton jokes that she became “obsessed” with the film upon seeing it and found that the words expressed in it perfectly aligned with what her project conveys – that youthful joy over finally finding your tribe and the vast mark it leaves on you.
“When I first started the series, I knew I wanted it to be about that sense of connection,” she says. “And that no matter if people didn’t continue to be friends, I knew that the series, the images and the context they were created in would last forever.”