One autumn afternoon in 2021, Gregory Cohen was walking with his friend @Red_Roper, in a forested area on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The pair had first met online after Red came across Cohen’s photographs, and they quickly struck up a rapport.
“She identified as a rope bottom, which in rope – or Shibari – circles, means she would be the person tied,” Cohen explains. “We became fast friends, because we were about the same age, and we not only had the age thing in common, but she also used to live in New York and she’s a creative.”
After walking for a while, the paid came to a small clearing where they decided to stop. With an intricate network of ropes and carabiners, Red began to tie herself to a nearby tree until she was suspend upside down, with just the rope and the strength in her spine preventing her from toppling onto the forest floor. With the golden-hour sun streaming in between her thighs, Cohen angled his camera and flicked its shutter.
That shot was the first taken in Cohen’s photography series, Alt-Kink. After spending the day with Red, he began to integrate himself within the city’s BDSM scene. “From there, I just started meeting other people," he says. "I started going to ‘munches’, which are gatherings where people would hang out in public places and just talk and catch up with each other.”
As he got tighter with the scene and people started to feel comfortable around Cohen, some agreed to be photographed while fully expressing their kink identities and practices. Often taken in public spaces, Cohen’s portraits put what is often a maligned, misunderstood community into powerful focus. From the Shibari he captured with Red, to collar and leash play, dommes and leather fetishes, his shots show off the diversity of kink subculture in the city.
“There could be anything from being into cross-dressing to bondage, impact – it can run the gamut of a lot of different things,” he explains of what exactly Alt-Kink means. “I think what ties it altogether is that a lot of these people are very private, because they’re judged for their personal choices and the way they want to live, which is very unfortunate. They’re trying to live their best life,” he continues. “So that falls into the rubric of ‘kink’, because it’s considered by society to be alternative.”
Cohen is keen to stress that those within community are of course multi-faceted individuals, and shouldn’t be solely defined by their behind-closed-doors preferences. “When I first discovered kink and BDSM, I thought immediately that it’s just all about people looking for partners and hooking up,” he admits. But the more time he spent in the scene, he realised just how all-encompassing it is. "There’s artists, surgeons, waiters, mechanics, engineers – people from all walks of life.”
"Community" is a fitting word for the scene in Philadelphia. From the aforementioned ‘munches’, to friendly gatherings at bars or cookouts, the scene is as tight-knit as it is healthy.
“I've always been fascinated by those who search for and find communities that give them a sense of purpose and belonging and also give them the space to be their true selves without any judgement, no matter who they are," Cohen says. “I have a lot of respect and admiration for those I've befriended and collaborated with. I'm inspired by them.”
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