Luis Pedro de Castro, “Strangelfreak”, has been documenting the Barcelona queer scene for the past six years. His beautiful, transgressive photographs come from an astonishing degree of trust and openness with his subjects. After meeting him in Barcelona, we spoke about the city, his favourite bar, photographing friends, and fucking in the bathroom. We're excited to share his work with you. Words - Brian and Morgan Interview - Brian, Morgan and Xavier All images - Luis Pedro de Castro
Why don't we start with you telling us a bit about yourself? My name is Pedro and I was born in Portugal, in a small town. I studied product design, which I hated ever since I started studying marketing. Marketing sounds satanic to me! Knowing how to manipulate people? You can sell sneakers to a guy in a wheelchair! It didn't make any sense to contribute to that system. Luckily I fell in love with photography.
When did you move to Barcelona? How did you get there? I've been living here for almost six years. I was twenty-four or something, and I came on New Year's Eve with some friends: I was originally going to stay here for three days. But I'd walk down the street and people would offer me drugs. Someone would ask me to their place: “oh, lets go smoke pot in my house. You have to stay for my birthday!” I think it had something to do with a purple fur jacket I'd wear. So I ended up staying a month and a half, totally fell in love with the city, and decided to come back and live here.
How did you start shooting? I did a couple of school projects on photography. Actually, I think I overcomplicated things. The teachers would ask for an example of high speed or low speed photography, but instead of shooting traffic lights and running water I would start these insane projects with accessories, décor and makeup. People were less keen on imagination and more attracted to technique.
So where does the name 'Strangelfreak' come from? It started out as a joke from a friend of mine. In the village I come from everyone would notice me. If it was a Monday I'd dress in red leather. If it was Friday I'd dress normally. Going out to buy bread would be an event for me. My friend used to say “you're always drawing angels, you're always looking for angelic, esoteric inspiration. You know what you are? You're a strangel! A strangelfreak!”
How did your photography develop into something more than just a pastime? I think it had a lot to do with the people here in Barcelona. I was never expecting people to be so comfortable and so experimental with their sexuality. I instantly made tons of friends in Bar La Bata.
Do you have a camera with you all the time? Well I don't actually own a camera. I ask my friends for a camera, when I know there's a special party or a special performance, I just randomly ask friends to see if anyone has a camera available. That's why I started using Photoshop a lot: because that balances out the different qualities of the cameras. Stuff happens so naturally, for example, me going to a friend's house will turn into "oh, we're going to have sex in the shower, do you want to come and take pictures" and I'm there like for three hours. They offer me this willingness to express themselves. So I see different, not 'normal' bodies. It makes sex more personal again, instead of looking at it as just sex.
What kind of techniques do you use? Is it HDR? It's fake HDR, I just basically layer them out there's high pass filters and blur, it's all pretty basic, but if you add it up, you get a really detailed effect. I was going for a hyper-real definition of photography with a real contrast, like paintings from renaissance art, where the colours are really fierce. It somehow enhances the actual photography and made it less pornographic.
Where do you get your ideas? Or do you always shoot off the cuff? Every time I go to parties, of course it has to be of the moment, and getting involved with the people and seeing how they work. But, basically, all my friends are really creative, and they say, "oh, you should take my picture". I was living in a squat here in Barcelona. Lots of raw material: just being naked and taking pictures of that chaotic aspect. I never imagine what's coming up. I really like the chaotic aspect of the way our houses worked, because I'm used to it.
How do you describe your work? I would describe it as portrait photography but at the same time, it's a really raw look at the different aspects of sexuality and its manifestations. What I mean, it's not something staged, it's always really natural and I just flow with what my friends have to show to me. I really enjoy those moments where you feel comfortable enough to be in a room where friends are having sex, but not for genitally-focussed photography, more for the sentimental aspect of it. I like to play with people's emotions, to be funny, or ironic in every picture I take. No models.
When you say sentimental, are you taking about almost like snapshots? People performing for the camera in a snapshot way? No, I'd say in that emotional aspect that makes you relate to someone. For me, one of the most important aspects was getting comments from people: “this picture really made me feel happy" or "now I don't feel fat looking at this picture." The gender thing for me is another big aspect of photography, because I don't believe in gender. I believe in freedom of interpretation and you can just play around and be happy without thinking on it too much.
How do you define yourself? Would you use the word queer, or would you… I think that queer is getting a little bland but, at the same time, it's the most relatable word I associate with. I call myself ‘gender-fucker' or ‘gender-queer', but it's more the androgyny part of me coming out as a guy saying that because I don't recall ever thinking of myself as either a man or a women. I remember one time my mother when I was five, I got on her heels and makeup and dress and went into the kitchen, "mummy, mummy, look at me, I look just like you!" She sat me on her lap and she said, "Pedro, would you rather be born a girl or a boy?" and I said, "Why do I have to choose?" And instantly she knew she was fucked! At the time, she didn't think it was funny, but she never got upset. She would pretend it was, "It's Pedro, the things he does!" Now she always laughs at the way I talk, like a great wink-wink communication going on. She's awesome. "I didn't raise a son to feel bad what about others might think, I raised a son to make others feel bad about thinking only a little". What's your most provocative image? I look at other photographers and Nan Goldin - for me, she's an authentic photographer. Her angles are so natural and spontaneous. She comes up to me as a repeated reference. I went clubbing one night and the security guys of the club basically threw me in a bathroom and beat the crap out of me, where they broke my teeth, I was swollen everywhere, and I woke up the next day feeling "Oh my god!" I went to the doctor and could barely move. But I looked at my mother and said "I can do the Nan Goldin photo!" [Nan after being battered, 1984] because I totally looked like her, but with better hair. The picture itself is funny and at the same time it's tragic.
Can you tell us about the queer scene in Barcelona? Bar La Bata sounds so much fun
It's such a small place, but all the freaks are there. It's so tiny that you touch everyone when you need to go to the bathroom. Somehow that deconstructs the ideas that people have of private space, and people are authentically friendlier because you need to squeeze in. It breaks barriers I think.
Is there a pretty big trans community happening in Barcelona? Here in Barcelona, or make that Spain, most of the transsexual people I know are prostitutes. Some of them enjoy that and some of them didn't have a choice. Some of them came here and they were trying to pay their plastic surgeries and getting a normal job as a woman. Sometimes the message gets lost outside of our circle, people are still really prejudiced. Like if you see a transsexual woman working in a bakery? that doesn't happen here. They're always either go-go dancers or hookers. They can be talking to you about their flower arrangements, and suddenly this guy comes by and they're saying, like "20 Euros" and "oh I have to work". They're surround by friends and I think we try to help each other and be like a support system. A big happy family.
Have you photographed any of your sex worker friends? Of course, yes. Even in this party we had a dark room and I wasn't supposed to take pictures there, but I did. I have some really weird ones of a friend of mine, Kika, she has breasts and she's a really good prostitute. She makes shitloads of money!
Do you have a favourite work? One that you're most proud of? Or does it change every week? Yeah, I keep on adding. I like some pictures a lot, but then I look at them three times in a row and they just disgust me. I get bored of them. For other people they still work. The 'Bipolar Self Portrait' gets lots of attention, but I don't consider it a favourite as it's a self portrait. It's really something I'm over, but people enjoy it also.
Does “freak” mean something different in Catalan or Portuguese?
It's the same as queer, it's not ordinary, but something truly amazing. For me, it's not a bad thing, we're all something special.
Are there any other words we should know about? “Bitch?” Bicha means fag in Portuguese, like a really female, exaggerated version of a gay person. Here they use the word marica a lot. It means 'faggot', but it's like saying hello to someone now. You don't make gay parties; you make 'marica-pollo' parties, 'trans-marica-bollo' parties. Bollo means dyke - someone who makes desserts, pastries, a chef. They use tortillera a lot. You know tortilla, someone who makes tortilla is a tortillera but it's also someone who likes pussy a lot!
If you're ever in Barcelona, find Bar La Bata and you'll probably find Pedro. If you're extra nice he'll take a beautiful photo of you fucking in the toilets.
Pedro's work is in fun places all over the web, but the best place to start is with his blog “Strangelfreak in LalaLand”,www.strangelfreak.blogspot.com