“Hey, Can I FT You?”—the title for 22-year-old photography phenom Quil Lemons’s most recent portrait series came as naturally as the question. For the past two months of the COVID-induced quarantine, the Philadelphia native has been back in his home city for the longest stretch in the past five years. This unexpected pause has allowed for welcome family time—Lemons has four siblings under the age of 11—that would not otherwise have been possible with his blooming career and hectic travel schedule. But still, the usually Brooklyn-based photographer is, like all of us, looking for new ways to touch base and connect with friends and collaborators, many of whom he may not see again in person for, well, a while.
The project, which came about practically by accident, is exactly what it sounds like. Lemons was catching up via FaceTime with friend and musician Kari Faux. She had just dyed her hair orange—an occasion ripe for a “FT shoot,” for which Lemons deftly took advantage of the live photo capability already available in the app (iPhone users can enable this function in their settings). Lemons posted a few images of Kari on Twitter and was pleasantly surprised by the volume of replies and retweets. Clearly, he had struck a nerve, or several.
He began reaching out to friends, inviting each of them to hop on a FT call, and has now executed over 25 such shoots, every one of which has its own unique familiarity. Lemons says his first goal was to create an environment—even if virtual—of comfort and normalcy in the midst of quite literal chaos. The second was to generate a sense of lightheartedness and fun. As such, he has instituted two guidelines for his sitters: 1) anything goes 2) anything can be clothes. Like most creatives, Lemons’s professional work is often constructed in highly-controlled environments and must juggle a range of inputs and priorities, including managing expectations for his own personal brand. But a FT shoot offered a different kind of interaction, one much more focused on his subjects simply being themselves, even if through very basic modes of self-expression, like getting dressed or putting on makeup, that were easy to take for granted pre-quarantine.
Like his own living situation, Lemons is also aware that many of his peers are back with their parents for now, a reentry that can be tricky to navigate both physically and emotionally. What does it mean to be yourself in a space that might enable you to regress? How do you negotiate all types of distance from friends and work? While Lemons’s impressive CV boasts magazine covers and campaigns alike, he has become known for work that is both deeply empathic and boldly imaginative, such as his independent series GLITTERBOY (2017) and PURPLE (2018); the former engages with expectations for Black masculinity and the latter captures four generations of women in his family. It is in such investigations of selfhood and representation where his distinct visual eloquence is most clearly revealed and, despite the constraints of COVID, his new work is no exception.