At Odds With The Expected: Five New Yorkers You Should Know

Today we’re premiering a photo and interview series from photographer Emily Lipson that hones in on New York City’s best and brightest characters. What does it mean to play a “character” in the real world? Emily asked, and they answered. Read on below for her full documentation. 

The world can feel flat, austere, inconsequential, bleak. And so often, people fall right into that austerity. People in sync with other people. Masters of plainness, with a goal to blend in.

As a photographer, my curiosity is piqued by people who exist in a sort of other plane. A world beyond the layman. These people, existing on a sphere of their own, inspire me. Their effortless sense of fantasy, their ability to activate performance in their everyday. The way they take control of their image. Their agency. Their power. Creating a schism at odds with the expected.

I found five people who do this: who exist, to me, on this other plane. My goal in making photos of them was to paint them to others the way I see them, and the way they see themselves, on another stratosphere, existing somewhere between the mundane and the impossible: a different reality, perhaps more real than our own. I asked them a few questions about what inspires them, their relationship with fashion, and their philosophy on personal performance.

Hazkel Brown


Age: 22 years old

Occupation: Artist/Model

What inspires you? In NYC? In the world?

What inspires me in NYC is the freedom it provides for queer folks to express themselves as they desire.

How do you use makeup as a tool in your life? What is your philosophy on makeup?

I use makeup as a way to mask my identity, it gives me control. My makeup looks are about obscuring my identity to control how I’m seen by the oppressor, to redirect the conversation to my appearance in a way in which my race and gender identity is not the center of the conversation but rather my disguise and my distorted appearance.

What kind of performance inspires you or are you interested in? What kind of performance (if any) do you do?

My performance work often tends to deal with trauma, memory and gender identity. My performance character is Homosinner. For me to be Homosinner is to challenge the fixed taxonomy of gender expression of ‘male’ or ‘female.’

Arta Gee


Occupation: Student and model

What inspires you? In NYC? In the world?

The diversity and openness that we have in NYC inspires and allows me to express myself freely. It also gives me a window to see a range of expression in style.

How did you initially get scouted  as a model? How did you first break into the industry?

I am very close to my older breather, we talk everyday, and I have always admired his style and fashion sense. He was my first and favorite photographer and motivated me to check out agencies after school one day.

How do you use makeup as a tool in your life? What is your philosophy on makeup?

I use makeup to highlight, soften or dramatize certain features for photo shoots. I usually don’t wear makeup in my everyday life, but when I have the opportunity to become a character or play a role within a photo shoot, makeup can be a strong tool to convey a mood, theme, or message. A strong makeup look makes me feel like another person, almost like I am in someone else’s skin. I can be someone else.

What kind of performance inspires you or are you interested in? What kind of performance (if any) do you do?

Sports are my favorite type of performance, especially basketball. I like to watch the way big personalities work together on a team, the way they strategize and collaborate and navigate to defeat whatever team that they are up against.

Saúl-Yvan Calvillo


Age: 23

Occupation: multidisciplinary creative

How do you use makeup as a tool in your life? What is your philosophy on makeup?

I use makeup as a way to unapologetically display my queerness. I also use it as a dialogue towards discussing and combating the concepts of gender binaries. We live in a world where we market everything with gender. I like to wear makeup and create looks as a statement towards people to wake up and realize that they should not confine themselves to what society says they are. Our vessels may be gendered in the world, but the heart and soul Is where our true identity lies.

What kind of performance inspires you or are you interested in? What kind of performance (if any) do you do?

The type of performance that attracts me most is anything that wants to provoke an audience or inspire an individual to look inwardly towards their true self. One performer I look up to greatly is Lindsay Kemp. His works encompasses so many themes from queerness, intimacy, movement, and the sensitivities of the human conscious. The moment I saw his work for the first time, I saw a true kindred spirit who also paved the way for individuals such as myself.

To me, everyday is a performance in the sense that my form of expression catches the eyes of strangers in the street. That particular form of gaze I equate to that of an audience at a performance. While most kids create looks and personas simply for the club, I live it 24/7. I do so not to attract attention but because it makes me more comfortable in my skin to be able to express myself. People stare because they don’t realize how rare it is for a person to be true to themselves fully or as close as a human can be.

What does it mean to you to play a “character” in the real world?

With the makeup that I do, I do not create a character. I am still just me but displaying myself the way that I feel. It’s similar to a chameleon. They change their colors based on their emotions, yet they are still a chameleon.

What inspires you? In NYC? In the world?

I gather inspiration from so many sources from my daily life. First and foremost I gather inspiration from my family’s heritage. I am first generation Mexican-American. Growing up I always had to deal with the issues of machismo culture and being told to “be tough, be masculine, don’t cry.” It took ages for me to stop out those philosophies in my psyche. I remember the moment I finally fully combated it was when I when I went out in public to a club wearing a see through top and red lipstick. I felt so empowered finally being true to myself and shedding off all those toxic ideals fed to me my entire life.

My family is also Catholic. So I always have been inspired by the stories that encompass it and the iconography of the churches and objects. There is a certain macabre and fantastical aspect of Catholicism that has always intrigued me as a kid and I definitely reference it in some sort of way with my looks.

Grace Insogna


Age: 27

Occupation: Senior at FIT in Knitwear, Fashion Design

What inspires you? In NYC? In the world?

I’m most inspired by the ingenuity, drive, joy and passion which exists amongst my peers in an array of creative fields in NYC. Everyone is always hustling to not only survive but to thrive and that keeps me wanting to do more not only for myself but also my community.

Visually, I’m all over the place but I usually am most inspired by flashes of something as I’m passing it walking down the street. It could be someone’s outfit and amazing personal style or it could be a colorful detail on a building. The fleeting moments which catch my off guard, that I don’t have time to whip out my phone and capture them.

How do you use makeup as a tool in your life? What is your philosophy on makeup?

I have been utilizing make up as a tool, at times begrudgingly, from a very young age – maybe 11 or 12? I’ve consistently worn full coverage makeup almost every day for years. In a way, it has changed my relationship to my own self perception, and with body dysmorphia. I don’t recognize my face without enhanced features. I love makeup as an art form and experimenting with disruptive looks. Makeup, like fashion, is just another means of self expression and projecting a particular image or persona to the world. I feel more at home in my body doing extreme and unconventional looks than an everyday beat.

What kind of performance inspires you or are you interested in? What kind of performance (if any) do you do?

I’m struck by any type of performance where people are using their bodies as vehicles for their art. Our bodies are another tool, same as a paintbrush is a vehicle for a medium.

There’s supposedly a distinction between being a person and a persona, but for me the lines are blurred. There’s many elements of performative femininity in my personal life and make up and fashion play into that heavily. Certain elements of being perceived as “woman” enforces rules of dress and appearance which I have internalized to the point of it defining my identity. It’s a precarious balance of what is fed to you and what you create. I don’t love that being femme is expected of me, but yet I still love being femme.

Rico Sanchez


Age: 23

Occupation: Model + Stylist

What about fashion makes you free?

Wow where do I start. Well I’ll tell like you this. My mother is Portuguese. She was extremely strict when I was growing up and very adamant about things being her way and it staying that way for as long as she can control it. Me being so eccentric fashion wise and my mom’s vision of me being the complete opposite was literally to the point where I was changing in the bushes before I hopped on the school bus in the morning and changing again before I got home getting off the bus after school. I felt so trapped having to live within the box of my mothers expression it killed me. Now that I don’t live with her anymore free isn’t even the word.

What is a piece of clothing you really like and why?

My favorite piece of clothing I have right now is my Vivienne Westwood purse. Yes purse not murse or man purse or any of those over masculinity ass terms. It’s two reasons why it’s my favorite. First reason is the fact that I have a distinctive sense of androgyny and back in high school being from the hood/ghetto every guy around me breathes hyper masculinity and are quote on quote tough guys.

I used to get a lot of slack for expressing my androgynous sense of fashion in such a hyper masculine environment. However, I also had just a cool ass sense of fashion so ironically the same guys who made the jokes were also in awe of the fact that most of the females in my school were drooling over my style because of course the guys do everything in their power to attract the girls how I do. What’s funny is I was always respected and actually inspired most of those guys. No one was used to a guy like me. I was cool with everyone because everyone just couldn’t deny a cool ass dude at the end of the day.

What’s special about modeling and the power it gives you?

What’s crazy is I wanted to be a rapper at first. I actually got bars though it’s crazy. I literally got dragged into modeling because of the person that I am every single day. The basis of modeling is about looks. Boy I got looks. Like endless. So everyday I went outside people would walk up to me and express their admiration for my appearance and it was just a matter of time before casting directors and creative directors for brands were wanting to give me opportunities to make their image look cooler or as cool I look. So I would say what’s special about it is the amazing friendships you gain and the opportunities those friendships bring you. I mean it’s literally a key to life if you look bomb. Like multi million dollar companies are giving you money to experience amazing things and at the end of the day just to take pictures! The fact that you can change your life just because of how you are on an every day basis is powerful in my book.

Images courtesy of Emily Lipson; photo assistants: Alexandra Lotz and Evadne Gonzalez

Stay tuned to Milk for more from our favorite NYC artists.

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