Drag.Jpeg focuses lens to smash stigma and reflect diversity

· The Pulse

A photography project that celebrates the diverse world of Edmonton drag will culminate in a set of trading cards and two events in January.

"The main reason for the project was to highlight both the drag artists and the people who are under all the makeup," Brendan Roy, executive producer of Drag.Jpeg, told Taproot. "There's an incredible spectrum of artistry within drag."

His project will produce 100 decks of trading cards (available for pre-sale until Dec. 10) for release at events on Jan. 12 and 13 at Evolution Wonderlounge in downtown Edmonton.

By day, Roy is the CEO of Boundless Photo & Film Studios.

"This is actually my 10th year as a photographer, and one of the things that matters most to me is having tangible artwork that's physical and not digital," he said. "Oftentimes, we like to throw things out into the ether with social media, but I wanted people to have something that's collectible."

That's why he created Drag.Jpeg, a 56-card collection that celebrates drag, even though cards weren't the plan at the beginning.

"Originally I wanted to do big metal-canvas prints," he said. "As I started to bring more people on, I needed to kind of rein myself in because eight metal prints could be the cost of all of the trading cards for everybody en masse."

Roy captured 28 drag artists in and out of performer mode for the project, including Twiggy, Pepper, Gemma Nye, Vanity Fair, Tequila Mockingbird, and more. Helping him were Emma Grant, Alex Drost, Ramona Elhert, and Aldynne H. Belmont — the latter of whom has written about drag's history and event protocols for the Drag.Jpeg blog.

"One of the things that I say is 'drag artists' instead of just 'drag queens,'" Roy said. "For some people, drag is a way that they express their gender identity. For some of them, it's just affirmation of their gender identity. We have male-presenting people who present a male aesthetic for their drag. We have drag kings, we have drag things, we have aliens, we have everything that you can imagine."

In addition to dispelling the idea that drag is simply cisgender men impersonating women, Roy wants to combat bigotry against drag artists.

A drag performer poses near the summit of a butte, wielding a sword, while a photographer squats to the right and takes their photo.

Photographer Brendan Roy captured 28 drag performers on film, including Emmonia, for a collection of playable trading cards for the Drag.Jpeg project. (Supplied)

"It's not to groom children," he said about the harmful conspiracies some far-right antagonists have perpetuated against performers, the vast majority of whom are 2SLGBTQIA+.

They come from all walks of life, too. One is a doctor, he said. "We have a childhood educator, we have a drug-outreach worker, we have accountants, we have dance instructors, we have makeup artists."

Roy interviewed each of Drag.Jpeg's subjects about their drag acts and day-to-day lives, but it wasn't easy to get everyone to open up for their out-of-character portrait.

"I had like four or five people drop out of the project partway through," he said. "They were a little worried that maybe their family might find out that they do drag, or their workplace wouldn't want their name associated with that. The out-of-drag shoots tended to be a little bit more styled towards what they do for work."

One artist included in the deck is Pheromone Killz, who recently competed as part of Edmonton's first Sashay, Fillet! event. Killz told Taproot earlier this year that most of their colleagues at their construction job don't know they do drag.

Roy isn't the first person to create trading cards to advocate for queer people. American organizations Lambda Legal and Athlete Ally ran a similar campaign in 2021, to fight the hatred trans athletes can face. Out magazine covered another project all the way back in 2013.

Roy grew up with Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. He wants the Drag.Jpeg collection to not only be tradable but also playable.

"The trading cards actually will have a little bit of a game mechanic to them, so that they're also functional," he said. "It's a very, very simple game. It's kind of like Rock, Paper, Scissors, but we're still kind of figuring out the final emblems. It'll be like stiletto, tip money, and makeup brushes."

Roy said the events in January are perfect for those who have never been to a drag performance before. They feature many of the talents captured on the cards live on stage.

It's also his own entrance into drag performance.

"I'm hosting both nights, but the Saturday will be the first time I do drag," he said. "One of the things that I really wanted to stand for with this project is being seen, stepping into your creativity, being fearless, and just putting yourself out there."

Roy and Drag.Jpeg will continue to sell the decks if pre-orders or sales at the event don't deplete all 100. Either way, these are just the limited-edition first round, with gold accents and other premium elements that can't be found in any potential reprint.

A little more attention will be shone on Edmonton's drag scene this week when Melinda Verga makes her debut on Season 4 of Canada's Drag Race, premiering Nov. 16 on Crave. Verga is the first Edmonton-based performer cast on the show.