This article originally appeared in Virginia Pride Guide 2023. This is a version formatted for RVA Mag. You can read the whole original issue here.
There’s a pulse beneath the pavements of Norfolk, and a lot of it is set to the rhythm of its thriving queer community. Beth Austin, a Virginia photographer whose connection to the area is as vivid as her images, recently spoke with us about her experiences, her photography, and her newly published book, Without Apology: Portraits of Pride. Austin’s tale is one of rediscovery and resilience. Beginning her journey with photography in high school, she spent long hours in the darkroom only to abandon her craft. But a chance moment at a concert in 2009, snapping a picture on her cell phone, rekindled her love for photography. What began as a point-and-shoot experiment transformed into a passion that became her lifeline.
“It that kept me sober is what happened,” Austin recalls. Her initial love for capturing bands led to street photography and more personal projects, including photographing her friends and the local music scene.
It was through her immersion in the local music community that she found herself writing and even going on tour with a local band. “Good times, it’s really good time. So I got to go on tour with one local band here years ago, and that was something else. So we were gone for about two weeks going up the East Coast and back. And that was really fun. And it’s man, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of running and gunning, and all of that. But I wouldn’t have traded that experience for the world for sure.,” she says, reflecting on the experience.
The path to her book began with an email after the 2016 election. A local media company, drawn to her art and her connection to the LGBTQIA community, approached Austin to work on a project for Hampton Roads Pride. What began as a social media campaign quickly grew into something larger.
“It was bigger than a social media campaign for Hampton Roads Pride,” Austin explains, realizing the potential of the diverse and varied stories she was capturing. “I thought it might help people if more people could see it.”
The result is Without Apology, a powerful celebration of queer culture in love in Virginia. It’s not just a series of coming-out stories or an exploration of gender identity. It’s an honest portrayal of real-life experiences, like the story of Miriam, a single mom whose narrative resonates with many.
“I’m hoping that it’ll change some hearts and minds,” Austin says. “Opening hearts and minds across the board, even in our own community because we don’t always understand each other.”
Her insights into the Hampton Roads area reveal a nuanced tapestry of acceptance and community. With Norfolk as her stomping ground, Austin has witnessed the region become more accepting over the years. But she also recognizes the critical role allies play, especially in a region with a significant military presence.
“We need them, especially right now, the way things have been going,” she emphasizes, alluding to the broader political climate.
In discussing the local queer spaces, Austin mentions the closure of one of the country’s oldest lesbian bars, Hershee, a significant loss for the community. However, she is hopeful about the future and recognizes the support and diversity within the local scene, including the availability of allied bars where everyone can feel comfortable.
As Austin reflects on the many stories that stick out to her from the creation of her book, one can sense the profundity of her connection to the people and places she has encountered.
“So many of them. Really do,” Austin says, as if each story were a beloved photograph in a cherished album. Her voice teems with affection, whether discussing the leather daddies or the resilience of the community following the loss of a landmark lesbian bar.
Austin’s work, published by Cesca Janece Waterfield of Honey House Press, transcends mere imagery. It’s a call to empathy, a celebration of diversity, and an unapologetic acknowledgment of the vibrant queer community that exists in a part of the country often defined by its military roots rather than its artistic heartbeat.
Her art transcends boundaries, opening up conversations about identity, acceptance, community, and, most of all, love. Whether capturing the gritty excitement of a punk concert or the soulful gaze of a community member, Austin’s lens focuses not just on subjects, but on stories.
Her work in Without Apologies is a reminder that beneath the layers of politics, military, and conservative values, there is a thriving community rich in diversity and love. It’s a portrait of Virginia that is, in many ways, a portrait of America itself — complex, colorful, and unapologetically proud.
You can pre=order a copy HERE
Main photo by Loriely Layne
Photos by Beth Austin @bethaustin757