Catching Up with … Sher Pruitt, photographer of Atlanta’s LGBT community

Thirteen thousand. That’s how many events Sher Pruitt estimates she has photographed in her 25 years covering Atlanta’s LGBT community. She did 14 alone during Pride weekend this year, from Out On Film to the bars to the park to the Pride parade, plus a same-sex wedding to top it all off. And she’s done it all while never being on staff at an LGBT publication, working entirely freelance.

The single Columbia, South Carolina native lives in Marietta, but considers herself a Midtown girl at heart, which makes sense considering she’s basically an honorary resident with all the events she shoots in the area.

Pruitt looks back on documenting a generation of Atlanta’s LGBT community, from the early days shooting for Etc. and Southern Voice, through the worst of the AIDS epidemic and numerous benefits, bar nights and protests, to the present day in which she shoots for David, Fenuxe, Project Q, Pocket Rocket and Georgia Voice.

What was it like growing up in South Carolina?

It was completely different because I look Asian but I’m not, it’s a little American Indian. People didn’t look like me so people were always asking me to teach them kung fu. Even when I went to college, guys would come up to me at bars and say, ‘Would … you … like … to … dance?’ like I didn’t even understand English. So I completely felt like a minority in South Carolina whereas here in Georgia I never felt like that.

How did you make it to Atlanta?

I had never even been to a gay bar, or even thought I was gay, I just knew that I was different. I would come home and say, ‘Momma, I meet all these nice guys. How come I don’t want to go out with any of them?’

I was a late bloomer, so my first girlfriend was when I was 23. I met her in Columbia and she ended up moving here because she had family here so that’s how I ended up moving here in 1987.

How did you get involved in photography?

I have a picture of me from when I was a kid with one of those Kodak cameras around my neck. My dad got me a professional camera when I was 14 and I just started taking pictures of my family. Then I ended up being on the annual staff at my high school as a photographer. Then about 1989 or 1990 I saw that Etc. was looking for a photographer and I went and took them some photos I had taken and that’s how I started.

What kind of assignments were you shooting back then?

There were benefits but back then it was a lot more bar shots. It got really depressing because I would photograph people and it wouldn’t be much later and they had died, and I didn’t know they were HIV positive. It was really sad.

I was seeing things change. Things are much better than they used to be but I remember during the Cracker Barrel discrimination and the marches. I photographed everything.

I usually work every weekend and I have private events that I do. Also during that time I used to freelance in the marketing department for Atlanta Magazine. So photography’s a passion for sure.

What was it like watching the community grow and change over the years?

What I do love is being gay is much more accepting. Atlanta has such a large gay population and it’s just good to see people being who they are. We have so many benefits, much more than we used to. The only bad thing is there doesn’t seem to be as many dance clubs or tea dances as there used to be. But as far as being gay it’s much better.

What was your most memorable photograph or assignment?

I’ve loved so many. Wow. I think this was a really fun one, not that it’s necessarily that gay but I love [Jeffrey] Fashion Cares, and part of the money goes to HIV. And just seeing it grow, because I used to go when not many people would show up and now it’s like 500 to 700 dollars a ticket and it used to be like 25 dollars.

I photographed a benefit that had Elton John, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and some other people. That was a super nice event at [Kennesaw State University]. To watch them play and be in there for the press conference was really fun. I pretty much enjoy everything I do.

What is it you love about photography? What makes you want to keep doing it?

It’s weird because when I was getting ready to photograph Elton John at Music Midtown [this year], just bringing my camera up before I even snapped, my heart rate goes up. I get excited. That’s it. And I do like the part of photographing history. I also love going to the different bars and benefits and all the people that get excited that want their photo taken. I get lots of hugs and they like their photos.

And now that gay marriage is legal, I’ve photographed a few gay weddings a month so far. I’ve done two in the last week. I love that people can marry who they love and these couples that I photograph, some of them have been together for 25 years.

How much longer do you want to do it?

I’m not a spring chicken but I want to keep doing it as long as I’m able to and they want me. I’m young at heart so I’m expecting to go at least until I’m 80-something.