An Unsung Community Hero: Russell Bowen-Youngblood

By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
All Photos by Russ Bowen-Youngblood

Introducing our new article series shining a spotlight on the unsung heroes of the Atlanta LGBTQ+ community. In this series, we will celebrate the individuals whose impactful work plays a crucial role in shaping and strengthening our community. From activists to dedicated volunteers and professionals, these unsung heroes embody the spirit of resilience, compassion, and advocacy that defines Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ landscape.

Join us as we delve into their stories, learn about their passions, and uncover the profound impact they have on the lives of those around them. We start with photographer Russell Bowen-Youngblood, who has been documenting Atlanta’s nightlife for decades.

Tell us how you got involved in the LGBTQ+ scene?
I moved to Atlanta in 1999. On one of my first days here, I went to the local photo lab on the corner of Tenth and Piedmont to get some photos printed. I had shot a Britney Spears and *NSYNC concert in St. Louis and wanted prints to send back to some friends in St. Louis. When he printed the pictures, the owner asked who I worked for, and I told him I just moved here. He shared that David Magazine needed a photographer, so he called the owner and had him come down to the lab and meet me. I thought this would be an excellent way for the new kid in town to meet people, photographing the nightlife, so I started about a week after moving here. The role expanded into advertising sales, and so my Atlanta media career began – and 25 years later, I am still at it. I started my own company, Alphabet Soup Marketing, in 2021 to work with all the gay media companies in town. After so long in the business, I have worked with about everyone at one point or another. It’s a small world in midtown. 

Gallery: Altanta Nightlife

You have been documenting Atlanta’s gay nightlife for decades. What are some of your most significant accomplishments?
I think I have been able to record at least part of our community history for the last quarter century. I have been fortunate to have worked with David Magazine, Eclipse Magazine, Southern Voice Newspaper, The GA Voice Newspaper, Q Magazine, the Project Q Website, Goliath Magazine, Peach Magazine, and had my work in the AJC Magazine, Genre Magazine, Out Magazine, and Instinct Magazine. In that time, our community has faced discrimination, hate crimes, and intolerance. For many of those stories, I provided the images. I don’t think I have fought tears more than the day the reporter and I sat with Matthew Shepard’s mother just a couple of years after his death. That was really a tough one for me . 

Among my biggest highlights was getting to meet John Lewis and photographing him during a one-on-one interview with a reporter. Going to the Millennium March in Washington DC and being among the thousands and thousands of people and recording that event is another. And when same-sex marriage became legal in Georgia, capturing all the celebrations across midtown and then going down to City Hall to photograph some of the first same-sex marriages performed by the judges. 

It’s hard to pick and choose highlights and accomplishments when you think every day you’re out there recording history is a good day. The thousands in our community I have captured out and about has always been something I am proud of doing. 

Gallery: LGBTQ+ History

Looking back, how was the Atlanta nightlife scene when you made your beginnings? And how has it changed?
You know, it’s hard for me to really say what it was like for me at the beginning because it was at my beginnings, too. I did not come out until later in life so everything was new and exciting for me. It was a world of new experiences. When you ask how it has changed, I’m not really sure that it has changed all that much. I mean, clubs have come and gone, but when I look at the people I photographed then and now, over the 28 years, everybody’s pretty much looking for the same things. They’re out meeting new friends and then building memories with them, looking for the tribe to which they belong for acceptance, and I don’t think that part has really changed that much. The styles and trends have definitely changed. When I look back at some of my early pictures of big club shots, everybody’s got their shirts on, or most people. It’s definitely not that way anymore, at least on the dance floors. Hey, I am not complaining.

Who are some of your heroes or role models within the LGBTQ community, and why? 
I think of two people. The first was another photographer named Tim Wilkerson. I first became aware of his work at a gay pride before I moved to Atlanta and was blown away. He became my point of reference for who I wanted to be. Tim took my first staff photo for David Magazine. When I thought of Atlanta, I always thought of him as the photographer of gay Atlanta. Tim has passed away but left his images. That is the legacy of a photographer.

The other person is Jeff Graham with Georgia Equality. He has been fighting for our community’s rights for decades; it is an endless job. I am fortunate to have a camera between myself and the hate and prejudice when I have found myself at protests. Jeff deals with these issues face-to-face with no barriers and no nets. I am definitely proud to call him one of my heroes. 

Gallery: Celebrities

How do you see the Atlanta LGBTQ community evolving in the future, and what role do you hope to play in that evolution?
I have heard I-285 referred to as the Fruitloop, meaning that all the gays can be found within that perimeter. I don’t believe that’s as true anymore. Our community is expanding past our midtown center. However, with acceptance, the need for a self-contained community starts to diminish. We become assimilated into the “normal populace, “and soon, gay neighborhoods and centralized areas are not as necessary. 

As far as my role goes, I hope to continue to record the good times, along with the struggles and victories we have as a community. I also hope that there is a young photographer who sees what I do and is looking to replace me so the next generation will have someone to record their history. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share or any message you’d like to convey to our readers about the importance of community involvement? 
Be There! You don’t have to march in the Pride Parade on Peachtree Street with a rainbow flag, but I think it’s important to be on the sidewalk, a witness to that parade, to show your support, and to lend your voice. If you can, volunteer at local nonprofits, and if you can’t volunteer, support the mission with a donation. But being present is still my biggest priority. Online does not replace in-person. 

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