The founder of the important new queer news blog and photojournal “Sidewalkkilla,” Kazakhstan-born model turned photographer and writer Alexey Kim is giving a voice to a marginalized community and documenting their struggles and triumphs… all while sharing his own voice and vision. From the exclusive confines of a chic nightlife event to the frontlines of major movements, “Sidewalkkilla” is there!
Thotyssey: Hello Alexey! How are you today, and how has your Crazy Quarantine Summer been treating you?
Alexey Kim: Hey hey, I’m doing great today. I just had some coffee, so it pumped me with some energy for the day ahead to be creative. I got on a new schedule this week where I wake up at 7am and work through the day on some projects, so that I can have a piece of mind to myself in the evenings. It’s a strange schedule for myself, because as someone who has worked in nightlife for most of my life, I would always go to bed super late and wake up in the afternoon. I feel like waking up early has made me so much more productive.
As towards the summer, it has been one of the most challenging but inspiring times of my life. I finally got some time to work on my mental health, and make a clear game plan for the future.
Isn’t interesting that while the virus and the lockdown have been so destructive to nightlife… it has taught a lot of us how to, like, function as Real Life People?
For real. I think it has also put everyone’s resourcefulness to the forefront. Like, how are we going to move forward and survive in the next few years if things don’t go back to normal? Which they won’t. There was this tweet from someone saying that America is a cum-stained room, and Covid is a black light. I thought it was funny, but so true. Now we are all seeing very clearly how the system is so broken, and I think it made us all realize what was really important.
As the creator of the blog Sidewalkkilla, you’ve really been on the frontline of a lot of the turmoil of the last few months, particularly in regards to the BLM demonstrations. So many great shots and discussions are on that site and its social media presence featuring the protesters and their detractors. What’s it been like for you, seeing first hand all this angst and anger along with the hope?
It’s been really tough on me mentally. When it all first started, I was out almost every day. I thought it was really important to document this moment in time. I’ve witnessed many amazing and many horrifying things. The thing that took a toll on me the most was when I witnessed the moments of the division within the protests. There were people arguing and fighting between themselves because everyone had their own opinion on how they think the matters should be handled.
At some point I almost went through a complete mental breakdown for the first time in my life, and had to step away. At a certain point I felt threatened as a journalist, because of all these things circulating online about breaking people’s cameras and stuff. So with all that I’ve become more selective about events that I attend, because I figured if I’m going to go on after this, I need to find that safe space within my own head first.
Before we talk more about Sidewalk and these crazy times, let’s cover some background on you! First off, you’re originally from Kazakhstan… tell us a bit about what you can remember growing up there.
Growing up there was very challenging, to say the least. Kazakhstan was a part of USSR back in the day. The ideology was that everything needed to be done for the common good, so it’s needless to say that any kind of individuality was never encouraged even long after the USSR fell apart.
I grew up in a small town, and I thought I was the only gay person there. So it happened one of my best friends was gay as well, and we kind of knew about it, but didn’t end up coming out to each other until I turned 16 and was about to move to the US.
The fear of anyone knowing the truth about you is very real there; it can lead to very dangerous situations if a wrong person learns about it. The reason why being gay is so feared in Russia and post-USSR territories is because people equate homosexuality to pedophilia… and also of course they think that gays will take over the country and make all the children gay, therefore endangering the “traditional” family values. I was bullied in school mercilessly, and was afraid of leaving my house or school on any given day, all for being different and not being able to blend in with the rest.
And you obviously have this certain androgynous quality to your look that must have made you stand out even more obviously there.
Yes for sure. I didn’t have long hair when I lived there, but I always stood out in the way I dressed. Also, it was hard for me to hide my body language that was always more fluid, and can sometimes be read as effeminate.
Then you started modeling when you came to the U.S.
I moved to South Florida when I was 16. When I turned 18, I was scouted in a mall (how cliché) by an agent from NYC. She suggested that I come here, and she would help me find representation. I had a complicated relationship with my father at the same time, so I just needed an excuse to get my ass out of his house. At 19, I received a modeling contract from one of the biggest (at the time) agencies in NYC, and I moved here on my own.
Overall, did you enjoy your modeling experience?
I did not. I have very little respect for the fashion or modeling industry in general… especially after seeing how things work from the inside. There was a lot of “respectability politics” involved, and I was not looked at as an individual–rather as fresh meat that wasn’t good enough for one reason or the other.
Yes, of course it was nice to see yourself in a magazine once in awhile… but the stress of the castings and it’s effect on my self-esteem were not worth it. It also came with a lot of instances of power abuse, and people either trying to molest you or treat you like shit because you are no one.
Ugh, I was worried you would say that! What a shitty business!
I mean, I wouldn’t knock it down just because I had some bitter experiences. I’m sure it has served some people very well and there are very good people in that industry just like anywhere else. But yeah, it wasn’t for me. I was yearning to be recognized for another talent of mine rather than looks.
Was it the fashion world, though, that introduced you to photography?
My interest in photography actually began when I was doing a lot of traveling. Traveling has always been my passion, and I could afford to do it back when I used to work as a full time waiter in a very popular place. Eventually I realized that one thing I lacked was an outlet for self expression, and being such an indecisive person sometimes it was really hard for me to pick an interest and stick to it.
At that time I was in a relationship, and I used to express my frustrations to my partner. I told him I had an idea of how I can fulfill my dream of traveling the world and getting paid for it–I could start a travel blog. A few months later, he gave me a beginner’s camera as a present, and told me I had no more excuses; now I could start chasing my dream.
In the first year I rarely took out the camera, as I was very intimidated to use it and let the world see my work… even though I really loved it. It was also the first thing that I didn’t just abandon in a few months; I never got bored with it. I really struggled with putting out my work, because I thought, what if I was a false talent? What if I’m not as good as other people are always telling me I am? But I am glad I got over that fear and started expressing myself through the lens.
Pretty much. I went in for an internship interview, and they asked me if I could shoot events. I lied and said yes. I’ve never done it before, but I figured I could figure it out. So to try my hand in it, I went to my first Harlem Pride in 2018 and sent them the photos. They got published, and from then on I mostly worked as an independent photo contributor. I started going to any and every party that could to train my skills and eye, and I would just send in the photos from all of the events I attended.
Yep! Ty’s parties are always very fun to shoot. People really go there to dance their ass off and have fun. The energy is always high. Also, most of the time I don’t treat my gigs as a job… I go there to enjoy myself. I take more of an immersive / journalistic approach. Sort of like, I try to fill out the energy and become one with the party goers. It’s like partying with your friends and shooting at the same time. That’s the only way I can continue doing that type of work… because once it feels like a chore or a job that I don’t want to be doing, it won’t be the same. I couldn’t jeopardize my love for photography in that way.
Oh wow, that was a little over a year ago, if I remember correctly. By that point, I was still getting to know people in the Brooklyn nightlife. That was the first time I met Untitled Queen and had seen the OOPS! girls and Serena Tea in action.
They rock! Do you do have a favorite subject from nightlife to shoot?
Hmm… so many. Amanda Lepore always gives me life. She lives for the camera, and is really good in front of it. My friends CT Hedden and Vladimir Lavey always bring it as well. Another friend of mine, Glow Job, is always serving creative looks and I love it.
[All photos by Alexey Kim, care of “Gayletter,” “Sidewalkkilla” & alexeykim.com]
Tell us about the much viewed, socially distanced “Met Gala” shots you and CT were recently part of, which happened in lieu of the actual gala thanks to it’s COVID closure.
CT approached me about doing something for the day of when Met Gala was supposed to happen, and we came up with the concept together. We thought it would be a great idea to throw our own social distancing ball to lift people’s spirits, as it was happening right in the middle of the stay-at-home orders and there was nothing but bad news around. We decided to invite a few people from the drag community and ask them to come up with the quarantine couture look where they would be wearing a mask. We had to figure out the logistics of how we wanted to shoot this, as we wanted to make sure that everyone stays safe. During the shoot, a lot of passersby kept on thanking us for brightening up their day. It felt great to be able to lift peoples spirits.
You’ve been known to turn a lewk or two yourself, of course! Any interesting in hosting a kiki or performing in the future?
Haha, yeah, for sure! There is a reason I’m so into drag; I think drag is one of the best art forms that is finally finding global recognition. I always look up to drag queens, kings and everyone in between, because I think that not only what they are doing is so brave and creative, but also it’s something that I would love to get into myself more seriously. Unfortunately my hands are very full with Sidewalkkilla at the moment, but I’m hoping to find some time to get into the art of drag in the near future.
What drew you to create Sidewalkkilla, and what is your “mission statement” as it were?
A big part of Sidewalk’s creation was thanks to my homophobic father. I came out to him a couple of years ago, and in our conversation he’s told me that I basically had no purpose in life because I couldn’t procreate. I left with the sort of feeling, like, “I’ll show you that people like me deserve to live, and I’ll show you exactly why.”
Initially I created Sidewalk after I felt unfulfilled working for Gayletter. I felt that I sort of reached the ceiling in terms of what I could do there, and also the idea of being my own boss really appealed to me. In general, when you are a creative person it’s so hard to knock on doors and get yourself noticed, or have your ideas heard and supported. I wanted to tell things in my own way, and break up the mold of the publishing world. I also didn’t want anyone telling me what to do; I didn’t want to abide by the rules set up by other people. That was always my nature, even as growing up. So I kind of started it as an LGBTQIA+ geared blog where I would be able to be independently creative.
With time, I realized that it could also serve as a platform for other people to express themselves. I wanted to give the microphone and the opportunity to people who don’t usually get the chance to speak up. As a society, we tend to only amplify voices of those who are already in a spotlight. Being one of those people who had to beg to be given a chance, I always thought it was unfair… and I hated behind-the-scenes politics. By now, for every article or commission I create, I try to get as many creatives involved into its production as possible.
Sidewalkkilla’s goal was always to bring LGBTQIA+ cultures and lifestyles from all over the world into one destination, and showcase instances when communities unite. I always try to approach our community with love and understanding, rather than sensationalizing it. The goal is to show as a human race, we are all different, but at the same we are all equal.
Who works on Sidewalkkilla with you?
Usually we work with contributors remotely; I would approach someone about their work and see if we can create an article about it. I am always open to working with new talent and contributors. I want this to be fun, and also for whoever contributes to be proud of their work. If you have a project in mind or would like to publish your work, no matter what discipline of art you are in, I’d love to hear from you.
I can only imagine, based on the little bit I do here, the extraordinary amount of time and effort you must put into Sidewalk.
Oh my gosh. It’s an insane amount of work. I actually left my restaurant job that I worked at for over a decade exactly one year ago to pursue this full time. When I tell this to people, they think I’m crazy or they think I’m loaded. Maybe I’m crazy, but I don’t actually make any money from doing this.
Last year I decided to do a European tour and explore LGBTQ+ lifestyle in Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Portugal. I spent a shit ton of money on it that I worked really hard to save up. I had no idea why the fuck I was doing it, I only did it because it felt right in my heart and I thought that if I wasn’t going to attend these places and festivals that year, I might never get the chance to do it again. Look what happened in 2020! After the first day of going to Afropunk in Paris, I cried my eyes out on a sidewalk, because I’ve felt such an overwhelming amount of joy, that I’ve never felt before. I thought, this is right, that’s what I’m destined to do.
I met this person in Amsterdam during the Milkshake festival. A year later, they admitted to me that if they knew I was from Kazakhstan, they’d hit on me while I was there. They said that they thought I was a spoiled NYC brat who was just traveling the world “blogging.” Like, no bitch, I literally came from nothing and for the first time in my life I am doing something that feels right!
What’s the future of Sidewalk?
At the moment we are enhancing the website with many new features, and we are hoping to release them in September. That’s all I can say at the moment!
Something to look forward to! Okay I’ll end on a light, random note: Cardi B and Meghan Thee Stallion’s “WAP”: bop, or… otherwise?
The song is okay. The video is great.
Agreed! Thanks, Alexey!