Jan Rattia was born into a Baptist family in Caracas, Venezuela.
“It was a very religious household in a male-centric culture,” he recalls. “I think I always knew I was gay, but I didn’t come out to my family until I moved to America for college.”
“When I was young, I was very into music and played several instruments,” he adds. “My dad and my maternal grandfather and my older brother were photographers, and I got my first camera at 15.”
Since September, 44-year-old Rattia has served as director of education at the Houston Center for Photography (HCP). He specializes in using photographic portraits to explore sexuality and immigrant issues, and he is perhaps best known for his Tease exhibit that showcases male strippers.
When deciding which college to attend in 1994, Rattia chose a music program at North Greenville University, a private Baptist school in South Carolina.
“After a while, I realized music wasn’t going to be very lucrative,” Rattia says. “So I switched to international business.”
What followed was almost a decade of corporate teaching and business consulting, until he realized his heart wasn’t in it and what he really wanted to do with his life was become a photographer. Rattia moved to New York City and graduated from the International Center for Photography, a premier institution for photography and visual art.
“After New York,” he says, “I moved to Atlanta to be with my boyfriend, Jason Edwards. That’s how I started my migration south.”
His next stop was Houston in 2016, where Edwards also moved to finish his residency at the Texas Medical Center.
“My understanding of Texas was very limited,” Rattia says. “But I found Houston to be very interesting, with its diversity and thriving art scene.”
One of his first destinations in Space City was the Houston Center for Photography (HCP), which he was already well aware of.
“I took a selfie in front of the HCP sign,” he says with delight. “One year later, I was showing my Tease exhibit there, and a year after that, I started teaching there.” Last September, he was promoted to director of education. He calls his work at HCP a perfect fit for his life.
Rattia began working on Tease before he moved to Texas. It came about because he wanted to make a visual contribution to the conversation.
“When I was looking for something to comment on through a series of photos, I thought of male strippers,” Rattia recalls. “I actually had a friend who ran a strip club for gay men, and he kindly introduced me to some of the dancers. I was thinking they would be more background, but before I shot the first dancer, we had lunch and I got to know him.”
Rattia says the dancers were very different than the stereotype.
“Most of them are straight, though they clearly like the attention of other men,” he says. “And they have very diverse lives. Some are MBA candidates, pilots, businessmen, and even doctors.”
Showing the strippers as real people going through the backstage routines of getting ready to perform by pumping and primping and shaving, the dancers became the focus of the portraits. For two years, he traveled across the country shooting male strippers from Miami to New York City, creating a body of work that is both intimate and evocative. The project resulted in his first solo exhibit in New York City at ClampArt in 2016. There was also a beautiful book created for that Tease exhibit, and last year Rattia brought Tease to Houston for the show at HCP as part of his Carol Crow Memorial Fellowship.
At the time, the Houston Free Press called the exhibit “modernly mythical and rather orphic in nature, asking for a viewer to see beyond the title and profession of the person at hand.”
“People say these are fantastic images,” says Rattia, “but they aren’t sure they want to hang them on their mantle. That’s when I know I’ve reached someone.”
Rattia says many of the strippers became friends that he stays in contact with.
Other series of portraits, some in moody black and white and others with vibrant colors, can be seen at the Cindy Lisica Gallery and on his website, JanRattia.com.
Rattia and Edwards have been partners for four-and-a-half years, although they’ve known each other longer. The couple resides in the Museum District (which is very convenient to both HCP and the Texas Medical Center) and they have a “very friendly” cat named Maia.
Due to Rattia’s passion for photography and Edwards’ medical residency, the couple has relatively few hobbies. But Rattia says they enjoy riding bikes along Houston’s bayous when the weather isn’t too hot.
“I used to love motorcycles, but I don’t have one anymore,” Rattia says. “Houston streets are not very motorcycle-friendly, and having a partner who deals with brain injuries, well . . .”
Rattia says he also enjoys cooking, but not South American cuisine.
“I worked in an Italian trattoria in college,” he explains. “It was a family-run eatery, and I learned a lot about Italian cuisine. To this day, I can call up the owner and ask a question when I’m cooking Italian.”
His father has passed away and his mother still lives in Venezuela, although he hasn’t been back to visit in a long time.
“We all love to travel, so last year she went to Cartagena, Colombia, and Jason and I went to visit her there,” he says. “My family is fine with my being gay now. Despite their religious beliefs, they came around.
“But I’m no longer a member of the Baptist Church, and that’s all I’m going to say.”
As for teaching art, Rattia says, “When I work, I hear the voices of my mentors. Having the opportunity to help someone develop their own vision is an amazing thing.”
This article appears in the November 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.