Sara Davidmann is a visual artist and photographer whose work encompasses the personal and social, questioning the relationship between the individual and society. Since 1999 Davidmann has taken photographs in collaboration with people from London’s ‘queer’ and transgender communities. With her fine art background and keen artistic eye, Davidmann, has been transforming the stereotypical notions of transgender people in the United Kingdom for the past 10 years and is someone I find utterly inspiring
I find the process and reasons behind Davidmann’s work empowering to those who are transgender. I feel the media in western society still puts out a negative stereotyped image of trans people, as if their outcasts, lonely or mentally ill, which doesn’t reflect their reality. This also fuels people’s perceptions on trans identities with often negative outcomes. People often conjure the image of a man with a beard dressed in a skirt and this has to stop. For me Davidmann’s work is helping to do just that. Davidmann transforms these usually outcast identities into forms of art and beauty. They are elevated to objects of strength and determination and prove that gender is fluid, not fixed. Davidmann in an interview with Jonathon Worth stated: “I think people want to work with me because they want their stories told. That’s where the work can politically do something. It can change those ideas.”
Davidmann’s approach and motives have inspired me to create images, which will also have a political agenda. I want to help change or at least challenge people’s perceptions of what is a “normal” gender identity by highlighting individuals who move away from the gender binary and reveal their beauty and humility. Whilst fashions are changing and the appearance of a flamboyant drag queen or the giddiness of a camp man is all too familiar in current mainstream media, trans identities are still marginalized or seen as “outside the box”. If the idea that gender is free-floating and diversity is beauty is brought to the forefront and made clear to the public, these individuals will no longer have to live in fear but be liberated and celebrated. But how can we give these individuals confidence to be proud of their gender, identity and appearance to show it to the world?
The collaborative element is key and important in producing Davidmann’s work similarly to works produced by JJ Levine. Rather than focusing on how others perceive trans people, Davidmann focuses on how they want to be perceived. Davidmann allows her subjects, to be seen in a way they are happy with by collaborating with them on all visual aspects. Davidmann allows her subjects to control where the images are seen, what images are shown and where their voice and interviews are heard. Davidmann stated: “The first thing I do is ask people beforehand, ‘do you have any ideas? What would you like to see? What would you like?’” she says. “It’s an amazing process, working with other people. You do hit these interesting points when two people come together.”
Allowing her subjects to decide styling, make-up and overall look, I feel is of the upmost importance in creating an image on such a delicate subject. Trans people have suffered and had conflict about their exterior for their entire existence so one must be understanding and considerate to their wants and needs. In relation to my own work I want to photograph people that push the boundaries of gender, those individuals that express the opposite gender with confidence or take on an appearance, which moves away from the “norms”. I would love to photograph transsexuals and transgender people also but have found that the subjects I’ve had the pleasure of talking to are not so confident about being photographed. It brought to light how sensitive and how marginalized trans individuals still feel even in today’s modern climate. As a photographer you must ensure your subjects are happy and so I will only photograph individuals who are comfortable in having their identity revealed. Davidmann believes there is still a strong sense of Tran phobia in society, as do I, so doesn’t want the images to impact the life of her subjects in a negative way; life is of course more important.
Davidmann’s approach has inspired me to collaborate with my subjects. I want to create portraits within a studio space which can be incredibly daunting. However, by involving my subjects I feel they will be more at ease and the final images all the more better. And this is definitely the case for Davidmann. The series entitled ‘In The Picture’ (2009) was influenced by Davidmann’s PHD (2003-2007) work, exploring what photography means for the people she was working with. Each person had a different relationship with her and with photography. Kitty, for example, had a very strong sense of image and how she wanted to be represented and seen. Kitty adored images of the oriental and wanted to be posed in this way. Davidmann and Kitty constructed the environment. Davidmann also used a mirror to allow Kitty to see what she looked like. She created the images on a medium format camera, which meant Kitty could not see the images immediately and forced them both to slow down and be more thoughtful in the image making. Once the contact sheets and images were ready both participants were delighted and Kitty adored one image in particular. Davidmann was thrilled she managed to create an image which Kitty was proud of. It made Davidmann realise the importance of body image, participation and representation.
I want to create images, which show that gender is fluid. I would love to be able to find more subjects who are actually transgender and want to collaborate to create some beautiful images of these “outside the box” identities. My subjects so far who are transgender aren’t so keen on having their image taken. It makes me realise, as it did Davidmann the importance of self-identity and body image. I want my images to be subtle and beautiful, ones my subjects are happy with. I think by using a mirror, as Davidmann does, is a good way for my subjects to regain a sense of control and is something I will definitely do when conducting my own photo shoots.
In her series “View Point” (2007) Davidmann wanted to reclaim her role as photographer as well as her perspective, which is a part of her process. “The work is just as much about me as it is about them”. For this series Davidmann had the subjects lie down and placed the camera very high up on a tripod to create an interesting angle, people often think they are upside down! The series draws a parallel with these images and those within society, a perspective, which is pushed on transgender people. Society’s view is only one view and should not be the definitive viewpoint of trans. There are many viewpoints. Upon displaying and sharing the images from “View Point” Davidmann printed them as huge images, 5ft in height, they’re somewhat iconic. Davidmann then has one print, which is very small. This creates a contrast to the rest of the images. The large prints force the viewer to stand back to appreciate the image in its entirety whilst the small one denotes holiness and preciousness, forcing the viewer to get close. It allows the viewer to also be a participant. The images also manifest fine art elements; the backgrounds are of luscious fabrics and textiles carefully chosen by Davidmann. It emphasises this sense of richness and Godliness, almost like Royal images, very different to how society portrays trans.
Before creating her lusciously large scale portraits of trans people Davidmann first documented the queer community on a much smaller scale, using a small compact camera, which had a snap shot aesthetic that she used for her travels. It was very useful and became her chosen tool to take photographs of people in the transgender community. Davidmann felt that maybe if she had used a bigger camera to take the images it might have been too intrusive and I definitely agree. This has inspired me to document the queer community in a similar way. I hope to visit gay bars in surrounding cities and socialise with my subjects a lot more. Like Davidmann I plan to use a small camera or even a disposable. I love the snapshot effect in images and as Davidmann states it’s a less intrusive tool to be photographed by. I feel by doing this it will help my subjects feel more at ease with me and will also be an opportunity to meet more gay and trans individuals. Davidmann always asked the ‘trans’ first if she could take their image as one must be respectful to these individuals as human beings, which is something I too will be aware of.
Her earliest work of transgender people was published as a book titled, ‘Crossing the Line’ (2003). The book and series encapsulates Davidmann’s development within photography, learning how to work with people and those within the transgender community. I feel by my documenting of the queer community and times spent with my subjects will be beneficial for me as a photographer and my subjects. For my final degree show I want to create portraits in the studio so by photographing my subjects and potential subjects on a smaller scale first will make them more accustomed to having their image taken and will also help me learn how to navigate and build relationships with these sorts of people.
Overall, what have inspired me most about Davidmann’s work are not the images themselves but the way in which she produces them and the meaning behind them. Their subversive in the sense they are challenging the stereotypical images and ideas society has of trans people. Instead Davidmann’s highlighting them as real people with lives and interests just like you and I, portraying them in a positive way. Davidmanns image making process has influenced me to talk and collaborate with my subjects to ensure they are happy with the final images.
Phonar (6 November 2013) Phonar Session 6 [online] available from<http://phonar.covmedia.co.uk/2013/11/phonar-session-6/>%5B19 March 2014]