Claudia Moroni is an Italian award winning London based portrait photographer whose works explore issues surrounding gender, representation and identity. Moroni has a keen interest in analogue photography, shooting on a wide array of 35mm, medium and format cameras and prints most of her work using traditional darkroom processes. Moroni is a photographer with an edge: relentless, fearless and unique. Her photographs have been published in The Sunday Times magazine, Wallpaper* magazine, L’Officiel Art (Thai edition), The Guardian, 1883 magazine and Vogue Italia and exhibited nationally and internationally. Moroni is single handily re-defining what is beautiful through socially defying images that encourage and celebrate diversity and individuality.
Moroni’s images break the “norms”; they address the “taboo”, challenge society, push boundaries and make social minorities voices heard but what’s more-seen. In her on going project entitled, ‘Anima and Animus’ where I first discovered this amazing talent, Moroni has been exploring the complex and multifaceted subject of gender identity. The series features portraits of trans* and genderqueer people living in the U.K, each portrait seemingly capturing some essential aspect of the subject’s identity. Each model has undertaken a journey, transitioning from the sex they were assigned at birth to the gender they identify with. The images are beautiful and hold a strong political agenda.
The portraits are dignified and powerful but what’s more subversive. They are unlike any other representations of the trans* community within other mainstream visual media, which is what makes Moroni and this series so special. Moroni does not focus on the genitals or genders of these individuals, rather their eyes, their smile, a look or gesture. They are seen as individuals as opposed to transsexual or gender fluid. In this sense the images are quite gentle to the topic, the images say, “This is who I am and this is the way it is” regardless of the sex or gender of the person being photographed. The subjects are elevated to ambiguous and beautiful creatures, an effect I’d love to achieve through my own images.
And so with her fine art background, passion for shooting analogue and keen artistic eye, Moroni has been helping to transform the stereotypical notions and representations of trans* people in the U.K which is something I find utterly inspiring. The media continues to put out a negative stereotyped image of trans* people and they remain to be a marginalized section of society. However, with beautiful images like Moroni’s which capture the very essence of these remarkable human beings, highlighting their uniqueness as much as their dignity in a photographic series that truly sparkles, we can encourage the breakdown of the male/female gender binary and, with that, embrace all the shades of difference that lie in between.
Moroni’s photographs from ‘Anima Animus’, her motifs and successes have been really inspirational to my own work and me and I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with her via email. I wanted to learn more about her project and creative processes, which would be beneficial in informing my own practice as I too have and will continue to photograph individuals with non-conforming identities. Here’s what she had to say:
How did you get into photography? Did you study it?
I went to art school back in Italy and, while I was there studying multimedia art, I realised that photography was my favourite subject, so I applied to spend a year in the UK as an exchange student, attending a photography course. After the exchange period finished, I ditched the academy of fine arts in Milan to enrol for my second year as a normal student and eventually I got a (BA) Hons degree in photography.
What does photography mean for you?
What photographers inspire you? Who is your favourite?
It’s quite hard to make a list as I feel inspired by so many different artists and I don’t really have a favourite one.
The first names that jump to mind are Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, but there are many more.
While I was at university I used to spend days on end in the library, perusing photography books and magazines, while now I’m a regular in the photography section at Foyles on Charing Cross and I love finding new talents on Flickr. I tend to favour portrait and documentary photographers because I’m fascinated by people.
Are there any images you wish you had taken?
As in images taken by other photographers who I admire or as images that I saw but I didn’t take?
In the first case, no, I’m often in awe of other people’s work, but I believe in keeping true to my own.
In the second case, yes, I constantly see people I’d love to photograph, but I often don’t for various reasons.
Why do you mainly shoot analogue?
It kind of started all by accident because for the first term at uni we were restricted to black and white film photography and I happened to try a Mamiya twin lens camera that I instantly fell in love with.
I prefer shooting square frames and I love the quality of film, especially medium and large format film.
At the time I didn’t really speak much English and this “funky looking” camera helped me to approach strangers I wanted to photograph.
Any advice for someone who may be interested in using analogue?
I’d recommend to try black and white film and to develop it at home.
It’s much easier than most people would think and the internet is a great resource for tutorials on how to get started.
Once you’ve seen your first home developed negative, it’s hard to get back to shooting digital and I bet you’ll soon be printing your work in the darkroom as well 🙂
Your works seem to frequently defy social norms (transsexuals, gender benders). Where did your interest in this begin?
I was commissioned by a gallery to produce a body of work on the theme of borderline gender for my first solo exhibition. After collaborating with many trans* people, I decided to keep working on gender beyond the exhibition as I think it’s a fascinating subject.
Feminist author Judith Butler believes that gender is “performative” in the sense we all walk, talk and act in ways, which consolidate an impression of being masculine or feminine so much so that we are all like drag artists. She believes that gender is free-floating. Do you agree with these views?
I believe that gender expression and gender identity aren’t necessarily fixed, so they can change over time and be fluid, but I don’t agree that gender is exclusively performative.
I adore your images from the series, Anima Animas. Do you have a favourite image?
Thanks, I’m glad you like them. That’s such a difficult question, I find it hard to choose a favourite image as I really enjoyed working with all the models and it feels a bit strange to pick one picture over the others.
If I really have to go with one, I’d say probably the image of Sabah because it was a success against all odds; it was published in the Sunday Times and it got many praises and awards and it’s funny because I almost didn’t take it!
Sabah came to the studio in London from Brighton especially for the photo shoot and only after the interview with him I realised that I had left the film holders at home, over an hour away from the studio. Luckily Sabah was extremely patient and understanding and I have a friend who lives closer to the studio who shoots 5×4 too, so I went at his place to borrow two film holders. This meant that Sabah had to wait for a while and we only had four shots out of the shoot, but it was worth it.
Any funny stories you can share from the series?
I hadn’t been shooting much large format film before this series so I had quite a few funny accidents with my first attempts. Thinking about it they’re not really that funny, I just repeatedly double exposed sheets of film because I’d forget to flip the dark slides on the film holders. I posted some of this mistakes on Facebook and strangely enough many people commented on them saying that they liked them better than the correct pictures!
Once I had to lock myself in the broom cupboard of the studio to load the film holders because I forgot my changing bag at home, so embarrassing!
I love your images of Jay! How did you find her?!
First of all, it’s really important to always check people preferred pronouns instead of just assuming them. For example Jay goes by neutral pronouns, so please use they/their/them when referring to them as opposed to she.
Jay is a friend of one of the first people I’ve photographed for this series, so I “found” them through a recommendation.
To start with I put an ad online, but once I photographed a few people I started being approached by their friends through word of mouth.
What is your creative process like? Do you collaborate with your subjects?
I do try as much as possible to collaborate with my subjects since I feel that a portrait is an exchange between the model and the photographer, so collaboration is key.
For this series I’ve been shooting on large format film with a view camera that allows me to selectively focus on the models eyes. I always show people examples of my work and I discuss with them how the pictures are going to be.
Your subjects often appear nude, how do you make them feel comfortable or how do you approach that situation?
Well, as I said before, the kind of camera I use allows me to focus selectively on the eyes and to throw the body significantly out of focus. I believe that knowing that their body won’t be clinically sharp in the photos helps making people feel more comfortable about being nude in front of a camera.
I didn’t initially considered asking the models to be totally naked, I intended to only shoot from the waist up, but I was surprised when someone spontaneously proposed to be photographed full length without any clothes.
Once I did my first nude photo shoot, I became more comfortable discussing this possibility with the models.
I have come to the conclusion there’s no harm in asking as long as it’s done with tact and you could be surprised by how many people don’t mind to shed their clothes.
Normally I specify that they can be as bare as they dare, there’s no pressure whatsoever to show any skin from the shoulders down if they don’t feel like it.
I also make a point to have a good chat about what’s going to happen before the actual photo shoot and I always start taking photos with the model fully clothed.
Recently I have been taking some non-blurry nude photos in collaboration with a friend and it’s something that I’m really interested in pursuing more.
You state on your website that you look for subjects that are beautiful and peculiar. What do you think makes someone or something beautiful?
That’s a really good question, but I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. I believe that that what makes someone or something beautiful for me is a series of characteristics shaped by my personal taste and the cultural environment that surrounds me. I also think that my sense of what is beautiful isn’t fixed, so it can change over time and it’s hard to pin down.
How do you find your subjects? How do you convince them to pose for you?
There are many different ways I find my subjects: I sometimes put ads online if I’m looking for a specific kind of person to photograph, but I also approach people on the street or online through Facebook. Sometimes I ask my friends to pose for me or to put the word out between their acquaintances that I’m looking for models.
I don’t really convince people, I just ask them if they’d be interested in posing for whatever project I’m working on, explaining why and how I’d like to photograph them.
If I’m approaching them online, I include a link to my website so they can see what kind of work I do.
If I’m stopping someone on the street, I simply state that I’m a photographer, I’ve noticed them because I like something about them (it could be what they’re wearing or their hairdo for example) and I’d like to photograph them if that’s cool with them.
I’m not a big fan of photographing people without their permission, so I always ask first and if they’re not keen, I just thank them and wish them a good day.
How did you become a photographer in your own right? Did you assist anyone first? Do you still assist?
I started out as a freelance studio assistant in three of the main photography studios here in London. I also did full time studio assisting for 9 months while I was shooting a lot the for Anima Animus exhibition, so that I could have unlimited free access to the studios during the weekends for this project.
I now work as a freelance assistant for different photographers and I shoot commissions every now and then.
I think assisting other photographers is a great learning experience and it allows me to juggle personal and commissioned work on the side.
What are your goals as an artist?
I’m not sure if I consider myself an artist, it sounds like a rather pompous way of describing what I do and I don’t feel 100% comfortable with it. I don’t have a series of grand final goals as an “artist”, I just have a set of projects and ideas that I’d like to explore more with my work. Overall I am interested in people, so I suppose you could say that my main goal is to share with others an impression of the people I meet.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am still working on the Anima Animus project, expanding it to include people all along the gender spectrum, both trans* and cisgender.
Some first steps have been made towards a collective multimedia project on body positivity, but it’s still in the research stage, so I can’t say too much about it now.
Well, hopefully the collective body positive project will come together soon, so I hope to focus on it more and more.
I’m extremely interested in working with other people and I want to learn more about video, so I’m really excited about this project.
I would also like to eventually make a book out of Anima Animus.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in photography? What should they do?
Well, it depends by what kind of photographer they want to be. The career path varies drastically if you want to be a celebrity photographer as opposed to a fashion photographer or a food photographer.
This is assuming that we’re talking about people who want to be photographers because you do have other options for pursuing a career in photography, not everyone has to be a photographer, for example you could find yourself working in production and casting, or with an agency, or as a picture editor, amongst other possibilities.
In general I think that assisting is a good way to get a foot in the door, so I’d recommend it to anyone who’s considering a career in photography.
Any tips for other artists who want to explore similar issues as you such as gender and identity?
Just to keep an open mind.
I really wanted to interview a professional photographer whose works investigate topics I’m deeply inspired and interested in. Throughout my final year at Coventry University I have been researching and creating works that explore issues surrounding gender, identity, sexuality and representation. Such topics are highly sensitive, complex and even political. As a part of my research into the topic of gender identity I have spoken to many individuals who contest to the binary nature of gender from transsexuals to gender fluid individuals. From this I found that there is definitely a lack of knowledge in regards to gender identity issues with modern culture, as there were many things I did not know before speaking with these non-conforming individuals.
Many misconceptions have left trans* individuals, like the ones I have spoke with, as well as their families and friends very isolated and socially excluded. The trans* community is still a marginalized and often stigmatized section of society and transphobia still permeates our culture. With all of this in mind I was initially quite reluctant to pursue the topic of gender identity within my photographic works. Gender identity is a highly complex and individuals with non-conforming identities are still very much living on the cusp of regular society. I felt it might be too dangerous and even insensitive to explore the issue as a photography topic.
However, my thoughts quickly changed when I discovered the works of Claudia Moroni and her series, ‘Anima and Animus’ which is a long term project exploring the borderline of gender. The series features individuals with non-conforming gender identities in a beautiful and dignified light. The images have been published in various magazines and papers and even exhibited nationally and internationally. This was hugely encouraging and made me realise the importance of giving the trans* community the exposure and truthful representations they deserve. These are beautiful and courageous individuals. We must raise awareness and show these individuals in a light that is accurate of the trans* community thereby reducing discrimination, prejudice and hostility. I hope my images will help advance Trans equality within society and prove that beauty lies in diversity just as Moroni has.
Before contacting Moroni I did some research into her work so she wouldn’t be repeating answers she had given countless times before. I looked at other interviews she had participated in online and her website, to ensure I would be asking less generic questions so the interview would be enjoyable. I wanted to learn of her creative process and learn more about ‘Anima and Animus’ as I too have been creating portraits of individuals with non-conforming gender identities. I wanted to learn more on how she finds her subjects, how she makes them feel comfortable, why she shoots film and most importantly what advice she would give to someone who is tackling the subject of gender identity. All of these answers would help me in the decisions I make when creating my portraits, to ensure I remain respectful and aware at all times of my audience and subjects.
Once I had completed my interview questions, I contacted Moroni via Facebook, her website and email. She was easily accessible which reminded me of the importance of being active and accessible online to ensure you never miss an opportunity. Contacting Moroni via email was efficient, easy and quick and she responded to me the very same day! I feel as I showed some knowledge and passion for the subject she too has been exploring for a number of years perhaps influenced her to get back to me. This is why I felt it important to interview a photographer who I admired and shared interests with. It would be clear that I am passionate and genuinely interested in the individual and their work, which I hope she took as a compliment. In return to participating in the interview (and as an incentive) I informed Moroni that I would share her works, website and contact details on my blog thus broadening her audience which is beneficial to her as a brand.
Upon reflection I feel I could have made the questions more personal to me. Like find out exactly how she got her work published, how she promoted her works and how she’s managed to get her work exhibited internationally. All of these things I’d love to achieve with my own images and still feel a bit lost how I would go about doing that. Nonetheless, I am now in contact with Moroni so I’m sure I’ll be able to pick her brain in the near future.