For my final project I wanted to photograph individuals with alternative gender identities to highlight the fluidity of gender, raise more awareness of this social minority and show that true beauty is within the diverse. I wanted my images break the “norms”; address the “taboo”, challenge society, push boundaries and make social minorities voices heard but what’s more-seen. I wanted to find individuals whose identities reflect the broad spectrum of gender identity, to prove that there is far more to gender than just male and female, masculine and feminine.
Trans* individuals and those with other alternative gender identities remain to be an under-represented, marginalised and stigmatised section of society. However, by showing the public that gender is in fact nuanced and exists in multiple forms within any given person, not just those with alternative identities, perceptions of this minority will hopefully change. I want to show that these individuals are strong, empowered and beautiful, not vulnerable, excessive or strange. These individuals deserve to be seen and celebrated for their diversity.
I found my subjects through word of mouth, friends of friends and Facebook. I used my social media, networking and communication skills which have improved immensely through this process. I put out a statement on Facebook encouraging people who feel they have an alternative gender identity or feel they break away from the usually rigid gender binary to contact me and to model for the project. Below is the statement I posted and continued to share whilst searching for participants:
“Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a hugely rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble)
Gender is nuanced and exists in multiple forms within any given person. I propose to create simple studio portraits that contest the rigid gender binary and reinforce the idea that gender can be malleable. I will explore gender in its capacity to be reduced to individual components: a gesture, a hairstyle or flick of mascara, each element building to the complete performance.
If you are an individual who contests to the binary nature of gender and are interested in participating in this project to help re-define what beauty and gender really is please get into contact with me. I aim to provoke thought and invite the audience to question the identity before them. These images will introduce ambiguity, the status of masculine and feminine becoming an enigma and help change social perceptions of those with unique gender identities.
Requirements: Be yourself!
Wear whatever accessories or jewellery you like. Bring/wear a white t-shirt/top and underwear (for those who are comfortable to get down to their undies anyway!) If you are a drag artists bring you’re alter ego!
Where: 14 Lichfield St, Wolverhampton, West Midlands WV1 1DG
Shooting will take place at Dark Lens studio in Wolverhampton. This will be every Tuesday and Wednesday from 2pm onwards although these times can change to fit your schedule and to fit around Dark Lens bookings. I can give all the images unedited to you for you to keep if you would like them. I will edit a select few and will share them with you before they go anywhere! I will also give you final edited images (5 images)
These images will be exhibited at Lanchester Gallery in Coventry from 30th May-5th June as a part of my final degree show. Again you will have input on what images are used and not used.
Check out my blog of all my research so far and my photography pages:
This statement helped fuel a lot of interest in my project and was an easy and efficient way to encourage people to participate in the project. Once I had found my subjects I continually communicated with them, discussed ideas and met them in person before the shooting actually took place. Gender is a sensitive subject and being photographed for any person is a highly vulnerable experience. This was at the forefront of my mind at all times. My subjects comfort levels and opinions were of utmost importance to me. I wanted to make sure they felt comfortable with me to ensure I could capture them in their natural state. I wanted to capture their individuality in a dignified and quiet way.
Shooting has taken place over the last few months at Dark Lens studio based in Wolverhampton. Influenced by Ryan McGinley, Bettina Von Zwehl and Bettina Rheims I used a very simple studio set up, two soft boxes, one digital camera and a grey backdrop.
During the shooting process I had my subjects play music, mess about, take my picture and chill out with their friends. I did this so my subjects became relaxed which worked a treat when it came to getting the shots! Below are some behind the scenes pictures which I shared on Facebook also:
In terms of the visual aesthetics of the images I decided to use a grey back drop to reflect the notion of gender being grey as opposed to black and white as society expects and craves. Gender is not fixed, rather free-floating, which the colour grey denotes. It also reflects Kinsey’s grey scale of sexuality which was developed by Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues Wardell Pomeroy and Clyde Martin in 1948, in order to account for research findings that showed people did not fit into neat and exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories. Kinsey put forward the notion through his scale of sexuality that sex can be grey: not entirely homosexual or heterosexual and I feel this can also be said for gender identity. There exists so much more than male and female, masculine and feminine, as my research and images evoke.
I will now run through the visual decisions I made with my subjects for the portraits I created. The decisions have been influenced by all of the research and photographers I’ve mentioned in this module. Some visual concepts I maintained with all my subjects were such as looking off or away from the camera. I felt this empowered my subjects, as if their ambiguity was not a big deal to them so why should it be a big deal to the viewer?
Images from Yves Saint Laurent Spring Summer 2014 menswear collection were most inspirational with my shoot of Libs. The man for Yves Saint Laurent SS14 collection was youthful at heart. He donned red lips, sequinned or velvet jackets with thin black bow ties. The collection was all about glam rock and ambiguity. This style I re-created with Libs who performs as a man professionally, often channelling the styles and acts of fellow glam rock icon David Bowie. She adored the final images and will use them for her portfolio. Whilst ambiguity and gentleness were initially key to my project and these images move away from that as they are somewhat more “draggy” I still really liked them. Libs represents drag kings, female transvestism and the “performative” nature of gender, so was a key person I felt to include in my final project.
Drag artists highlight the constructedness and performative nature of gender: reinforcing that everything: acts, gestures, looks, styles and behaviours really are a parody. There is no “ideal”. There is no “core” gender for the sexes. Thus, everything becomes an imitation and Butler’s gender performativity theory is-or should-be deemed the real normality. These images feature a drag queen who clearly is a male dressed as a woman. It was a great experience and Bash is an electrifying character. He came to the studio in full blown drag wearing a corset, full face of make-up, wig and hells. His entire appearance reflected my research on femininity being a construction, artificial parts which can be taken on by anyone. Whilst the shooting process was a lot of fun and Bash reflects the extravagant drag queens out there, I decided not to include them in my final series/display at the exhibition. I felt they were too brash and aggressive compared to the other portraits I was creating and wanted my project to be more ambiguous where as these images are a lot more outlandish. Nonetheless, I do want to continue shooting those with more extravagant appearance such as glam drag queens as they do add a hint of sparkle to the immense gender spectrum.
This notion of naked and hidden, dress and undress may be why Bettina Rheims’ series entitled; “Gender Studies” is so intriguing and successful as a series exploring gender identity. It reinforces that element of mystic and ambiguity through the use of transparent and fleshy fabrics draped across her subjects. Rheims’ cleverly reveals certain body parts whilst hiding others, forcing the viewer to question what is feminine and masculine within the image. An outfit from Prada’s second line, Miu Miu, of spring summer 1997, also used transparent clothing to create ambiguity and blur gender lines. The outfits consisted of layers of transparent white cloth that both revealed and hid the body, hinting at innocence and artlessness on their childish vest and gym knickers shaping. The silhouette was blurred, femininity made hazy.
Upon sharing these images with my subjects, they were happy to emulate these styles due to the ambiguity they create. And so I had the majority of my subjects dress in white vest tops Lez being one of them. Vest tops are somewhat androgynous, unisex almost, further reinforcing and evoking gender as ambiguous and fluid. For this shoot I focused on Lez’s eyes and facial features similarly to the works of Claudia Moroni. The eyes capture the very essence of a person and Lez was more than comfortable for me to get up close and personal.
Again I had my subject dress in a tight white t-shirt, evoking ambiguity and creating a conflict between hidden and seen. I photographed him wearing subtle make-up and blonde wig, echoing images from Sofia Coppala’s Virgin Suicides and other stereotypical images of femininity in mainstream media. Shimmering golden locks seem to exercise a peculiar fascination and strong link to “ideal” feminine beauty. I’m sure we’ve all heard of the term “blondes have more fun” and we’re all aware of the iconic images of screen siren Marilyn Monroe. Fashion and beauty industries are also obsessed with youthfulness. And blonde hair is often associated with youth and beauty. And so for my shoot with Nath we agreed to shoot him a blond clearly artificially wig to reinforce both the artificiality of femininity and blonde hair being commonly taking as youthful and beautiful. I also wanted to reveal Nath’s actual sex, showing his capacity to adopt both feminine and masculine genders. And I shot him albeit the wig to reflect this.
Ambiguity was a key element in this shoot of Roxie and she was an absolute dream to photograph. As Roxie is a very fashion conscious individual, dreaming of one day becoming a mainstream supermodel, I allowed her to wear whatever clothing she wanted which she felt most beautiful in. I shared my research on fashion and gender and she particularly like the garments produced by Dolce & Gabbana in the 1980’s and 1990’s those Sicilian black dresses, which accentuated the female form, with softly corseted décolletage and visible underwear detailing. Dolce & Gabbana had been heavily influenced by the images of 1950’s Hollywood screen sirens and Roxie adored such images. And so I photographed Roxie wearing figure hugging black clothing, hiding and revealing her shape. Roxie also has piercings and tattoos which add to her overall image perhaps being “taboo”. They express her individuality and uniqueness.
Again I shot Rocky in a white T-shirt, a garment which is arguably unisex, thus blurring gender lines. Rocky was quite shy in front of the camera but that awkwardness which exudes from the images I feel is highly intriguing and adds further ambiguity. Rocky wore simple make-up, earrings and posed in feminine gestures. These images were simple and straightforward just as Rocky wanted.
For Anya she wanted to appear quite rocky and grungy so I referred back to my research on the Glam rock era and she brought with her, her own unique style. Heavily influenced by Bettina Von Zwehls portraits of people in profile, throughout the shoot I continued to photograph Anya from the side, which she too thought looked really effective. I prefer the ones of her looking away again because it reinforces ambiguity but they one I’ve featured above evidences how comfortable Anya is in her identity. Anya was a breeze and we got the shots almost instantly. I shot her in both white clothing and black to make her pop from the grey back drop as well as mocking the idea that gender is fixed or black and white.
With Jamie we wanted to channel Bowie and androgyny which I feel we achieved. Androgyny is all about combining both femininity and masculinity, creating truly mesmerizing and intriguing looks. To begin I shot Jamie topless with a full face of make-up. As the shoot continued we began to add more and more feminine items, the sorts of items usually associated with traditional femininity and often employed by drag queens. We added wigs, jewellery, bras, heels and a dress. However, it was the first initial images of Jamie that proved to be the most poignant. They were more subtle and soft, reinforcing that gender blurring isn’t a big deal but rather beautiful.
Overall, the shooting and creative process behind these images were most definitely considered and collaborative. I’ve referred back to all of the photographers, artists and images I’ve been researching over the past few months to change, re-define and renew my interest in the images I was producing. I wanted to create a series of portraits that highlight the fluidity of gender but what’s more the beauty, strength and dignity of those who aren’t afraid to break away from social “norms”. This is who they are and this is how they should be seen. In post production I de-saturated the colours and retouched the subjects skin. I changed the colours to resemble the works of the photographers I had been deeply inspired by including Bettina Von Zwehl and Bettina Rheims. Below are the final images for each of my “Gender Benders”