Representation of minority or marginalized communities are often fetishized, voyeuristic or imbued with an overall sense of otherness. Artists who identify or make work around those communities, often face a challenge of separating content from agenda as well as addressing a wide range of viewership. This challenge is extremely complex for a medium that both assumes and dismisses truth, linear narratives and a commitment to the “real.” The photograph acts as both document and stage, allowing for a whole array of visual interpretation, with the viewer often reluctantly grasping onto their preconceptions. However, today there are many photographers producing work within new codes of ownership that frees them from sentiments of marginalization bestowed by general cultural standards. And with this new freedom comes an unapologetic fluidity allowing their work to address a multitude of visual, conceptual and political ideas and creating a space for fair representation where issues of beauty and personal stories can co-exist.
Photographer Ethan James Green began photographing the kids in his Lower East Side neighborhood around 2012. Green’s photographs sit somewhere in-between the intimacy of Nan Goldin or David Armstrong (whom he assisted for several years) and the considered portraiture of Diane Arbus. His images evoke a sentiment much consistent with culture’s current mode of engagement; simultaneous intimacy and detachment. Green can attribute Instagram, the enabler of this cultural attitude, for allowing him access to his subjects and providing a platform for his images. The mostly black-and-white photographs that occupy his body of work are filled with young inhabitants of downtown Manhattan on the streets or in domestic settings. While maintaining an emotional and aesthetic vibrancy, the works are unencumbered by voyeurism, opinion or personal emotions. This is not to say that they are clinical documents but rather exist as earnest and invested and unsentimental portraits. Green’s documentation of the transgender community in New York’s downtown is engaging in its honesty and in its insouciance. His subjects are photographed often at times of physical change in their lives, however this factor is bestowed no major emphasis. Rather they address personal style, attitude and environment first and foremost.
Green moves his subjects seamlessly between his personal projects and his portrait-based fashion photography allowing the various zones of context to outplay their traditional politics and all live in the same sphere by the same rules. A recent black-and- white image shot for Candy magazine of the transgender model Hari Nef standing confidently on a sidewalk in her hometown, the background a blurry gray, resemble the same use of composition and depth of field as a portrait shot on the streets in lower Manhattan first seen on Green’s Instagram. Both subjects evoke a strong sense of self as their surroundings fade away. Green’s intrigue in his subjects, their character, beauty and style, does not remain within one context, with one definition or purpose. It would be naive to completely ignore his choice of subjects, but it would also be difficult to create a direct line between his subjects and a ideological agenda. Green’s photograph’s encourage an engagement with content and aesthetics equally.
Israeli artist Rona Yefman’s project My Brother and I started in the mid-90’s when she began photographing herself along with her younger brother Gil. Part fantasyland, part theater, the images developed over a 14-year period as Gil began the transformation to a woman and then back again to a man. The photographs exist separate from the traditional family routines they grew up in and the conflict-ridden country they are from. The images begin as playful and fantastical moments between two siblings: an image of them naked under a tree as a backyard Adam and Eve, or under a magical tent in their house, the work evolved over the years as did Gil’s transition. Yefman’s project explores the ideas of not just what happens to the individual when gender becomes questioned, but how the identification of gender affects those around them, those whose identity is directly played off of the others recognition of their own. Sister and brother, father and son; how do the familial, and specifically sibling, index shift? Yefman does not use overt emotional ploys (in fact a fantastical element remains in the images throughout and very often Gil seems an active participant in creating that fantasy). But rather she explores the idea that once gender becomes so fluid how does that affect her own? If her brother’s can be changeable, can hers? When do the rules all break down and what does that look like?
Fourteen years is a substantial time to document one relationship. However, the camera allows Yefman to be artist, documentarian, subject, actor, and in a way, scriptwriter. The photograph itself as an object so often asks us to re-examine what truth we think we know, and what truth we think we believe. In that way this journey is not about documentation but rather about the interface between fiction and fact, encouraging the viewer to make their own conclusions about the relationship. Yefman also uses film to expand the dialogue with her subjects. She continues this in her project Martha Bouke, a collaboration with an 80-year old Holocaust survivor who identifies as a woman. Through both still and moving images she creates complex narratives that neither treat gender as a binary concept nor posit gender identity as the center of the work. Not unlike My Brother and I, in which the human condition moves beyond gender; history, religion, trauma, loneliness, desire—all become part of the continually unfolding story created in Martha Bouke.
In Relationship, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the two artists simultaneously photographed their romantic relationship as well as Drucker’s transition from male to female and Ernst’s from female to male. The 46 images are part diary, part documentary, part performance. The images engage many mundane moments laden with intimacy and often during times of each artist’s transition. When looking at this body of work, it is almost hard to distinguish one moment or one photograph from another. To speak about it without considering the whole would be to ignore the reality that every image is tied to each other, not unlike the artists who created it. In this respect, the work can be extremely reflexive, challenging us to consider if they register as transgender images only in the context of someone’s cisgender. Like the work of Green and Yefman, if issues of gender identity are secondary, or at least equal with the other visual and narrative elements in play, one must question the importance of the production of such images. Is it the artist’s responsibility to bring attention to subjects not easily discussed, or rather, can they exist as simply a reflection of our current world without any explicit commentary?
Photographer, writer and performance artist Amos Mac is addressing the issues of gender identity over several different platforms. He has done collaborative projects with both Zackary Drucker and artist, poet and DJ Juliana Huxtable. He is also the editor of the transgender magazine Original Plumbing, and contributes to The New York Times Magazine, BUTT Magazine and Dazed and Confused. He recently shot the the Spring/Summer 2016 advertising campaign for the H&M-affiliated Swedish brand & Other Stories with a transgender cast. While the fashion world has begun a dialogue of inclusivity with the transgender community as Barneys, Givenchy, Alexis Bittar, Kenneth Cole and Selfridges, among others, have all featured transgender models in their campaigns, high fashion is not representative of a general cultural sentiment. However, Mac’s work, whose more animated and punchy color portraits feel less detached and more of an aggressive confrontation between subject and viewer with the photographer as the medium. Much like the other artists discussed here, collaboration with subject is an important part of the production of Mac’s work. Many of the portraits aim to reveal what it means to be transgender in the present, but it also allows a platform for conversations about other personal histories, desires and emotions. Mac’s subjects confront the viewer and engage with the camera directly. Often, despite their posture, dress and abrasive color palettes, the images are hypnotic, and discourage us to look away. However, Mac’s images don’t put his subjects on display for the viewer to decipher. Rather he provides a deliberate stage for his subjects to exist within. Often he includes text or quotes from those he photographs to further provide context to these stories; there is no confusion in Mac’s images that the power lies with those he photographed, and that they exist unchallenged.
The photographic image is laden with the gift and burden of representation. It at once bears responsibility while simultaneously absolving itself from veracity. But even though we know that, and are constantly negotiating where truth lies within the photographic, we inherently give it a responsibility to both represent and reflect. This is an issue with which the photographer has to contend, compounded by a medium that still has to both redeem and reconsider what it means in the midst of issues surrounding truth, representation, authenticity, spectatorship as well as technical changes in a society that is simultaneously doing the same thing.
Issues of gender identity have a long history with the photographic. From photographer’s turning the camera onto themselves in the case of Claude Cahun, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol, to those looking outward in the case of Catherine Opie or Zanele Muholi, it is not a new subject. But what makes these practices and projects interesting and worth consideration at this moment is the attitude with which they are born and carry with throughout—an attitude that does not differentiate agenda from aesthetic production, subject from personal life and various communities from quotidian conversation. And if that sentiment can be supported by those in power to show and produce such bodies of work, then we can begin to shape new attitudes in our collective visual language.