My interest in photographing these portraits was decided after years of social and friendly encounters with several queer, androgynous and trans-feminine people – born male – who dressed up regularly with makeup, styled or artificial hair or accessories, embracing and/or amplifying a preferred idea of femininity and an identity. I don’t have a word to express what I felt, but ‘Awestruck’ comes closest.
Not all trans-feminine, androgynous or queer men style up, but for those who do, I have wondered about their ideas to amplify the femininity that they identify with and enjoy so thoroughly. Why, indeed, do I as a cis-gender female enjoy the same? My embellishments are not perceived as unexpected, or strange by society – if at all, they are celebrated, complimented and even encouraged. Women have always dressed up to heighten – attractiveness, the appearance of health, youth, sexuality, fertility, receptivity, and in the past century – individuality and freedom.
Dressing up in feminine attire, and being androgynous, and trans-feminine however, are three different things. Some dress up to put on an identity, some to share an identity and the some to shed one off. But the medium for all in this series is the same – makeup and accessories. While I might for simple understanding even categorise them, each person in this series terms themselves differently. They simply revel in their ideas of self-beauty and being themselves. This is not to say that I believe people need to wear makeup or dress up to be who they are, but this project explores the people who do identify with it.
These are interesting times, with worldwide discussions and debates on gender and struggles to claim different identities and choices. Anyone working in the arena of gender will tell us that understanding all aspects of gender is complicated because our conditioning since centuries is to acknowledge only the binary (man/woman). The range of gender identities and expressions, on the other hand, seem infinite, and the tendency in many of our worlds is to avoid and look through these identities, instead of welcoming them with an embracing eye.
Expressions of gender other than binary are immediately cast as odd or weird, but the expectation that the act of beautification lies only in the domain of natural born women is to me, extremely conservative, unequal and reductive.
Since I do not share the struggles and choices of communities with different gender and sexualities, their lives increases much wonder, and fortunately, it is one of my greatest motivations – to celebrate the unfamiliar and make it familiar. I am an ally of the LGBTQ community and as a first and consistent thought, I have seen all people in this series as beautiful and breathtaking in their uniqueness – celebrating their versions of themselves to the hilt. They transform their faces with the ideals of how they view themselves and don’t try to live up to standards of beauty. Their bodies may or may not match up (most cis-gender women are never satisfied with theirs) but the faces are always easier to transform. The more they appear to embody that ideal, the more confident and free they feel. One can almost smell their joy. Having said that, while beauty can be a big deal for all women, ideas of feminine beauty for the androgynous, queer or trans-feminines can be a matter of life-or-death. There are moments when they can be placed in danger for not passing as a woman convincingly enough.
In this series, each person has dressed himself / herself as they have wished to – at times with help of their peers and friends. Framing the face, the most consistent parts of their bodies, the confronting eyes, the expressions, I have reveled in theatre of their identities, and attempted to celebrate my queries and answers visually. These pictures reveal to me the beautiful versions they know themselves to be at that moment and as a face that holds all their truths and histories. In my experience as a portrait photographer, I cannot assume that a best-looking version of a person is the most truthful, but it is one of the many truths to who they are. I am convinced it is one of the great powers they have gifted us all – to live and celebrate our authentic selves.