My final project at university is a development from all the work that I have been doing since last August in response to transgender issues. I have been working with Jennifer since last May, and photographing for this module since last August; when I became involved in Miss Transgender UK. In the ‘What is real’ module, I documented the thoughts and feelings of my friend Jennifer as she started her transition, living as a transgender woman.
The ‘What is real’ module along with the research of my dissertation, which explores the social constructs of gender, is really influencing the focus of my photography work.
In this module, I want to take it further then the typical documentation of a transition, I want to research and explore aspects of identity and the connection of gender to our ideas of selves.
To create photography is to be a viewer, to watch and observe. The gaze is something I am very interested in. How people see you and you see yourself shapes and defines your identity. This was something that became very obvious whilst submerged in the beauty pageant world for a few weeks, the gaze – the awareness of the gaze/ the consciousness of looking and being looked at.
For this, I have grown further fascinated in the role of the portrait and it’s role within contextualising and communicating an idea. Below, John Berger writes about the concept of the surveyed and the surveyor and how identity responds to this (in regards to being a woman).
John Berger, Ways of seeing, find pages.
For this project, as said, I have already photographed beauty pageants – which gave me a great array of portraits, and a great body of work that gave insight into that world. The next step is to visit a collection of people, to photograph them in their homes. To understand people as individuals. I accept performance is always occurring, we are always creating an image of ourselves to our loved ones, families, colleagues, even ourselves but I want to try and strip away from that as much as possible – to question this performance and how it relates to our own feeling of self.
Finally, I want to explore into other ways of using the visual to communicate an idea – looking at other mediums / video / installations possibly. This is why I want to incorporate text into my photographs much like I did for pages in the book about Jennifer.
Practically the risk needing to be assessed for this module will be visiting people in their homes – possible strangers etc and what this entails, including transport etc.The cost of this module will be in travel and the production of the final outcome.
I would also like to include here, the conclusion from my dissertation, as it acted as a huge vessel of research for my practical work –
This essay was concerned with the influence of western culture on gender roles – focusing on the use of photography. This essay acts as research for my own photographic practices, which is concerned with the role of photography in questioning the gender norms of today. I wanted to delve further into the topic of gender and directly ask questions that concern my own practice. I have been developing a body of work on transgender women. Initially I was photographing transgender women in Britain’s first ever transgender Beauty Pageant. The hyper feminine behaviour and performance that took place in these events was clearly evident. These individuals were attempting to conform to a feminine ideal that had been shaped by a patriarchal system. I questioned by documenting these individuals trying to inflate themselves like cartoon women, was I as a photographer reinforcing the unreal hyper gender norms we see in imagery all around us? Or was I shedding light on the issue of unobtainable gender ideals. This is why I decided to research other photographers that had focused on gender issues and of imagery shaped and reacting to a hegemonic masculinised discourse. I decided to take my work further, by going to individual’s homes and shooting portraits in their own environment (combined with interviews). I want to question and break down the masquerade that transgender women and men use in the outer world whilst also highlighting and acknowledging the joy and importance of having control over one’s identity and gender. It was important to acknowledge that the approval and confirmation these transgender individuals craved was the result of a society that did not accept gender as a fluid part of identity. This is why I wanted to read upon the subject of gender ideals.
This essay therefore was concerned with the narrowed interpretations of gender which has been influenced by previous social constructs. As chapter one highlighted, the freudian theories of the twentieth century has portrayed gender as a fixed state of being. But importantly, the positions of the masculine and the feminine, gave the masculine the power, the position of being. This hegemonic ideology that has dominated our world, has largely controlled individuals behaviour and created marginalised groups.
Whilst revising this issue in Chapter one, I also wanted to highlight what contemporary photographers are doing to address this masculinised discourse.
Fig. 17, Jessie Edwards-Thomas, She Watches Herself, 2015, Source: http://bit.ly/1KyUsqG
The phallocentric view has created a masculinised discourse that has allowed hegemonic ideologies to be upheld in a patriarchal system over the past century. The perpetuation of discourse that casts transgender people into the shadows of the gender categories, causes an abundance of social problems for these marginalised people; and psychoanalytical theories over the century have played a heavy factor in the shaping of gender representation. Chapter one illustrated how our perceptions of gender are influenced by the discourse of the polarized view of the masculine and feminine. My findings in Chapter two illuminated the progression of thought towards gender – photographers like Kelli Connell are creating work for viewers to respond and question their own set of beliefs towards gender through such work practices of duality and playing on ideas of inner self and external performance. Studying Connell and Burke’s series brought attention to the fact that I as an individual of society have my own views on current gender constructs and my own aspirations for what I would like to see in the future. By studying gender in photography at an academic level and researching the historic and contemporary photographers and theorists, I wish to achieve a body of work that is unbiased and informal.
It is important for photographer’s like Connell and Burke to create a space at the forefront of society, the photography aiding society to question the power of stereotypes and thus change perceptions.
Fig. 18, Jessie Edwards-Thomas, Collection of Transgender portraits, 2015 – 2016, Source: Personal Archive
Connell and Burke’s interaction as photographers with gender associated work are examples of the progressive engagement of culture. Emphasising the development and shift of gender attitudes over the past century from the time of Freud’s psychoanalytical interpretations.
Burke’s self-portraiture work gives honest and open accounts of being a man trying to adhere to the social constructs of masculinity which leave little room for accepting the traits of humanity which are not associated with being ‘male’.
The reception to such work as Hetherington illustrates the need for this honest and nuanced photography that recognises the complexities of being male, and beyond that, being human. Hetherington poses questions upon male behavior and expectations in the masculinised iconic world of war correspondence; and the consequences of these expectations.
Fig. 19, Jessie Edwards-Thomas, Jennifer Smoking, 2015, Source: Photobook, Jennifer
The aim of this essay and the future of my photography is to help recognise society as multi-gender and using photography to infiltrate the highly controlled and manipulated images of gender, particularly in the media (which is shifting in current times). Butler (2007) discussed how despite awareness on the matter of, the saturation of images still heavily influencing individuals ideals; from advertisements selling us cigarettes, perfume and clothes to how men and women should appear and behave in a society for example, in terms of their job roles. I want my work to pose questions about private choices in public spaces.
There is a circle perpetuating the stereotypes of gender created in a phallocentric view, but photography can also be used to react and question against the norm. It is important to evaluate contemporary views on gender, and to acknowledge the masculine and feminine positions as natural developments from biology but not to be used as justification to create oppressing rules.
The research and study in this essay has made me aware of the masquerade of gender linguistics which become the stereotypes and gender norms society indeed takes as such rules.
I want to draw attention to the relevance of gender roles in photography today in creating an equal society. By discussing self-portraiture, commodity imagery and documentary photography, this essay has explored other ways of seeing that are breaking down hegemonic ideologies. Indeed, photography will never present a fulfilled answer, but it’s role is to present the questions.