Sleeping While Trans
I paused at the door and took a breath before knocking. I had already mentally noted the path back to the street, and was going to take no more than one step into the apartment. If he told me that the other people who were supposed to be there had cancelled, or anything that sounded the slightest bit off, I would immediately retreat.
A week earlier I had been contacted by a photographer, a cis male, who wanted to photograph trans people. This isn’t uncommon. Over the years I’ve been approached by many photographers, all cis men (with the notable exception of my now good friend Andy Karol), who all turned out to be one of two types. They were either closeted trans themselves, or they were chasers, i.e. men who in some way fetishize trans women as sexual objects.
Khoi didn’t just want to photograph trans people, he wanted to shoot them in their sleep. Not lay there and pretend you’re out, but stay overnight, in his apartment, so he can capture an image of you when you’re truly at your most vulnerable.
They don’t make red flags this size.
Nonetheless, I agreed to dinner at his home, supposedly with a few other previous subjects. On my way over I asked on Twitter for bets: chaser, closeted or genuine? The votes were even split between the former two options, not a single person was so bold as to expect the latter.
I knocked. The door opened. And I was greeted by Eugene, Khoi’s boyfriend, a charming Russians economist. Mmm, perhaps we were all wrong. I stepped in and clearly overheard several laughing voices from the other room. On my way to the dining room I was overwhelmed by enormous portraits on every wall, many of Khoi’s family, who had barely escaped Vietnam during the war. At dinner I met Andre, a trans man with a PhD in chemical physics, who was to be photographed that night, and Gloria, a Chicago trans icon and Khoi’s first subject. Both were people of color, as were all but one of the previous participants, which put me at further ease. Khoi was neither closeted, nor a chaser. His motives were respectful and his work was beautiful. Too bad no one bet on genuine; they would have cleaned up.
We ate, talked and laughed. Eugene’s cooking was fantastic. I grilled Khoi about his background. Gloria completely owned us all with an endless supply of stories that had jaws literally dropping. I tried, with modest success, to understand Andre’s work.
Two weeks later I found myself slipping under the covers in Khoi’s guest room, directly underneath an 8×10 view camera, with no makeup and no control of how I would look when the flash went off. Some time around 2:00 a.m., via a trigger set up outside of the room, he shot the image below. It will be shown as a 6’x8’ print. Yes, you read that correct. Not 6×8 inches, but 6×8 feet.
My primary concern remains trans people as creators rather than subjects, and the real work of this site is to raise the visibility of trans people as the authors of their own narratives.
Nonetheless, Khoi’s series has value. The photographs, in their marriage of intimacy with the drama of scale, succeed in doing what art should do: they cause us to see anew. These images simultaneously reveal and celebrate, and the vulnerability of the subjects is transformed into inviolable power. For these reasons, I am a willing subject, and I encourage others in the Chicago area to consider participating.
Please read Khoi’s responses to a few of my questions below, check out more of his work at Fluxion Studios and contact him via khoi @ fluxionstudios.com if you’d like to be part of the series.
What was the genesis of this project? Why portraits of sleeping people, and why trans people specifically?
It started with my attempts at photographing my parents. Early experimentations with multiple studio lights, props and dramatic posing proved to be misguided. I realized that I was reducing them down to models or objects and they transcend that for me. I felt the most respectful way that I can photograph them seems to produce passport-like photographs. Of course there was still an element of posing, which was minimal, and I wanted to further experiment with pushing the asymptote of being un-posed. Sleeping portraits provided one solution. Fast forward seven years and coming out into the LGBT community, I revisited the idea.
Why sleep?: The state of sleep is a fascinating topic because it deals with a fundamentally hard-to-define concept of consciousness. It also provides numerous metaphorical spaces of peace, dreams, nightmares, vulnerabilities and intimacies. It is open to many forms of interpretation and leads to other narratives. Photographically, it solves the problem looking posed, takes away the control of the participants on how they want to look, and also takes away my control of how the image should be. There is a sense of chance and stochastic formation on both sides of the camera.
Why trans?: I believe that we, as an entire society, are actors on a stage having roles to play. Almost every waking moment is optimized to creating the perception that we want to exude. I believe that people in the trans community are under added stress due to their transition from their gender role/assignment at birth to their desired gender. Many times, the transformation brings an additional burden of external scrutiny and internal insecurities. The time where they are temporarily relieved of this pressure is in the transitional state of sleep. It is also the time representing their most vulnerable state. So in photographing trans people in their spectrum of unconsciousness in a passport-like style, I want to convey a sense of self acceptance. These are portrait of as-is, unadulterated, un-posed, and exposed trans people who have enough gravitas to let loose of their control and let the world view them in a very intimate setting. I think that is a powerful statement.
How did you go about finding models? What kind of responses did you get?
At first, I would meet people in the eating lounge in the Center on Halsted and discussed about my interest in photographing trans people. Most are interested until I drop the first bombshell, that it’s not a glamour shot but of people sleeping. My rejection rate was 100% during the first month or so. The first person that said yes was Gloria, because she is a champion of the arts, and as you know, she is just a very special and sweet lady. From her, I was able to get some stamp of approval and met a few more. When that line ran dead, I started asking long lost friends of friends and that turned up some other leads. I have ten right now and looking for more, I would like to have ten more.
How does the impact of portraits change at this scale? What is the intended effect?
My first exposures to large scale contemporary facial portraits are from by Chuck Close and Thomas Ruff to name a few. Aesthetically, at that size they provide an outer-worldly landscape of the face, it provides a tonal scale that is lost at small sizes. I love faces with lots of “features”, perfectly smooth skin is quite monotone in photography. Because I use a very non-dramatic passport style lighting, I try to infuse “drama” by showing a facial scale that is not normally seen, a richness of detail, and powerful presence to the viewer. Relevant to this project, the large size invites the viewers in to see the details. Because the eyes are closed, the normal engagement pattern to the viewer is delegated elsewhere usually wondering the entire face. It plays again with the concept of acceptance, the acceptance of flaws or imperfections that quite frankly makes us, us. As an example facial hair is an issue among the trans community, probably because it’s rooted in secondary sexual characteristics. Either you want to get rid of it or grow it. At this size the details will show, and again, it takes a tremendous amount of strength to let it all go.
Are you still looking for additional models? Any particular type?
Yes, I am still looking for participants. I want to represent a diverse group of trans people. I am missing Hispanics, Asians and elderly people. The customary procedure is to have dinner with the potential participant at my house with previous participant(s) and friends. Then the person with bring their comfy clothes and entertainment (ipod etc) for the sleep over. I will not be in the room, and I will take only one photograph remotely at night and a flash will go off. Hopefully the participants sleep through the night.