For the Look13 exhibition I have decided to collaborate with a friend Frazer on producing work around transvestism, and he is the focus. While many photographers have documented transvestites in fairly extrovert ways, as I have spent time talking with F., another picture emerges. Living in a small town, it’s not about being seen, but more about ‘blending in,’ as he puts it.
Much has been written about the notion of performance of gender, and I have been documenting through photographs and interviews some of what goes into that process of performance. The work so far consists of a range of images taken on my i-phone during a Skype interviews with him, in particular the ones where we have talked through a set of images of him in his favourite dresses and poses that I took at a local studio, looking at the ones he likes, and the ones he doesn’t.
Another set of images records where F lives, his room and possessions, as well as the processes he undergoes in preparing himself to dress.
Ervin Goffman writes about the ‘front’ and the ‘back’ of gender performance – the public and private aspects of it. My work has focussed more on the private aspects of Frazer’s gender performance: the attention to appearance, deportment and even emotions such that he displays a competence that feeds into the social contexts of prevailing understandings of what it is to be feminine. Can we be free of surveillance of self or by others?
We spent a day in Bristol together last week and I noticed that F was alert to ‘doing gender’ in public. It demands a level of competence and can run the risk of negative assessment (of ‘being read’), being called into account or even disciplined’. For him, this negative assessment can mean being verbally abused or even beaten up. He received one comment from a passer-by and it was great that it didn’t dominate the afternoon. We wandered round the shops and streets and drank lots of coffee.
At the moment, I’m collating all the interviews, ideas and photographs in workbooks and, for myself, I’m also going through a process of ‘competence’ and ‘self surveillance’, selecting, analysing, editing and writing in making the work. Some of it has the feel of a typology and I’m looking to how I might develop that. Frazer and I are talking about it regularly among lots of other things… and I notice a big shift in him and his life over the last few months. He’s now writing and playing his music regularly, which he loves and has some gigs set up, he’s out playing the dating game and moving to a new place to live which is great. He is the one he’s been waiting for!