Laurence Philomène on the Beauty of Everyday Trans Existence – Sarah Hollyer-Carney
DECEMBER 3, 2019
Montreal-based photographer, director, and curator Laurence Philomène creates a warm and colourful world in their work. Their photographic practice serves as a vivid and beautiful visual archive of trans people’s lives, bodies, and self-expressions. They explore non-binary identities in particular, and portray the joy and humanity in trans people’s lives that are so rarely depicted in popular media. Through their intimate self-portraits and striking depictions of friends, Philomène shows the vibrancy and diversity of trans experience, pushing back against a narrow and homogenous landscape of mainstream trans representation.
Philomène’s work draws upon the aesthetics and emotional tenor of the late 2000s and early 2010s Tumblr art community, where they created works alongside a new generation of queer and feminist artists. Their distinctive style features vivid pastel colours, minimalist compositions and warm intimacy, and highlights the beauty and humanity in a diverse range of genders and self-expressions. In addition to their artistic practice, Philomène offers photoshoots for low-income trans people, extending access to self-representation to those who are often denied it.
Their new series Puberty is an ongoing photographic project documenting the mundane, everyday activities that make up the lived experiences of transition and trans existence. It began in January 2019, and was originally meant to be completed over the course of a year –– Philomène now intends to extend it for another year, and eventually publish a curated photobook. The series documents the gradual process of physical change in hormone replacement therapy, practices of self care, and the kinds of minute details of transition and trans experience which are seldom represented. Philomène finds beauty in the ordinary by intimately depicting scenes of themselves taking a testosterone shot, eating food, lying in bed, or taking a bath. They humanize and demystify the experience of transition, and invite the viewer into an understanding of what trans lives look like outside of the spotlight.
Philomène spoke to contributor Sarah Hollyer-Carney about authenticity, activism, and the process of documenting the everyday moments of trans experience.
Sarah Hollyer-Carney (SHC): How did the project come about?
Laurence Philomène (LP): I started taking testosterone in April 2018, and I’ve been a photographer for over 10 years now. A big part of my practice is self-portraiture, so when I started testosterone, I always had [this idea] in the back of my mind that it was something I wanted to document, but I wasn’t sure how. Then, around December 2018, I became really burned out, and I kind of forced myself to take a sabbatical. During that period, I realized I had basically forgotten how to take care of myself –– just basic things like taking a shower every day, making food for myself, stretching, journaling, and meditating. So, I was just trying to do all these things that are good for you. It took a few weeks to do that, and then I started to get bored. But I was also seeing a lot of beauty in this “living slow” thing I was going through. Around January 2019, I gave myself the challenge to take a photo every day, just to keep my artistic skills sharp, and it came naturally to me to photograph these acts of self-care every day because they felt meaningful to me. After a few weeks of doing these self-portraits, I realized this was also a really interesting way to document my transition that I hadn’t seen before. So the project combines this idea of looking at a state of burnout, at the practice of self-care, and also witnessing the everyday moments in a transition, and humanizing the experience of being a trans person, and just being a human, really, in the 21st century.
SHC: What is the significance of this kind of documentary, everyday approach?
LP: A lot of photography projects that I see about trans people, and about transitioning specifically, only show one side of the experience, when you’re “done” transitioning. Which to me is a false concept, because no one is ever really done becoming themselves. A lot of my work around non-binary identities came about when there started to be an increase in trans representation in the media. Specifically, a lot of the representations I was seeing were very much based on a binary idea, where this person changed from one gender to another, with these big celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox on the cover of magazines, and associating transition with surgery and “passing” as a gender. All of these things are important and are a big part of trans identity, but they’re also not completely representative of myself and other trans people who don’t fit within the binary. My idea was to show that transition is not an overnight process — I can’t even see the change, I have to look back to begin to really see it. My initial idea was to do the project for a year, but now I’m applying for grants to continue for a second year. I feel like it’s a really interesting project, but I don’t think you really see that much change in a year.
SHC: How do you see your work as speaking to other trans people?
LP: I think the dialogue is happening very differently with trans people than it is with cis people. I think with other trans people, a lot of the feedback I’ve been getting is “oh, I relate to this,” especially with the photo of me doing my testosterone shot on my bed. That was something that I really wanted to humanize, because I think a lot of people don’t really understand what goes on with that. [My mom] was like “I thought you had to do the shot every day!” (laughs). So that’s been interesting. But I think it hasn’t only been relatable for trans people, because I’m showing these very mundane moments that we all go through, like eating, taking a bath, scrolling through my phone. These things are relatable for cis people as well, which I wasn’t intending on, but I’m starting to realize as I’ve developed the project that that’s an important part of it for me. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and we all go through similar experiences, and we all grow in different ways.
SHC: What would you say your relationship is with activism, and with the task of representing trans people externally to a cis public?
LP: I think I’ve taken on the role of activist willingly, from a pretty early age. Before I was making queer art I was making feminist art, and it’s always been important to me to have some sort of message in my work. I also think that when a marginalized person does identity work, it is going to be an activist practice whether you want it to be or not, so you might as well just embrace it and use that. That’s where my work is at these days. It’s kind of twofold — with my art practice, I think it is activism to really humanize trans existence, and help people of all genders see the beauty in each other and in themselves. And then with my private practice, a lot of the work that I do is offering photo sessions to low-income trans folks and helping people feel beautiful. I guess that’s a different form of activism that I do.
SHC: How do you deal with the question of what authentic representation looks like? I know that a lot of your work is highly staged. How do you perceive the relationship between staging and authenticity?
LP: I think that’s kind of the Big Question of my life (laughs). The thing with photography is that it really plays with that line of real and not real, and that’s something that I like to explore in different ways. With this project, specifically, I’m trying to use as little staging as I can. Obviously, when you know you’re being photographed, it becomes a staged moment. But it depends, too. There are multiple kinds of images in the project, and some are more obviously staged than others, like the reclining nude or a studio portrait. But the ones that are daily scenes, I do really just go about my day, and as I’m doing something, I think: “ok, this is the moment I want to document today,” and set up the tripod. I’ll click the remote a bunch of times until I kind of forget it’s there, and I’ll try to just recreate the exact pose that I was doing before I started taking pictures. So it is staged — it’s a staged reconstruction of a reality that happened two seconds ago, but I think it’s as un-staged as a self-portrait can be.
SHC: How has the project evolved over time? Where do you want to go with it in the next year?
LP: When I first started, it was just experimental, and kind of steering away from a lot of the work that I’d been doing, which was very studio-based, portrait based, and a lot more minimalist. So with this [project], I was playing with the different territory of just photographing a space, or myself, or whatever, really “as it is”— with a lot more elements, and with less control over the colours because you have to work with what’s already there. At first I was just playing with it, doing it for myself and posting it on my personal instagram — my finsta (laughs). I was posting every day. I started getting positive feedback from friends who were looking at it. This was just a fun exercise, but people were interested. So I posted these photos on my public instagram, to see what the response would be there, and it was really positive. That’s how I started to think: this can have an impact, people are really reacting strongly to it. So from there on it became more intentional, and then I think throughout this year, I’ve been looking at the different themes that come up naturally through it and repeating them, and just witnessing that repetition.
I’m not sure [about next year]. I just started thinking about it. It was going to be a year-long project, but now I feel like it needs to be longer, and a bigger slice of time in my transition. I think I want to keep looking at the element of repetition. Originally I was going to post every single image, but in the end I wanted it to be a more curated body of work, a selection from all the images. I’ve also been enjoying showing it both ways: as a small curated collection, which I’m hoping I’ll publish in book-form when the project is done. Then when I exhibit it, I do a slideshow with every single image in chronological order. Something I’m trying to incorporate more into the project now is not only doing pictures of myself. Some days it’ll be a still-life, some days it’ll be a picture of what I see from my window, things like that. I think that helps, to see the passage of time, like the seasons changing. That’s something I want to incorporate in it as well: that it’s not just me that’s changing, that everything is always in flux.
SHC: Were there any specific influences you were drawing on in this project?
LP: I grew up in my early teens using the website Flickr, around 2007, 2008 to 2010. When I was on Flickr, I felt like there was a community of other young photographers who were doing similar work, using photography as a tool for self-exploration. A lot of self-portraits, pictures of your friends, and there was a big trend of doing what we would call a 365, which was one picture every day for a year. It was really common, and you would try it and you would just give up after a week because it was too hard. So my idea was to bring that concept back, but instead of putting pressure on myself to make a great piece of art every day, because you can’t do that, I’d just photograph and not put pressure on myself for it to be a masterpiece. Just photographing whatever was there, and seeing the beauty in that.
SHC: Did it have anything to do with social media, and the way we document our lives?
LP: Yes, definitely. A big part of it for me was this idea that I’m a content creator, and I have to constantly churn out content. At the very beginning it wasn’t about my transition, it was saying: I’m going to give you content, but it’s going to be really mundane shit. It’s going to be brushing my teeth, and eating ramen, and literally just what we’re actually doing, instead of showing off a picture of us on the beach. So that was a part of it at first, was playing with this idea of constant content creation, and what social media is doing to art. And I feel like I was doing it as kind of a joke at first, but then people really liked it.
SHC: I also wanted to ask you about your other new series, Huldufolk. I think it’s similar to Puberty in that they’re both about naturalizing transness in different ways. Do you see those as related processes?
LP: Definitely. A friend of mine moved to Iceland for this residency, and I thought it was an amazing opportunity. I knew I wanted to continue doing self-portraits while I was there, and she told me about this legend of the Huldufolk, which was about hidden people and elves that are invisible, that just exist in the landscape. And so from there, I kind of played with that idea of a trans body as something that is, at times, visible, but also invisible— no trans body looks the same, and there’s not one thing that a trans body looks like. A lot of the dialogue that was happening was about trans identity as created and fake, and all of this stuff, and I wanted to push back on that and say: no, this is a natural body, coexisting with nature. I feel like I haven’t seen a lot of pictures of things like that.
SHC: How do you feel about this question of the natural versus the artificial in how we understand the trans body?
LP: I think it just goes to show that there’s not just one way to experience transness. For some people, it is about changing your body, and for others it’s about accepting it as it is. I feel like my work specifically has been about stripping away the artifice and saying that, at the end of the day, even if I’m not passing as either gender, I’m still just a human being. I experience all of these things just like everyone else.
Puberty is currently on display alongside Huldufolk at La Cenne until January 24th. You can see both full series at laurencephilomene.com, and you can follow them on Instagram @laurencephilomene.
Featured image is Paint Me Like One of Your Pre-Raphaelite Boy-Girls, February 2019 from Puberty, Laurence Philomène (2019)