Social researcher and visual storyteller Zara Julius brings you SOFT, a photo series created in collaboration with artist and activist Joshua Allen and gender non-conforming artist Alok Vaid-Menon.
What does it mean for those of us who live at the intersections of vulnerability and isolation to choose to be soft? Often, when transfeminine people are vulnerable we are punished for it. We are shunned and abused by our families. Harassed most on the streets when we dare be honest in our expression. Cast away or killed by intimate partners. We are ignored and erased when we do not wear makeup or long hair. We constantly have to negotiate the tension between femme and fear, vulnerability, and violence.
In this photo series we include our Black & brown / gender non-conforming/transfeminine experiences into this conversation. We challenge ourselves to embrace vulnerability on our own terms and in the process, imagining ways of being and relating to one another rooted in softness, earnesty, and queer companionship.
Alok Vaid-Menon: I always make the mistake of assuming that writing honestly is the same thing as living it. Then, I listen to the tinge of my voice in a recording, I look at a photo of myself, and I, there is no language that can substitute for this: this body, this hairy body, this hairy femme body.
When the camera is poised, the stakes are high. We carry the burden of representation: knowing that they will look at this photo say, "See! People like this exist! Gender is a construct!" As if all we are is an artefact to prove theories written to explain us never nourish us. They will dissect us say: "This is where man ends, this is where the woman begins," they will evaluate us by criteria that we never consented to: "hair is masculine, lipstick is feminine." This is why I rarely take photos without clothes. I am afraid of the tropes: "fabulous tranny disrobes and reveals...a man underneath!" But something about that early morning light, Josh's elegance made me just do it. I took off my shirt and for a couple of hours there was synchrony: my hairy body and my femininity, my nudity and me.
When I held Josh's hand -- not looking particularly fabulous, not wearing heels, not too concerned with my appearance at all -- I felt less defined by my absence and more by my presence. Why should I have to change what I look like for you to see me for who I already am? We are nonbinary not because we are transgressing gender, but because we are outside of gender, to begin with.
Joshua Allen: Existing in a Black, queer body can sometimes feel like a scary movie, with another horror scene always lurking right around the corner. It doesn't matter where you are, the scene could start any time -- walking out the door, entering a classroom, passing a police car. For a lifetime I have carried the weight of an actor, screaming and running from scene to scene, trying to escape the inevitability of violence. This made me hard.
Growing up I rarely ever saw myself. Unless it was the two lines from [insert type-casted gay television character here] or endless racist representations of Black people as criminals or thugs. In fact, so much of what I internalised as "beautiful" was the opposite of me. I spent my childhood flipping through magazines and staring at films that told me that I had no "beauty", an identity that mandated white skin, gender conformity, straight hair and expensive clothes.
Because of this, I have always tried to shrink myself. To look down, walk quickly, speak softly. I thought that becoming smaller would minimise the horror that came along with existing at the intersection of both queer and Black. Unfortunately, it did not.
I hope these images encourage you to break a few of the rules. To walk with your head high and shoulders back no matter what people say. This photo series was a way to celebrate living visibly in my own skin. To claim space not just in these select images but in the cultural images we all hold in our minds and hearts: images of what it means to be queer or trans, Black or brown, man or woman, good or bad. To me, these images represent an intervention, a disruption to the rules that we know and a railway to something new. Won't you come and disrupt with me?
Read more about Zara Julius' work at www.zarajulius.com and Alok Vaid-Menon's work at www.alokvmenon.com. You can support Joshua Allen's work here: https://igg.me/at/blackxtour/x/15481801.
Creative Direction and Photography: Zara Julius
Featuring: Alok Vaid-Menon & Joshua Allen