Identity

The Photographer Exploring Identity Through Intimate Portraits

Laurence Philomene discusses the complicated aesthetics of Catholic imagery and fighting for representation of non-binary and trans bodies in the media.
August 13, 2018, 2:53pm
Photo by Mycoze

Laurence Philomene is a 25-year-old photographer and director self-documenting their journey of self-discovery. They use a bright pastel and rainbow-like color palette to examine queerness and identities outside the gender binary. Philomene first began exploring the differences and similarities of masculinity and femininity when they were discovering their own gender identity as a college student in 2011. Due to concerns about revealing their identity, they used friends to stand in for themself when making photographs. This past June, they released Silent Retreat, a photo series where they examine the complicated relationship between themself, Catholicism, and gender.

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We asked Philomene about online identity, what it was like to open up and take actual self-portraits, and educating through art.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Mycoze

On exploring gender expression and gender identity in their photography
My work, in general, tends to be autobiographical. I started exploring gender expression in college when I first came out as queer and I was exploring my own sense of gender identity. At the time, I was interested in the contrasting themes of masculinity and femininity, and how I could blend the two. Over time, I became more aware of my gender identity and started identifying as non-binary and later on as trans, so it was a natural progression for me to work around this topic in my photography. When I came out as non-binary a few years ago, I wasn’t seeing a lot of representation for non-binary trans bodies in the media and I wanted to make space for all the wonderful non-binary people in my life, so I started a portrait series around that topic.

On being mentored by Ivan Shaw, the former Executive Photo Director of Vogue
I won the mentorship as part of the Flickr 20under20 awards in 2014. I am very young still, but I was even younger then so it was a pretty wild experience for me to go from sharing my work online to meeting with magazine editors and going to the Vogue offices. I think the experience really helped me value my work more. It taught me how to navigate the world of publications, agencies, and the business side of the photo world. Some of the best advice I received from a photo agent I met with through Ivan was to keep focusing on my personal work and to really focus on my own vision, because eventually that’s what makes you stand out as an artist and that’s what makes you valuable to brands and publications—what they really want is your vision and not just some generic photography.

Photo by Mycoze

On dressing friends up as themself
I started working on this project in 2014, at a time when I was feeling increasingly anxious existing online. I still wanted to continue my self-portrait practice, so I dressed up a friend of mine as me and I wanted to see if I could trick the viewer into thinking I was the person in the photos. I was intrigued and kind of fascinated by the result, so I kept doing it with a bunch of my friends, at first obstructing their faces but eventually bringing some elements of their personality into the work as well. The project is about visual identity: What makes you look like you, what do you identify as something that’s yours? Over time I’ve continued to shoot self-portraits with other people in that manner—whenever I travel, or [by] creating fantasy scenarios in my studio. I would like to keep shooting [like this] for a long time, maybe my whole life, and document every person I have been, will never be, or could have been.

"There is strength in simply existing as who we are, and that’s what I strive for my work to be about."

On our online identities
I think the internet allows us to curate our selves in a way that was never really possible before, and there’s both pros and cons to that. At the end of the day, though, we’re the ones deciding what we put out there. And I think when you’re someone with a marginalized identity, there’s a lot of power in that because we have control over how we represent ourselves and we have a space to speak up. The version of me that you see online is entirely who I am—it’s not all that I am, but it’s a part that I want to share with others. There is strength in simply existing as who we are, and that’s what I strive for my work to be about. There is strength in showing up and saying: This is the work, this is what I’m about.

On Silent Retreat, their recently published autobiographical photo essay captured at a Catholic silent retreat
My entire family grew up Catholic, as did a large percentage of the population in Quebec up until recently. I was baptized but never attended church and I don’t consider myself religious in that sense. I think it was an interesting aspect of my identity to explore in relationship to my family’s past that’s a bit different from what I usually work around (gender, sexuality, etc). I felt like I got to exist in disguise in a way [at the retreat]; everyone was silent, and I didn’t express my queerness or transness to anyone there. It was just me and a bunch of newly retired middle-aged people working through our various burnouts. I went because I felt very tired and needed some time to recharge. I was very interested in the visual aspect of Catholicism—the color palettes, the crosses, the ornate vs. the simplicity—while I was there, but more than anything it taught me how important photography is to me as a tool for my self-expression because I just couldn’t stop myself from taking pictures during the retreat. Honestly I just took those photos for myself, but I’m glad they’ve been received so positively!

On educating through art
I do my work for myself and for my friends first and foremost, but if it can open the minds of other people to our realities as queer or trans individuals, then that’s wonderful. I hope my work can help normalize and humanize our existence to others, and that it can help others see the beauty in diversity when it comes to gender expression. That they are not alone, there’s so many of us, and we’re beautiful, and we deserve everything we need in life.

On what’s next
I’m working on a 10-year retrospective book that will be published in Paris by Editions Lemaitre and that’s my big project at the moment! I am also working on a short film based on my orange wig series, Me vs Others , that I am quite excited about. That’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while—to translate these ideas into a different medium.

25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.