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This Photography Book Is an Intimate Tribute to Cuba’s Trans Community

Sofia Prantera discusses 'Butterfly', produced by Aries collaboration with Joshua Gordon and Havana Club.

by Mahoro Seward
10 November 2019, 6:00am

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Our mental image of Cuba is so often one of sun-splashed vintage cars and mojitos on the beach. Either that or its tied to its political history. But the Caribbean’s largest island is home to an under-represented cultural wealth. Recently, Aries’ Sofia Prantera and photographer Joshua Gordon have joined forces with Havana Club to produce Butterfly, a photography book that offers a frank and uplifting gaze into Cuba’s trans community, a side of life on the island that’s seldom seen.

When Sofia was first approached by the Cuban rum brand, her thoughts immediately turned to photographer Joshua Gordon. With an established reputation for exploring the everyday realities of typically hidden communities around the world, Joshua’s lens focuses on members of the island’s trans community in his characteristically candid light. “I’ve been interested in Cuba for years,” Joshua explains, “and have wanted to make a project focusing specifically on LGBTQ+ nightlife and trans identity for sometime.” Joshua did his initial casting at a local Pride event, drawn to his subjects “strength, humour and beauty.” Over the following month, he lived alongside his chosen muses and developed friendships marked by openness, warmth and intimacy—characteristics which colour the images he shot. Across film stills, portraiture and even handwritten Q+As, the book is a robust homage to Cuba’s trans women.

To celebrate the book’s launch, we caught up with Sofia to learn more about the process behind the project, the accompanying fashion supplement she shot with Joshua and stylist Jane How, and just how it all relates to the world of Aries.

So what was the intention behind the name of the book?
Well, as butterflies are a symbol of transitioning from one state to another, people who are transitioning gender often have a tattoo of a butterfly. It was actually Josh’s idea—we all really loved it as soon as he said it, it was really beautiful.

How did the collaboration with Josh come about? What about his work made you feel that he was the right match for this project?
I'd been aware of his work for a little while. I'd heard about the premiere of his film Krahang through a friend, and went to see the show. I loved the way his work represented forgotten communities, people that aren’t typically portrayed within ordinary fashion environments. His touch is very light, and it's never exploitative—it’s very much about empowering people that perhaps live in ways that we don't normally see. In Krahang, for example, he was hanging out with motorbike gangs in Thailand. But it was a kind of everydayness that attracted me. The pictures don’t glamourise violence or anything, they show you people as they really are.

I also saw another documentary he made called The Wicked Shit. It’s about the Juggalos, which have been a real long term obsession of mine: I love the way they dress and I'd researched them before. It's a really beautiful portrayal of their tough lives, quite dreamy almost. When Havana Club contacted us, my first thought was ‘Josh would be perfect. Let's not do something that's about fashion, let's do something that actually really uses this project to its fullest’. Havana Club, while they've done many streetwear fashion collaborations, was actually very open to doing something different. It felt more like a partnership with an alcohol brand that you would've done in the seventies, where you could do something more documentary style. Partnering with them allowed us to do this in a way we wouldn't have been allowed to on our own. When I asked Josh if he'd like to go to Cuba to shoot, I immediately thought about Cuba's clubland. It's very vibrant, and it feels like what Italy’s clubland might have been like in the eighties. Josh then decided to focus on the trans community within that.

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How you've described Josh's approach to subcultures, looking at these unknown facets, aligns quite well with your approach with Aries.
Yeah! I think I've always been into subcultures, but never in an obsessive way. It's more about understanding what people like to do. When I first came to London, the main subculture at the time was rave. It felt very self-propelled. I think that's what was fascinating about those old subcultures; they had the time to breathe and really be driven by people who didn't necessarily have any financial interests. They were just living a dream. Doing this in Cuba, it felt like going back to a time when things were simpler, people were really thinking about expressing themselves in a way that doesn't really exist any more, or rather the space to really live out your obsessions doesn't exist. Things are much slower there, more nurtured.

How did you first meet the girls? And what was the process of entering their worlds like?
Havana Club were amazing at setting up the first meetings, and obviously it's quite hard, as Cuba has certain rules. But they introduced Josh to the community. I very much felt that I shouldn't be there. His way of working means that he goes and lives with the people, he builds trust with them, and that for me gives his work a certain purity. I felt that he should be left alone. My role was that of a facilitator, and convincing Havana Club that letting him be completely free to do what he wanted would be the right way to go. And they went for it, which was amazing of them. They would usually have gone with a big crew, which would have compromised the effect that Josh managed to get, which was of true intimacy. His subjects became his friends.

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What aspects of Aries’ world do you feel overlap with the worlds of the girls Josh documented?
I think the overlap is quite small, actually. My work always explores gender, but from a female perspective -- it’s the idea of wanting to appear more masculine. I would like gender to be eliminated, but embracing what Josh proposed, I felt that it would push what my ideas are even further to look at things from a different angle. And obviously, Josh is interested in these kinds of communities. He’s done a lot of work here in gay clubs, so I felt comfortable exploring it from his side. With Aries, it's always the other way around, but I think that's why Aries appeals to a lot of men: there’s a certain sense of freedom.

One area where you did have a heavier creative touch is in the fashion supplement styled by i-D contributor Jane How — do you think of it as a complement to the images that Josh shot in Cuba?
It was about this idea of 'the party' and 'the carnival'. There's this side of Cuba that's very glitzy and very similar to the Italy I grew up in. We wanted it to look quite old-fashioned, but party-like. It had to be quite different, light-hearted. It was also about celebrating the branding side of the collaboration in a way that you don't typically see. There were certain requirements we had to meet and I didn’t think a documentary-style approach would achieve that, so we wanted to do something that was a bit like a seventies Playboy, where you would have very serious imagery—war reportage, for example—juxtaposed with more lighthearted, sexualised brand advertisements. There didn’t need to be any cross over—some images would be a sort of tacky celebration of branding, while others were more serious in tone. Jane had a lot to do with the final result because she's such a brilliant stylist, but we created all of the outfits. I just wanted it to look as little as possible like your typical streetwear collaboration. Everything looks a little dated, a bit odd and out of place. I feel when you're collaborating with a brand, and they’re allowing you so much freedom, you owe them something back: celebrating the brand in this way was in tune with the rest of the theme.

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Tagged:
Culture
Fashion
Aries
Trans-Community
Havana Club
sofia prantera
joshua gordon