Beautiful Portraits of Trans People
We spoke to Montreal photographer Yannick Fornacciari about his latest series.
Yannick Fornacciari is a France-born, Montreal-based photographer best known for his work documenting Canada's chapter of FEMEN. His most recent series, Exposed, is an intimate documentation of trans people's day-to-day lives and their experience transitioning.
As of October 1, trans people in Quebec will no longer be required to undergo medical procedures in order to alter the gender on their official documents. This long-awaited change, based on a law that was passed back in 2013, represents a victory for the trans community. Yet, as Fornacciari's series aims to illustrate, the fact that it took so long for this law to be enacted is yet another manifestation of the discriminatory practices faced by the country's trans population.
VICE met with the photographer at his Montreal apartment to discuss his project and to find out what message he hopes to convey.
VICE: Why did you choose to do this project?
Yannick Fornacciari: For a while, I'd been wondering about the reality of transgendered people. I wondered what they were going through in today's world. I've done a lot of work on gender, marginalization, and it just made sense to focus on the reality of trans people. So I signed up on forums, on Facebook pages, and I just posted my work. I let people come to me, and I got a lot of responses. In two days I think about 30 people contacted me expressing interest in the project. That's how it started. As for why, it's mostly a question of visibility.
In society, in the media, in art, and in culture in general, we don't really hear much about trans identity, trans people, what they live through, who they are. We treat the topic in a very cliché way, with stereotypes. And in general, trans people are not represented by trans people in the media and in movies—they're often played by cis-gendered people. That's pretty unfortunate, but what I find even more unfortunate is the fact that governments are really not interested in that reality. Especially here in Canada. I produced this series in a context that has just changed, but that was very discriminatory against trans people. I find the government acted in a way that was so ignorant and discriminatory.
I'm happy things are changing. Lately there was also the Caitlyn Jenner thing, who brought more visibility to trans people. I think that's awesome but it's a little overdue. In the last few months, things have been changing, accelerating.
Tell me about the people in your series.
There are a lot of people, and I chose to focus on some more than others because there were also some who didn't want to be followed. Some just wanted to do one photo shoot. But they all had something to say. They didn't do this photo project for aesthetic reasons, they did it to communicate something. I followed some of them during their transition, some I only met with once. Those I followed, I lived many things with them.
Some I visited after operations, some didn't get surgery but still wanted me to follow them during their transition. They come from various backgrounds, they're all very different, but they all had that need to share their reality, to communicate something. And that's why I also asked some of them to write texts, because it would have bothered me to speak for them. They agreed to do it and the results were very interesting.
What kind of reaction did your models have to your photos? They're baring a lot, sometimes quite literally...
They were happy, I think, I hope. For me it was hard because I realized I didn't know much about this issue. I think 90 percent of people don't know much, they have no idea what it's like to be a trans person. For the models, it was kind of their testimony. They often told me "I'm doing this so that people can have a better idea what I'm living, and if it helps them understand, I'll do it." But it was difficult for them to bare so much, to bare so much psychologically, for the writing and for the pictures.
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What did you learn, and what are you hoping to teach?
I learned that society can be completely oblivious to certain people's realities. I learned a lot on the legislation, because I spent time looking at the law that had been passed in 2012 or 2013, that famous Bill 35 that's only active as of now.
I learned a lot about myself too, on the idea of gender, especially, and the degree to which that notion is hostile to freedom in our society. That society expects certain things from men, certain things from women, and that if we stray from those norms we become marginalized, against our will. What I hope people get from my series? I hope people see the humans behind this. I didn't want to focalize on the transgender community aspect. I wanted to focus on the human aspect, these are humans that we see. I also wanted to stay away from the voyeuristic aspect. People have a tendency to believe that transexuals—I don't like that word, but that's the one that's used—are an underground, stereotypical community, kind of a caricature. And I wanted to move out of that realm, so that people would see the humanity and be touched by the stories.
What are some of these stories?
What really struck me is the discrimination some of these people were living. Most of them, actually. I followed some really young people who weren't necessarily working but who were in different stages of their transition. Some of the people I met were 30 or 40 and had really normal lives, really normal jobs, but were subjected to terrible discrimination in the workplace. Some had taken their case to court because they were being bullied. The rejection from their families...
There's this daily suffering that society inflicts upon trans people. But there's also this aspect of beauty, which I wanted to convey—that there's also this positive side. The dark negative side exists, and you have to realize that, but you have to realize that being trans is being a bunch of other things too, it's being normal, actually.
Your pictures have so much to tell, there are the scars that evoke the suffering, the tender embraces that evoke love...
I really felt a bond with these people. I tried to be objective, and that was my concern. To look at the reality and to give a subjective vision, an artist's vision, which is neither that of a censor nor of a moralist. I just wanted to show things as they were, but I mostly wanted to get outside the body. Too often, we make trans issues about the body, we talk to trans people about their bodies, we ask questions, we want to know what's in their pants. And that's really troubling—society is really insulting when it comes to that type of thing. That's why I tried to focus on the people more than the bodies as such.
How do you feel about the way our government treats trans people?
I think it's pretty scandalous that our government only started listening to trans groups a few months ago. The legislative change started in 2013, a bill was voted in to make it so that people didn't need to undergo surgery to change their gender on official docs. But that law took so long to come into effect. I find it scandalous because that's been completely discriminatory but also because there was a bit of disdain, of ignorance where we didn't ask the concerned parties what all this meant to them. Finally today trans people are able to easily change their gender on official papers but they are pathologized. To get a refund from the gov for hormones, for potential operations, you have to get a psychiatric diagnosis for gender dysphoria, which is in the DSM as a psychiatric problem. Which means that you have to accept to be "sick" in order to be yourself.
Interview by Brigitte Noël. Follow her on Twitter.