THE RIGHT TO BE SEEN – DISTANCE in PROJECTS on LGBT+ people
(analysing the works of Ho Yan Pun Nicole and A Karlsson Rixon)
Having initially set the goal to research the representation of LGBT+ people in photography, very soon I realised that a conversation with such a focus would be problematic: the material turned out to be pretty limited, and most of it covered narrow cases of the analysis of certain cultures and societies, which meant I could take it into account, but needed to be careful with generalisations.
However, one argument was clearly articulated everywhere, whether the subject-matter was lesbians in South Africa or queer communities in Sweden. It was related to (in)visibility. It appeared that, as is the case with any photography produced by non-cis makers, its actors were still waging a long, tedious struggle for space, presence, lexical and symbolic codes – for the right to be seen in a shot as a person, and not a victim or a freak. Charlotte Jansen, a journalist, an editor of Elephant magazine and author of a collection with the self-explanatory title Girl on Girl – that is, featuring photographs taken by “women about women” – states that “in the past, photographs of women were made by men for a capitalist economy to favour the male gaze and feed female competitiveness.” Abandoning such a view needs time, especially in conservative societies (or those currently moving towards conservatism) with an imposed discourse of so-called “traditional values”. As for LGBT people, they were simply ousted from the world of photography and art – literally, out of sight – defined as someone who had to be pitied, cured, or punished.
Large-scale projects such as, for example, Zanele Muholi’s photobook Faces and Phases featuring several hundred portraits of LGBT people, who plainly and freely pose in front of the camera and seem to be claiming absolutely nothing but straight and fair “you see me, thus I exist”, are a rare find. And in Belarus, a state with no photography museums, no higher education in the field of photography, and no photobook stores, a state where an artist is asked to cover the expenses of the production of a mural in the country’s main museum by looking for sponsors via Facebook, the number of similar publications is zero. Does it mean there are no LGBT people? In response, we can recall a quote of LGBT researcher and writer Annamarie Jagose, who wrote, a “lesbian presence can be seen, of course, but often … only by those who know how (and where) to look.” While this comment relates to the situation and visibility of lesbians in Europe in the early 20th century, it appears to be an appropriate description of the current state of affairs in Belarus.
One of the reasons for this paucity of visual representation can be traced via online discussions that spontaneously arose in relation to an image taken by Nadezhda Buzhan, a World Press Photo finalist. The image features two kissing women under a flag against the background of a riot police cordon during peaceful protests in Minsk in August 2020 that called for a transparent election campaign. Once shared on the Internet, the shot immediately prompted conflicting opinions, among which was the indignant “Don’t you think it’s not a good time to speak about LGBT people?” Naturally, such a reaction could not but look strange: street rallies with posters and slogans about “freedom” and “democracy” nevertheless triggered a decades-old patriarchal division into “friends/foes”, “good time/bad time”. Whose freedom was it about then? Why was it presented as appropriated by the heterosexual part of the population? How can freedom in general be seen as something one is allowed or banned from manifesting?
I will continue considering the thesis about the polarity of (in)visibility and (un)timeliness using the example of talks about sexual practices – invariably the first thing that a queer woman faces when coming out in a circle of heterosexual acquaintances. “Wow, how do you do it? Do you use sex toys? And which of you plays a man’s role?” Questions like that, I am sure, many women have heard when first revealing her date is “not a boyfriend”. It is difficult to imagine such rude interventions into the private life of a heteronormative person. In such cases, questions would traditionally be about his job, common future, and financial state – not about tools and sex positions. Nevertheless, tactlessness and an unnatural interest in the sexual life of LGBT+ people rarely leave the realm of “fun” kitchen talks, and seldom get reflected upon in art statements. In Hong Kong, I came across a project whose rethinking and analysis took place at an adequate critical level: the series In & Out by Ho Yan Pun Nicole. The author interviewed more than 40 Hong Kong lesbians between the ages of 20 and 60, and asked them to fold their arms in a position in which they would normally have sex with their partner.
The artist notes that under British colonial rule, Hong Kong imported an ordinance prohibiting anal sex. Penis insertion was the determining factor of criminal sexual intercourse, but there was no equivalent restriction on lesbian sex. Nowadays, male homosexual activity has been decriminalised in Hong Kong and China, yet lesbian visibility is still taboo. Nicole began to trace these histories, questioning how two females have sex, through the unfolding In & Out project.
Nicole explained that the reason for turning to the topic of the intimate was her desire to go beyond the perception of sex solely as associated with penis insertion, and thus give visibility to the nature of lesbian sexuality – a goal achieved by moving from the private to the public domain. The aforementioned invasive questions are finally answered, but the form these answers take is completely subject to the artist’s rules. On the one hand, the project makes the invisible visible, on the other (with the necessary degree of delicacy and respect), it preserves the anonymity of the participants in order to protect those who did not come out.
In & Out seriously challenged the phallocentrism of sex and the aestheticisation of female hands, demonstrating they are not only objects of labour, care, and male admiration, but instruments of sexual pleasure. “Most people tend to feel like touching and finger insertion is like foreplay. Penis insertion is like the real deal that gives intense pleasure to women”, Nicole explains. “For me, hands [are] like a machine that we all use from our everyday activities, like writing, washing clothes, cooking… We are so used to grabbing things with our hands. It has a public side. As a lesbian, I feel like there is a private side of hands. Say for playing, gentle touching, sex… It has an important and intimate purpose there for lesbians”.
An additional aim, according to the photographer, is connected with her contributing to the formation of community – individual gestures can thus amplify many voices and gain collective power.
Swedish photographer A Karlsson Rixon works differently with the theme of overcoming (in)visibility in their photobook, At the Time of the Third Reading, shot in the forest at an LGBT women’s camp on a remote island between Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 2013 when the photographer visited the site, the camp had already been organised ten consecutive times. The series owes its name to a coincidence: as A Karlsson Rixon says in their preface, on their way to the women’s camp together with main organiser Elena Botsman and some other fellow travellers, they heard news on the radio about the third reading of a bill that led to the adoption of the Russian federal law against the “propaganda of non-traditional sexuality among minors” – a step that, in fact, gave a state level green light to stigmatise LGBT people and make them even more vulnerable.
“The ‘anti-propaganda law’, one in a series of laws targeting people who lived a life that was considered non-normative, had led to greater media attention for LGBTQIAs. It actually had, on occasion, led to a more nuanced media image than before the introduction of homophobic laws, but it also meant that the awareness of non-heterosexual living had grown in society in general. Threats and violence had increasingly gotten worse”, A Karlsson Rixon describes in the preface.
Elena Botsman’s forest camp presented as an amazing island of timelessness and tranquility in a state that legally deprives some of its citizens of basic human rights, and imposes a one-sided concept of the “norm”. Observing approximately 60 women and their kids — all doing simple household chores among the tents and pines—Karlsson Rixon took a series of photographs, which, along with a number of critical texts, were later included in At the Time of the Third Reading.
Despite their broadly different aesthetics, both Ho Yan Pun Nicole’s and A Karlsson Rixson’s series solve very similar problems and critically use the concept of “distance” to articulate the problem of (in) visibility. In & Out, as if in response to the tactless interest of heterosexual people, allows us to “see” the intimate from the closest possible distance – to learn and, possibly, stop the stigma.
In turn, At the Time of the Third Reading offers a look at the life of LGBT families from a fairly large distance (primarily due to risks and the issue of the participants’ safety), adopting a more generalised stance. The daily routine of any family reveals very few differences, regardless of the members’ sexual or gender orientation. With the distance of a formally detached observer, both the photographer and we the audience see people sitting by the fire, preparing food, talking, or hugging each other, and thus “decode” what fully corresponds to the universal, human definition of the “norm”. Why, then, are LGBT people still presented as ones who evoke fear, someone to be ridiculed, someone unnatural? Why is the right to be entitled to be “visible” substituted with sordid propaganda?
The reason is one’s convenience of not seeing. This is the strategy patriarchal authorities stick to in relation to both LGBT+ people and any sort of “others”. Anything presented as “alien”, or “other” — as history shows — makes you doubt and question, broadening your horizons, and thus leading to change. The “norm” cements the comfort of life in the bubble, legalising only one “correct” perspective – the distance you need to maintain when looking at LGBT people. This distance means you neither get too close, nor too far away to notice how much you actually have in common. The projects of Ho Yan Pun Nicole and A Karlsson Rixon are examples of creative expression that challenges the one-sidedness of “comfortable” distance and the “norm” of the way people talk about these communities. It is art statements like these that I would like to see more in the public space of Belarusian museums, galleries, and art media, without the need to react to opinions that “it’s not a good time to talk about LGBT people”.
Criticising attitudes towards LGBT+ people in the opening text of her photo book, Only Half of the Picture, visual activist and photographer Zanele Muholi notes:
“Inhabiting a world that is obsessed with and overdetermined by categories, labels and borders, we are seen as transgressors who are placed in isolation in order to be controlled. Named unnatural, inhumane, immoral and ‘other’, our agency and mobility are restricted. […] I am hoping to break down those notions around what is to be seen and what is not. I want to encourage young artists to think of photography as a possibility, as work – to think of art for consciousness, and in turn, museums as spaces where we can carve a new dialogue that favours us”.