Waking up knowing you are going to take your clothes off in front of a camera changes things. Even if you’re not sure. Even if you just want to see how far you can go. The process of putting oneself together takes on a dimension I wasn’t entirely prepared for.
I woke up on a Wednesday having booked a photo shoot with Daisy Cox, an art student at Oxford Brookes University. She approached a support group I am active with and made the rather odd request to paint portraits of transgender women. After some quizzing, I decided she was genuine - the project seemed quite exciting. An opportunity to take on female image in the art world. Admittedly a common ground, but the challenge here was showing transgender women as women with the audience knowing they were transgender. Well, that’s just my whole life. But art can create a conversation. I went for it.
Dressing with a thought to how easily I can undress in the day is normally restricted to my laser appointments, but also knowing photographs and paintings would result from the undressing (or just standing there) meant I took extra time staring into my wardrobe. I came to an outfit I’ve worn before - nothing special, but with components and layers that were both easy to remove and provided me with steps I could take towards the main event.
Make up was another thought: how much? Don’t know. My normal, rather dramatic, style might look slutty without clothes? I wasn’t sure so I went ahead and did the lot, but brought my wipes with me so I could take it off at the shoot.
"I WAS AFRAID, BUT I WOULDN’T CALL IT NERVOUS IN THE DAY LEADING UP TO HEADING OFF TO OXFORD FOR THE SHOOT."
I was afraid, but I wouldn’t call it nervous in the day leading up to heading off to Oxford for the shoot. I did my normal stuff at the charity I work for, chatted to friends and communicated with clients as I always do. I ran into a friend in the street on my way to the station that did some life modelling and she expressed nerves at the idea that it’s a portrait, “Normally I just rock up as I am ‘cause it doesn’t matter, but for an actual portrait it’s a nightmare! You look spot on.”
I stopped in a shop to buy some gloves - it was bitterly cold that day, but I was also delaying. Unable to put it off any longer I got to the station, grabbed some food, and bought my ticket. With a few minutes ‘till the next train I spent some time responding to readers and chatting to friends, keeping it a joke: “I’m about to be photographed with not much on!”
I was terrified.
My procrastination meant I was late to the shoot. The train was slower than the one I should have caught and the walk was longer than I thought. Daisy didn’t seem to mind. We chattered a bit about what she was after (not very specific), talked about visual impact, looked at the lighting. Again, I was delaying but I did finally step into the white space in front of Daisy’s camera.
The pictures will take some time to process, as will my feelings about them. I expect there will be several articles about it as the project unfolds. What started as a bit of excitement has evolved into an emotionally charged roller coaster - but I’m glad I did it. This is a conversation that needs having, and if this project can advocate our plight, then I need to know I supported it in any way I can.
"AS A VISIBLY TRANSGENDER WOMAN, I’M ACCUSTOMED TO AWKWARD, EXPOSING QUESTIONS FROM INNOCENT (AND NOT SO INNOCENT) QUARTERS."
As a visibly transgender woman, I’m accustomed to awkward, exposing questions from innocent (and not so innocent) quarters. Visibility is a process of constantly stepping into the light and stating the thing. Society woodworks transgender people that pass. To pass and be visible, one is constantly coming out to everyone around them. There is a certain amount of vulnerability I’m accustomed to as a result of the constant exposure, but this is different.
Submitting to a photo shoot of this kind is a more dangerous form of exposure. It requires trust in the artist, a belief in what they’re doing, and the resignation to just allow things to go tits up - so to speak. I’ve surrendered my body in a way I never have before. For good reasons and from a place of relative safety, but the vulnerability I feel about that is quite high. I’ve come out to someone - a fellow artist, a colleague, perhaps a friend - in a way I never thought I would.
I’m surprisingly comfortable with Daisy having that power over me - a set of images that could be weaponised against me. I trust the ethics mechanisms of the university, but mostly I trust the project and I trust Daisy’s work. What strikes me about it is how much we surrender to each other. Most of the time, we risk everything without a thought: driving down the street is an act of trust in everyone else on that road that, when misplaced, can cost a person everything.
The process of constant coming out is a similar risk to my personal safety: usually, I just trust people to accept and move on. Those that don’t distance themselves from me, and I trust them to do it civilly. We all know that, too often, it doesn’t work that way. I have friends who have come to harm without coming out to anyone. Many live in fear.
Risks are what we take to do great things. The object of this particular risk is very high, but the level of trust equals the potential cost - as does the potential gain. I wanted to help Daisy create a conversation - to create one myself. The next step is going to be looking through the photographs and deciding how I really feel about them. How much of myself can I give to create the dialogue. I suppose that’s part of the fun! I’ll just have to wait and see.