*Images and text in the photo gallery are taken from (Un)bound – Stories from Singapore’s transgender community.
The latest exhibition by Singapore-based photographer and videographer Grace Baey features four Singaporean subjects: Sonia, Jose, Sham and Cassandra. They are transgender.
Titled (Un)bound – Stories from Singapore’s transgender community, the exhibition features photographs and personal journal entries, reflecting on how the four individuals dealt with gender dysphoria, gender norms, and their relationships.
Talking about the project, Grace said that it started with the aim of building a deeper understanding about transgender identity and gender dysphoria. “It was Jose who told me, ‘I’m tired of seeing all these perfect bodies on the Internet. It doesn’t reflect my reality. People need to know the real challenges of what it means to transition.’”
Read our interview with the artist below.
As an obvious first question—why do this?
I’ve been working with the transgender community in Singapore for several years now, ever since a friend asked me to photograph the annual transgender beauty pageant she was organising. One thing led to another, and I began actively involving friends from the community to explore different ways in which we could help build understanding and awareness about trans issues and gender identity. Especially in the context of Singapore, we felt that public awareness about trans issues was generally lacking, although this is slowly changing.
The aspect of collaborative storytelling has always been a significant part of the project. Sonia, Jose, Cassandra and Sham are all advocates and incredibly articulate, and it would be foolhardy not to incorporate their unique voices in the work, which was how the scrapbooking idea came about.
I worked closely with them to flesh out specific story points in their life journeys, as well as issues of trans identity that they felt were valuable to highlight before making the pictures, after which they worked individually to design and compile their own scrapbooks using pictures we’ve made together, including those from their personal archive.
I chose to work with the four of them because their stories are so diverse and important to tell: Sonia’s experience as a mother and an accomplished stage performer; Jose’s relationship with his parents in a conservative Catholic environment; Cassandra’s perspectives growing up as a young trans person in university, and Sham’s journey dealing with post-operative dysphoria, whilst finding support in his loving wife. It was also a tremendous learning experience for me to understand how individuals from the trans community want to be presented, as well as what they felt was important to talk about, both within and beyond the community.
What was the one thing that really stood out for you when you were photographing your subjects?
The collaborative nature of the picture-making process meant that the individuals I worked with were free to decide how they wanted to be represented in the project. I remember a few instances when I’d suggest a particular idea, and the feedback I get would be: “I’d prefer not to be photographed that way” or “Let’s not do that because I don’t see much value in that kind of picture”.
It’s a stab in your ego, but I really appreciate this kind of feedback, which is very important and helps further the aims of the project, especially when so much of what we see in mainstream media on how the trans community is portrayed is often skewed. It also reinforces the fact that the people behind every photograph are individuals who have their own agency.
What’s the toughest part about putting this exhibition together?
Having to come up with the name of the exhibition was a challenge I didn’t foresee initially. I spent days mulling over potential titles, and nothing felt right. Many exhibitions on transgender issues tend to play on the word “trans”, and I was hoping to steer away from that, because as much as individuals featured in the exhibition are trans persons, there’s so much more to their stories and life experiences apart from their gender identity. Having to narrow down on the selection and pull together the various strands of narrative from people’s stories into a cohesive exhibit was also quite a challenge, because their stories are so diverse, and rightly so.
What were their reactions when they saw the end product?
In many ways, the end product was a culmination of our collaborative efforts, so everyone had a stake each step of the way. With the scrapbooks, there was certainly a sense of relief and accomplishment when they were completed, as it required significant time and effort to design and put together the different pieces.
There’s also something about being able to take a step back to reflect on one’s life journey, thoughts, and memories over the years after the scrapbook was completed, whilst being aware that members of the wider public would be viewing these personal entries. I remember Sonia saying to me, “Well, this is it. I’ve told my story. I don’t know what people would say, but let’s see how they receive it.”
(Un)bound – Stories from Singapore’s transgender community is on till April 14, at Lower Gallery, Objectifs, 155 Middle Road. Admission is free. There’ll be an artist talk on March 30, 2pm. To register, click here.