Laurence Philomene (b. 1993, Canada)
”Puberty” is a self-portrait project shot over a period of two years, which looks at the intimate and vital process of self-care as a non-binary transgender person undergoing hormonal replacement therapy (HRT). Combining surreal colours and mundane environments, it documents daily moments and slow, subtle physical changes occurring during my transition. Looking at HRT as a process without a fixed end goal, ”Puberty” challenges the common transition narrative and asks viewers to consider identity beyond binaries.
Widespread misunderstanding around trans lives leads to fear and violence. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey Report found “startling disparities between transgender people [..] and the U.S. population when it comes to the most basic elements of life, such as finding a job, having a place to live, accessing medical care, and enjoying the support of family and community.” According to HRC, president Trump recently moved to undermine US LGBTQ healthcare protections under the Covid-19 pandemic, effectively allowing doctors to refuse treatment to trans patients. With our basic rights constantly threatened, creating work that both centres and celebrates a trans life is in itself a radical act.
Since January 2019, I have been documenting the changes testosterone generates in my body and moods through a daily self-portrait practice. The resulting images are at once staged and candid, created by setting up a tripod in my home as I go about my daily routines.Set in highly-saturated domestic spaces, these photographs look at minute details of transition which are seldom represented, and examine identity as a space in constant flux.
Having dedicated my practice to documenting non-binary lives over the last 5 years, this project allows me to dig deeper into what it means to reclaim autonomy over our bodies and stories as marginalized individuals. The work is edited as the project progresses, and published online throughout the duration, exploring the nature of self-representation in the era of social media. After the two year mark, a final edit will published in book form in collaboration with Yoffy Press. The project will be presented in its entirety as digital slideshow when exhibited, and will be visible online for free for educational purposes.
Beyond gender markers, this work is intended to represent and serve the needs of future generations of queer and trans individuals as they navigate institutional hardship and erasure. By offering a glimpse into intimate scenes of my life, I am creating a multi-faceted primary source document of a trans life in North America in the 21st century that humanizes our existence and creates a future where we face less violence and more acceptance.
When and how did you get started in photography?
I started thinking about photography as an art form around the age of 13-14, when I became obsessed with Blythe dolls and the people who photograph them, namely Gina Garan. I saved up my babysitting money for months, got myself one of the dolls and started uploading the photos I took of it online. From there, I got in touch with other young photographers around my age who were active on Flickr (and Tumblr, later on). The people I met online were really supportive and encouraged me to branch out into self-portraiture, taking pictures of my friends etc. It was a really formative moment for me to have that kind of support and explore identity outside of my immediate surroundings. I went to a trade school/community college and studied commercial photography there for four years. The training was very technical: studio lighting, beauty retouching, that kind of stuff. Meanwhile, I was also diving deeper into internet art communities, religiously borrowing photo books at the library, and looking into photography as a tool to explore queer identity. I would say my practice now is informed both by that commercial training, the online communities I came of age in, and the more “fine art” processes I was researching on my own.
What does photography give you? What is it that you try to achieve with photography?
Photography gives me a space to play, a space to imagine the kind of life I want – for myself, for my community. It also gives me an opportunity to look for / see the beauty in my life. Through long-form collaborative and autobiographical projects, my work aims to celebrate trans existence, and to study identity as a space in constant flux. A big part of what I do also is about humanizing an identity that has been historically marginalized. I also like to investigate ideas of masculinity and femininity, and how the two can co-exist outside of the binary.
What do you think makes a truly great image?
A distinct point of view, and good colours. I personally really like images that find ways to express something big in the simplest way possible.
Who were your early influences and where do you get your inspiration from today?
As a teen, I was really obsessed with Annette Messager, Wolfgang Tillmans (especially his book “truth study center” which I borrowed from the library probably 20 times), and Bettina Rheim’s “Modern Lovers” series.
These days my favourite photographer is my friend Hobbes Ginsberg – I think she is an absolute genius and will be remembered by history. I gravitate a lot toward the work of other trans and non-binary photographers making work that is autobiographical or about their community, like Texas Isaiah. I also love photographers who make colourful work and have very specific obsessions like Elizabeth Renstrom’s recent project with perfumes, or Maisie Cousins with food and bugs.
On a day-to-day basis, I get most of my inspiration from mundane moments.
What drew you to pursue a project on this subject? How did the idea come about?
As a photographer whose practice had always revolved largely around self-portraiture, I knew I wanted to document my transition, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it initially. It was very daunting at first because I knew once I started sharing this work, it meant I would also have to be talking about my transition publicly – I wasn’t sure if I had the energy to be explaining myself constantly. I also had to ask myself what kind of images of transition I had not seen before, and wanted to see in the world. Coincidentally, I found myself going through burn out about six months into starting HRT. Burnout forced me to take a few months off, stay home by myself a whole lot, and re-learn how to build self-care routines. After a few weeks of doing that I grew bored and challenged myself to take a picture every day – a challenge which quickly turned into the Puberty project.
What is your shooting process and work flow? How much of the project is staged vs documenting candid moments?
I force myself to shoot for the project every single day if I can, unless I’m really busy with another project, sick, or am in transit all day. I say “force” because most days I procrastinate on it until it’s bed time, which is why a lot the images are taken at night. I would say about it’s about 50/50 staged and candid moments. A lot of the time I’ll recreate a moment that just happened minutes ago, or take the same picture over multiple days until I’m happy with it. Most days though I just set up the tripod at any given moment during the day and document whatever is happening. I put the images on my hard drive into daily folders about once a week, and go through all the images a couple of times a month, to come up with a monthly edit I share on my social media.
How did your project develop and change between your start and end dates? What challenges did you face in the making of this project?
At the start of the project I was a lot more aimless with it, just challenging myself to take a photo of my surroundings every day for myself. I didn’t particularly think of the images as art – at the time my practice revolved a lot more around studio-based work. I started uploading the images to my personal instagram account and getting positive feedback from friends. At first the project was a lot more about burn-out, and celebrating the mundane. After a couple of months I started seeing repeating patterns in the images, and realized that it would be a good process to document my transition at the same time, and the project became a lot more deliberate from there. I had originally planned to shoot the project for a year but eventually decided to extend it to two to really capture the slowness of this transition.
The biggest challenge I face with the project is figuring out how to shoot essentially the same thing every single day without having it feel boring or repetitive. It’s also very time and energy consuming to create work on such a frequent basis, so there’s a lot of time management involved (and file management, as the images add up really quickly).
What do you find most fulfilling about this project?
Committing to witnessing the passage of time, and appreciating the beauty in my daily life.
Has receiving a Lucie Foundation Scholarship impacted your career, and if yes, how?
Receiving the emerging scholarship award has had a huge impact. Obviously it’s been helpful to have the financial help to be able to focus my time and energy on the project, but even more so it has given me the motivation I need/ed to keep going with it. It’s also been a hugely validating to know that the work I’m making is being seen and recognized by my peers and industry leaders. Now that I’ve received this scholarship I feel really encouraged to continue on this path, and to apply for more grants and funding for my work.
What’s next for you?
I am currently working with Yoffy Press on a book of this project which will be published once it’s finished after the two-year mark in January 2021. After that, my next big undertaking will be to start sequencing the archive of my project “Lucky”, which is a collaborative documentary project I have been making with my best friend for the better part of the last 10 years, on his life as a working class intersex + trans trauma survivor.