Meet the Photographer Celebrating Trans Existence

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Interview with Laurence Philomene (they/them)
all photos provided by Laurence
@laurence.philomene
 

Meet Montreal-based artist Laurence Philomene (they/them) who explores queer and trans experiences through high-saturated and deeply intimate images.

Documenting their lived experiences as a chronically ill, non-binary transgender artist coming of age amid the rise of social media, their work illustrates a form of radical self-care while their long-form collaborative and autobiographical projects celebrate trans existence and identity as a space in constant flux.

We explore their surreal pastel-infused world creating the reality they want to live in. It’s both beautiful and boring, and will shatter any assumption that marginalized lives are inherently sad lives. 

Read Laurence’s interview to learn about their grounding daily routines, creative process, and their thoughts on being “satisfiable” in a society moving toward systemic change

playing dress-up in billy's room, march 2019, puberty

In a recent interview with Refinery29, you said the point of your work is to “humanize trans existence because even though our existence is marginalized, at the end of the day, we’re all human and our day-to-day looks no different.” A lot of your work has a surreal, dreamlike quality juxtaposed with seemingly mundane aspects of daily life. How do you personally connect (or disconnect) with what you portray in your body of work with the reality of a marginalized existence?

I think the disconnect comes from the assumption that marginalized lives are inherently sad lives. There is a lack of access to resources, a lack of institutional support - but in turn, we make those support systems for ourselves and each other. Our lives differ from the accepted path in many ways but they are no less beautiful.

The work is about reframing what we assume marginalization to look like. We can have full, beautiful lives. We can have mundane lives. My hope is that these images can get viewers to rethink what a trans life can look like, for themselves and for others. Fear of the unknown leads to violence, so by inviting you into intimate moments of my life I hope to say: look, I go through stuff like you do, and my life is beautiful, and boring, too.

watching tv in bed with vashti, august 2019, puberty

You are both a model and photographer, reflexively forming and informing your identity. How has photographing yourself helped you photograph others and capture them authentically? 

I’ve been practicing self-portraiture since I was about 14 years old, so it’s something that I’ve naturally gravitated toward for a long time. For a while my practice was mostly photographing others but it got to a point where it didn’t feel good to ask for people to be vulnerable for me in front of the camera if I wasn’t willing to do the same myself.

Fear of the unknown leads to violence, so by inviting you into intimate moments of my life I hope to say: look, I go through stuff like you do, and my life is beautiful, and boring, too. 

Starting the puberty project was extremely scary at first. I hadn’t been that honest in front of a camera my whole life. But after a while it started to feel really powerful. And it’s really helped me become (even) more aware of what goes into being photographed. Most of the moments I photograph of myself I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking of anyone else, except perhaps my best friend Lucky who I have been photographing for 10 years. I think as I mature as a photographer I am really learning to respect that intimacy and vulnerability requires time. 

paint me like one of your pre-raphaelite boy-girls, february 2019, puberty

Since the invention of photography, artists have explored it as a means to stage a false reality, or capture an idea. In your work, you often blur the line between what is staged and not staged, performed and not performed. We are all performative in our own ways, if only as a means to communicate an identity, or personal narrative. Do you think that life imitates art more than art imitates life or vice versa? 

I can’t answer in universal terms but for me art imitates life. In my practice, art creates life. What I mean by this is that often, the things I photograph happen specifically because I photograph them. Through this, I am creating the reality I want to live in, and sharing that reality in my art. A long time ago I read an interview with Wolfgang Tillmans where he spoke of photography as inherently being “post authentic.” I’ve been thinking of those words ever since. 

lux by the apple tree, 2016, non-binary

The work you publish on Instagram creates a digital, public diary documenting your life and the lives of those you photograph while encouraging a sort of interaction and engagement that “materializes” these individuals. As a static medium, photography captures a split second, sealing a moment in time. How does your process inform this idea of capturing fleeting, ephemeral moments of lived experience while reinforcing broader, continuous identity narratives over time? 

 The aim behind my work is to be consistent. Though each image represents a single moment, the work isn’t about just one picture, but how that picture exists in a broader context. Most of my projects revolve around documenting myself and my loved ones over long periods of time—with my ongoing self-portrait project Puberty, for example, I am photographing myself daily over a period of two years. With my collaborative documentary project Lucky, I’ve been creating images with my best friend for over 10 years now. More than anything, this work is not about any one moment but about witnessing the passage of time, and identity as an ever-changing force.  

being gay is fucking gay, 2017

lucky - smile, 2017

The act of looking can be recognized as a political act; when and where we see something affects how we see it. You mention that some of your photographs are a year or so old before you publish them online. What’s your reasoning for this? Do you consider your work political? Why or why not?

I do consider my work political. As marginalized folks, we are not given the option to not be political, because our identities are actively policed and politicized. In terms of how or when I publish images, most work I let sit for a while honestly because I am juggling a lot of projects at once but also because I find meaning often reveals itself over time + in juxtaposition with other images. Whenever I’m making work about someone other than myself I also practice some mindfulness around who I’m photographing, what their needs are, when and how to share images. 

As marginalized folks, we are not given the option to not be political, because our identities are actively policed and politicized.
nat (no girls no boys no nothin), 2017, non-binary

Do you think the temporality and curation of an online platform like Instagram adds or detracts from the intention to capture “identity in flux rather than as a static label?” Why or why not? 

I think it does both. With social media, there’s this desire to “brand” oneself, to create consistency so your followers know what they can expect from you. People then construct this idea of who you are based on what you’re willing or unwilling to share, and it can be hard to detach oneself from that.

[The internet] can be a vehicle to reclaim your own story without having to ask anyone’s permission.

At the same time, I still really do believe in the internet’s power as a space to democratize art in the sense that it’s a space where, for the most part, you can be in control of what you put out there, when and how. It can be a vehicle to reclaim your own story without having to ask anyone’s permission, especially as a marginalized person. I was really worried about having a static label put on me and didn’t come out as trans for a long time online but once I did, it genuinely felt so liberating to be honest about who I am and I found a lot more support than I expected. 

prepping my testosterone shot on the couch, march 2019, puberty

On one hand, it can be said that gender is socially constructed, but it is also very much about the physicality of the body. The body is made up of the things we allow (or don't allow) inside of it, the things we consume. A lot of your Puberty photos imply some sort of bodily consumption, like your meals, and HRT. What do you see as the relationship between what we consume (what we physically put into our bodies, what we read, objects we purchase, who we follow on instagram) and gender identity? 

The truth is that I don’t think about gender all that much. I work on actively thinking of myself, people, things in my life, outside of gendered expectations. The message with the Puberty images is more one of self-care, of nourishment. Of knowing and showing that we are worthy of that self-care as trans folks. 

orange bath, march 2020, puberty

Do you have any rituals or routines that keep you grounded and help you affirm your identity while existing in a space of constant flux?

Yes. The older I get the more I find routines to be deeply grounding. I am not what you’d call a “morning person.” My circadian rhythm has been off since I was a child; I never woke up early or went to bed early on my own, even when I was 1 year old. I’ve learned to accept this for myself so now I take it extremely slow in the morning. Take an hour to wake up, read the news. Then I take a long steamy shower, wash my face, get dressed, make the bed (I never used to make my bed but now that we’re home 24/7 with the pandemic, it feels really good to do it). Then I cook myself some breakfast, a tiny bit of coffee, and I journal and plan my day ahead. By that point it’s usually about 3-4 pm and I officially start my day. I love how universal yet personalized routines are. Getting to know yourself and accepting what truly works for you is such an important part of setting up grounding routines. 

 morning scene with testosterone, july 2019, puberty

Do you care to share any recommendations for books, albums, podcasts, instagram accounts to follow, or favorite recipes? 

At the moment, I am in the process of continuously educating myself and learning (and unlearning) how to actively be anti-racist, and dismantle white supremacy, so most of the content I have to recommend is in relation to that. 

Here is a document of readings and materials for a month-long curriculum on this topic, compiled by Autumn Gupta with Bryanna Wallace’s oversight.

You can also check out Patia’s Fantasy World master list of resources on how to dismantle systemic racism.

I also recommend Layla F. Saad’s book “Me and White Supremacy” as well as her podcast “Good Ancestor.”

Another great listen is Brene Brown’s podcast episode with Ibram X. Kendi on how to be an anti-racist. 

From a self-care perspective, I recommend listening to Dr Thema’s The Homecoming Podcast.

Art-wise, I have been following the See In Black project which is a collective of Black photographers who uplift and invest in Black visibility.

Another great instagram account to follow is Janaya Future Kahn, who is a Black gender-non-conforming activist and leader.

I highly recommend watching Pose, a television series on FX that celebrates and centers trans Black life both in front and behind the lens—absolutely my favorite tv series. I’ve watched each episode at least five times at this point.

I also highly recommend the movie The Last Black Man in San Fransisco—it has the most stunning cinematography. I’ve also really enjoyed the documentary series “America to Me”. 

portrait of william, 2016, non-binary

william (glitter hand), 2016, non-binary

I find that a lot of images in your Puberty series call to mind “teen angst.” I think a lot of our angst stems not only from feeling misunderstood, but from not being heard, or even listened to. When you’re misunderstood, there’s room for growth on both sides—you get to explore and embrace a part of yourself you might not even understand, while those who misunderstand you can learn and unlearn perceptions and expectations. The LGBTQ+ community has historically been pushed to the peripheries of the public and ignored, but do you think society is beginning to listen and give the queer community visibility? What can individuals and companies do to affirm our transgender communities? 

I think there is and has been a big cultural shift happening that makes more space for queer and trans voices, yes. We have Black trans women to thank for this. We would not be here without Black trans women who founded the movement, who rioted (and continue to do so) for our rights, and who still face disproportionate levels of violence on both an individual and systemic level.

I think beyond representation, individuals and companies can put their money where their mouth is and donate funds to trans Black folks, both directly and through community organizations.

Black Trans Protestors Emergency Fund

Black Trans Travel Fund

For The Gworls

G.L.I.T.S

Marsha P. Johnson Institute

The Okra Project

Beyond both representation and reparations, there needs to be a push toward hiring trans folks in managerial positions, in curatorial positions, in positions of power.

candice in berlin (detail), 2017, non-binary

chloe in camouflage, 2018, non-binary portraits

You mention that you’ve “also been thinking about this sentence from the author of pleasure activism (Adrienne Maree Brown) a lot: ‘are you satisfiable?’” Any more thoughts on this? Are you satisfiable? Is it even possible for someone to be satisfied if the mind and our identities are not a pre-existing thing, but an ongoing achievement, mutable and moulded by a broader social and cultural context? 

I don’t know, but I’m working on it. I think of it in a capitalist, productivity context - learning to say, I don’t need more, we’ve taken too much for far too long. I think it’s something we need to collectively work on as a society as we move toward systemic change. And at the same time, continuing to say I WON’T be satisfied until there is justice for all. 

 morning scene, february 2019, puberty daily still life, february 2019, puberty

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