My Grand Father was a trans woman ( though in the mid 1970s-80s we thought of it as cross dressing). I remember his dress in my Grand Mother's wardrobe, all moss green polyester with large pink flowers and his clumsy attempts to apply circles of blusher and pale blue eye shadow. I was abused as a child by my maternal grand parents, some of their friends and a doctor, raped, beaten and suffocated, knocked unconscious. I am not sure why their rage did not kill me. I knew how to keep secrets (or tell and receive punishments) and I knew broken bones, depression, suicidal thoughts and the longing to escape and build a new life. This became a photography project that has lasted over two years and has successfully exhibited. This also became a harrowing personal journey for me.
Typically in the period up to the 1990s the word transgender did not exist. Some men shamefully cross dressed in private. There was no place for them in society and no internet to find out information. Perhaps some thought they were ill, or felt self disgust, perhaps men who are angry typically seek release in violence and attack femininity: the thing they cannot become. I have no idea what he thought or felt. He is dead, he may not even share my framework of reference. On his death bed he asked me to forgive him.
At face value I was a photographer who thought this was an interesting project, in fact in May 2107 if my portrait of a trans woman Olivia Fisher had not exhibited at the Getty Gallery London, I may never have continued with the work and been forced to examine my own childhood and uncover truths that were not obvious to me until more recently after the series exhibited and seemed to take on a life of its own. My soul hung on the gallery walls. Shadowy images of memories I had not even understood and had suppressed, rose up one day after meeting the author Christine Burns and reading her book, "Trans Britain" which has accounts of transgendered people from the 1970s and 80s; the landscape of my childhood.
When I ask someone to sit for me the experience is raw and intimate for us both. I ask a subject to remove the mask, to offer an unguarded moment and let me look inside. We build connections and trust, we each share and are prepared to expose something hidden. A portrait aims to show the inner truth of a person not the outward appearance. I watch intensely to capture the unguarded moment, focusing on the eye. I think it is photo therapy for us both as the sitter is often surprised by the result never having seen themselves in this way and often finding the portrait authentic and beautiful. In my head I was not aware that I was hiding my secret. It was as if the memories were buried and ceased to exist. If I had brought them to consciousness I could simply not have photographed them. To hide the monster I pushed it to the attic.
The trans women I photographed made me face my fears, they were very gentle, they had suffered a great deal, they told me stories of forgiveness. How they understood the father or brother who could not accept them and knew that person needed time, and were also suffering. In the end I too understood that I needed to forgive, or at least learn how to let go of my pain and anger. I began to explore how, I began to find some relief. My first hand experience of trans women in 2107 contradicted my experience as a child. These two stories from very different places on a timeline collided. Or rather by the autumn of 2018 they were both in my consciousness at last.
This journey is my story. How I suppressed something monstrous, and faced and photographed my fear. I found human stories, friends and women I identified with. I found no monsters in my studio, and when I told my trans friends this story it was me who sought and found acceptance and love and kindness.
The series, which is ongoing, shortlisted for a City Life Award in 2018 and "Grace" won Portrait of Britain 2019.