The Genderqueer series by photographer Chloe Aftel
What inspired your genderqueer series?
What I find great about gender nonconformity is that it’s not like everyone is a specific way. The main point in my mind is that it just opens up a space where people can say, ‘I don’t totally fit into this box. I don’t fit into that other box. I don’t really want to be in that box. i can just somehow be.’ And that can also change over time. It just allows someone to explore a space without having the boundaries of that rule or that rule or that identity or that identity, which I found really interesting. But I also thought, how do you demonstrate that physically, and how do you also fight all the preconceptions that people have of “Oh, well, you’re a lesbian, or you’re gay” – how do you work at within these very narrow definitions that people have?
So talking to people about it, photographing it and exploring it, I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool, that’s really interesting. So many people, which I didn’t expect, don’t feel like traditional gender rules are 100% what they are. They are not that narrow definition of a person. There’s all these different ways people want to be themselves, and how hard it is to fit into a mold that doesn’t make sense to you.
Personally, I just thought, ‘Okay, let’s see all the different ways people interpret this, how it works and what it looks like.’ So I just started shooting, and it went on and on. There were more and more people, and then little by little, it started to sink into the cultural zeitgeist, so there was After people who were available. I was acutely aware that I didn’t want it to feel like a movement for only a very select group of people, and also how difficult it is, in certain demographics and certain cultural backgrounds, to be able to be that person when it is not something that is understood or accepted. I wanted to explore all of that.
It’s interesting to see how the world has changed since the beginning of the project. And while I really enjoyed doing it selfishly, I think the most important thing is trying to figure out how to bring those communities and those bodies into more of what we see every day. So it’s more the push now, on the advertising side, to say, “It’s a thing, it’s a real part of life.” You have to start embracing it and representing it.
And it’s nice to have something that helps validate so many experiences. It’s kind of like, ‘You’re not alone. This is not a problem. Here’s a whole bunch of people who all feel the same way you do, and there are a million different permutations. And maybe you won’t feel like you belong in it later, but if that’s what you’re struggling with right now, it’s a resource. It’s nice to know that it helps the next generation not feel so isolated.
The Denver Art Museum acquired Emma and Amanda of your genderqueer series in the fall of 2021. Can you tell us a little more about each of these portraits?
Amanda is intersex… I think what’s fascinating about being intersex [is] it really challenges all of our ideas about gender and born sexual identity, as these are people who often live in two realms at the same time. There’s a ton of science behind it all, there’s a lot to think about, there’s a lot to explore, and the idea of a spectrum seems to be 100% validated. People can exist in what we think of as separate realms at the same time. And I also think there’s very little understanding about it, and there’s a lot of ignorance and a lot of difficulty in being intersex, which I think would be a benefit to society as a whole of have a better understanding.
Amanda is a great lawyer and a very understanding and articulate subject.
This photo for me, and part of the reason I wanted it done topless was that I wanted to flirt with this idea of ’You can think X, you can think Y. is a woman, you may think it’s a man, you may think it’s an intersex person. No matter. But what do you bring to this exchange when you look at this photo? And I hope the image disillusions people with the limitations we usually think of for the genre.
Emma was the second subject [in the series]. With Emma, I wanted to flirt with very basic genre ideas, where it’s like, ‘There’s lipstick on’. What is happening? I don’t quite know.
Maybe people are unfamiliar; maybe it’s confusing. But again, I wanted all of this to challenge a lot of things that people took for granted. And I felt like playing with Emma, who wore brightly colored lipstick; I was like, ‘Oh, could you just touch it up for me?’ and what it was for them – all this was also interesting. As well as the ceremony and the idea of how they came together. And I hope someone looks at it and says, “Oh, that doesn’t fit perfectly in a box.” What is going on and who is this person?
When people spend time looking at the portraits of the genderqueer series, what do you hope they notice? What do you hope they leave with?
Honestly, my real hope is that they have some kind of experience inside themselves. And that may sound noble, but the hope is that they look at it and think, “Huh, how beautiful”, or “How interesting”, or “I didn’t expect this”, or “I don’t know what’s going on”. on, but I’m interested. But that there is a small measure in this private moment where they question things they take for granted. Where they might be like, ‘Oh, what a beautiful person.’
And that might make them uncomfortable at first, but to sit with that for a minute and think, ‘This is something that I find beautiful, this picture, and what is it for me when it’s a little uncomfortable or she’s unfamiliar or there’s something else isn’t that how I always thought of myself?
I’m hoping that by extrapolating from that, maybe they’ll give themselves a little more space in terms of who they are, but also give the world a little more space where people can just be, present and dress as they wish and love who they love and be who they are.
This is my hope: that there is beauty and that [it] sort of disarms people very briefly.