This week, #DRAG speaks to photographer John Rae to find out more about his fascinating work.
How did you get into photography? Has it always been a passion of yours?
As a child I was very active with drawing and painting. I even won a few competitions and sold some pieces, so the artistic streak was always there. I became interested in photography at uni back in the 80’s when I bought my first proper camera. I joined the camera club, where I learnt to shoot and develop black and white film and wet prints in a darkroom.
What kind of photography are you mainly interested in?
I currently teach photography in further education where I engage with a whole range of genres, from landscape to close-ups. But my main interest has always been photographing people. Human behaviour fascinates me and capturing the essence of a person’s identity is an almost impossible challenge in still photography. Its all illusion, as there is no real movement in a photograph, and volume or expression are the things we rely on when “seeing” people in the real world.
Could you tell me a bit more about your projects involving individuals who are transgender and drag kings?
My early work centres around projects based on superficial identifying marks on the body, like scars and tattoos. I used various casting websites to find willing subjects. It was during one of those castings that my eyes were opened to the world of scrambled gender codes. One of the participants, Lisa, went off to get changed and came back as “Bertie“, complete with facial hair and bulges in the right places! She introduced me to the fascinating world of drag kings and I changed direction at that point and started working with people who either identify as transgender or cross dress for other reasons.
One of the participants, went off to get changed and came back as a man, complete with facial hair and bulges in the right places!
Could you tell me a bit more about Trans F or M (2012)?
“Trans F or M” is work that was submitted for my final assessment for my Master’s Degree in Photography towards the end of last year, and features five panels. Each panel shows a different character in both female and male modes of dress. The title is a play on the “Transform” and is written in such a way as to pose the question “are they Trans, Female or Male?”. My hope is that the answer that viewers might find is another question….”Does it really matter?”. The people featured in “Trans F or M” are from a whole range of backgrounds, one does not identify as trans at all and prefers “hermaphrodite”, one is male to female transgender, one engages with cross dressing for non-sexual social reasons, Lisa/Bertie is there representing drag as performance and yet another is simply a red herring and dressed up for the first time just for this project.
Which project has been your favourite so far?
My favourite project is always the last or current one. Off the back of “Trans F or M” I was commissioned by Artrix in Birmingham to produce new work earlier this year, which broadens out into the wider LGBT community. The theme is “Circus” or sideshow and at its lowest level draws on the exhibitionism and theatre often associated with subcultures. For this series I travelled over a 1000 miles across England and Wales and photographed over twenty individuals in seven different locations. The circus project was shown as part of a solo exhibition in Birmingham in February earlier this year.
What has the reaction from the public been to your work?
The public’s reaction has been varied, some of my work is “difficult” or transgressive and challenging, so some people find it difficult to engage with. For example, the Circus series includes some mild BDSM references and even male genitals but was readily displayed at Artrix, which is a family friendly venue, without any complaints. Many, however, enjoy the visual games and often want to know more about the people and subjects illustrated, which ties into my motivation to engage with the concept of identity in the first place.
What do those who are photographed by you think of your work?
I consider the people I have photographed for art projects to be collaborators and have even credited some of them as the “artist” in some works – much to the dismay of other photographers who can be very precious about “their” images. The collaboration often starts with a discussion about the issues being represented and I respect each individual’s input and effort. People are often proud to be involved in the representation of subject matter that they individually feel very passionately and personally connected to.
Do you think your work spreads awareness about gender-related issues?
I hope to raise awareness of emerging non-normative identities, whether that be gender-related, neo-tribal or mental health issues .
What are your plans for the future?
I have a few project ideas around gender and an unrelated project on facial disfigurement. I am also exploring self-injury which is a topic I have looked at before . Having exhibited widely in Birmingham and Manchester, I am hoping to get more interest from London and the home counties. I have a couple of group shows lined up for later this year and into 2014 but would welcome any enquiries from prospective galleries and curators in the South East and indeed elsewhere in the UK.