“Hello darling are you ready for me?”
It’s an interesting non-sequitur . It is only 10am but this is London’s Soho where anything can happen and I’ve chosen this spot to shoot street portraits precisely because I know I’m more likely to find the most richly colourful characters here than I am most other places. I am experimenting with using a strobe to light my subjects and this particular spot is perfect for that exercise. My light is set up and ready to go and I am just taking a meter reading as all six feet something of this fabulous looking creature glides into the alley way where I’m setting up.
Chapone Place is an otherwise dingy dead end alley next to the Soho Theatre off Dean Street. It is rather squalid and on a Saturday morning it can smell just a little too strongly of the night before if you get too close to the walls. But it’s covered and so out of the glare of the sun and it’s off one of the busier side streets in Soho so there is always a steady stream of people walking past. The location allows me to set up, keep out of the way and then accost unsuspecting characters as they walk by and persuade them into my project.
“As ready as I will ever be”, I reply, trying to be cool. I stall for time and ask her name half expecting her to say that it’s Lola, L, O, L, A Lola.
“Latoyah” she replies. I’m vaguely disappointed but as I said, it’s still only 10am and before I’ve even spoken to anyone I’ve had about the most fabulous looking and most photographically interesting subject actually proposition me.
Latoyah’s gender identity is relatively easy to deduce; she identifies as female but was assigned male at birth. Her structure is simply fabulous; long strong arms, fine cheek bones, slim hips, penetrating eyes; she is every inch Grace Jones and is captivating to look at. She is also incredibly easy to talk to. There is an easy comfort in her engagement that lacks any kind of antagonism and she has an affable style that is strongly suggestive of someone entirely at ease with themselves. It’s not that I’m suggesting this is anything other than I would anticipate, but my understanding of the issues associated with gender dysphoria is that the complexity and emotional burden of having to reconcile your assigned with your innate gender isn’t something that most people going through that experience would describe as easy.
My insight here is of course limited although I do have a little more than perhaps the average person simply by virtue that my best friend, whom I have known since we were 14, came out as transgender three years ago. She made the incredibly brave decision to pursue her transition as fully as possible, first choosing to outwardly express her female gender and then, very bravely, using surgery to correct the misalignment. I’ve tried to support her as best I can throughout that process; I am her best friend and she mine but I always have a sense that this must be a terribly lonely journey given how little most people can ever help to understand the complexities of the experience let alone have any real empathy for it. Few people have any frame of reference by which to understand the experience.
But Latoyah’s perspective is remarkable uncomplicated; we talk animatedly about my friend, about her own style and about her very big and very messy night out that she is only just returning from.
Having explained what it is I do, I ask if she was serious when she asked if I was ready for her and she hesitates for just a moment, expressing some concern that she won’t be looking quite as fabulous as she would like given that she has been up all night. I reassure her that this is complete nonsense (it really is) and she settles in to a pose for me. I want her to be bold and proud but just a little wistful and uncertain. It takes a little while to get beyond the burlesque (though the burlesque shots are also really quite fun) but we get there eventually.
We spend probably 15 minutes trying to get it right; I have a sense that it’s important to do that, to do her justice and make her look fabulous. Afterwards we hug and say goodbye and I offer to send her a copy giving her my contact details but oddly she never gets in touch. This is not unusual; often I think the anonymity of the moment is what allows the person to be engaged in this very direct way and maintaining that connection after the fact and in particular obtaining a copy of the results, would collapse that wave of anonymity into something more real and inherently more threatening.
Mostly this lack of follow up contact doesn’t bother me and if I think it might (because I think that the results are something I really want the person to have) I ask for their email address rather than rely on them having mine. I don’t know why I didn’t do this in Latoyah’s case; it’s something I regret.