When It Comes to Gender Identity, There’s More Than Just “Male” and “Female”
“The seeds for the idea came out of conversations I had with a very dear friend,” said Emily Besa. “It occurred to me that gender expression and identity are not always visible, and certainly not commonly represented in all the nuances and possibilities.”
Together with Bernd Ott, Besa created the book All The People, which they are currently raising money on Kickstarter to fund. Besa, a creative consultant, conducted interviews with all the people in the book. She approached Ott, who works mainly as a fashion photographer, to work with her on the project. They started in Amsterdam, where Besa lives, and London, where Ott lives. From there, they went to L.A., Berlin, and New York, since they both had connections there. Through portraits and interviews they celebrate gender identity’s diversity and explore its complexities.
Left: Clara. Right: David.
“We worked with people living in five major cities in the Western world, cities that are magnets for people who are looking for environments to be just as they are and not be bothered too much. What I did see as a geographic pattern is often the city people migrated to was much more accepting than where they had lived before. So there was definitely a pattern of people moving to places for community and sometimes even for safety, and improved physical, mental, and emotional health,” Besa said.
Besa and Ott said their approach to finding subjects through friends, mutual acquaintances, and organizations was not intended to be academic or sociological. Instead, through their portraits and interviews, they hoped “in some small way” to capture “the rich diversity of gender expression and being.”
Ott encouraged the people featured in the book to choose the location for their portrait so that they would feel as comfortable and safe as possible. “What I hope to find in a picture I take of someone is something that is surprising but still instantly recognizable as a part of their character. During editing, I generally pick the photo that feel to me that it was taken when someone dropped their guard for the moment and stepped out of the role everyone plays for others. That is what I always hope to capture,” he said.
For Besa, working on All The People illuminated how much a heteronormative gender binary affects “every aspect of society” and solidified the need for an opening up of what it means to be male and female. For Ott, the project underscored the universal qualities of his subjects that transcend gender identity.
“The amazing part to me was how at some point the gender definition became so meaningless once I realized that it exists in so many variations. Then it is the human being I am interested in and not the label, which doesn’t fit many people anyway. How easy it becomes to get close to someone once categorizations that separate us into different groups are null and void,” Ott said.
Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slate’s Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.