World renowned photographer and artist Daphne Chan comes out from behind the
lens to explain how her latest project is deconstructing gender in a white male cis
“As a photographer you’re either a mirror or a window,” says acclaimed artist Daphne Chan. “I prefer to be a mirror and ask questions instead of giving answers. It’s not about me, it’s about you.”
In a bid to learn more about human identity, Daphne uses photography to explore issues surrounding gender, culture and sexuality. As sections of the media continue to put trans and non-binary stories under relentless scrutiny, it’s fair to say that the role of gender in our society has become a polarising issue. Even the LGBT+ community has a lot to learn. With so many grey areas that we don’t fully understand, some of the answers that Daphne refers to would definitely be welcome.
Sitting in a sunny Los Angeles apartment, she tells us that she often falls victim to the assumption that she’s jumping on a trending topic with her photographs. She warmly laughs off this suggestion, clarifying that her work is part of a “lifelong obsession” with gender and identity. This fascination began at age 13 on a trip to Bangkok. Daphne’s mother took her to a bar where a trans woman was lip-syncing. Watching the performer strut around in heels and a sequin gown was the first time that she saw the social conventions that she grew up with being challenged.
Chan’s path towards photography has been somewhat unconventional. “I always thought I would be a sex therapist!” she laughs, explaining, “I like to talk about the things that people don’t want to talk about.” Though after gaining a degree in psychology she decided to go to law school. “I thought that maybe I could help people who’re disenfranchised to have rights,” she says.
But after graduating from law school and working for a variety of non-profits, Daphne moved to New York in 2006 to study photography. Drawn towards the city’s disruptive culture, she began using her photographs to give a voice to the voiceless. “The camera is just a vehicle to enter people’s lives and give their stories a platform.” She explains, before adding, “It might sound idealistic, but that’s been my purpose.”
For her latest project, Transparency,
Daphne finds herself back in New York using portraiture to examine individuals who defy the social binary of male and female. By capturing people in an intimate setting, she creates images that are both confrontational and vulnerable. This not only challenges stereotypes, but also brings visibility to the most marginalised members of the queer community.
When we ask the million-dollar question – “What is gender?” – Daphne reasons that it’s both a social construct and a biological reality. “From a scientific point of view, we’re more than XX and XY chromosomes,” she says. “There are apparently more than 16 variations.”
Although she assesses that at present gender is intrinsic to who people are, Daphne argues that it’s just one way that people choose to categorise each other. She cites the election of President Trump – who she coldly refers to as “number 45” – as an example. “I talk about gender a lot as a concept, but obviously we’re living in a white male supremacist society,” she says. Yet despite Trump’s relentless attacks on women’s reproductive rights and feminist ideals, 53% of white women still voted for him. “Our brains are compartmentalised,” she explains. “We divide people into groups: male, white skin, blue eyes… People can identify with each other through gender, race, culture or education, and gender isn’t always first.”
Before embarking on this project, Daphne admits that she didn’t fully understand the strength of the connection between misogyny and trans issues. But after listening to so many trans women’s stories of homelessness, drug use, violence and lack of access to healthcare, the link between misogyny and male to female transitions couldn’t be clearer.
“The vast majority of hostility is directed towards trans women,” she says. “Maybe it’s another way of expressing misogyny? By
“We’re starting to see each other as ‘other’ as opposed to ‘together’.
masking it under discrimination that is seen as more socially acceptable right now.”
Although she’s married to a man, Daphne identifies as bisexual and encourages solidarity between all areas of the LGBT+ community. “One of my friends is a trans woman who used to identify as a gay man, but post-transition she identifies as a lesbian,” she says. “There’s great fluidity in movements.” Chan also believes that empowering minority voices will be essential in improving life for marginalised queer people. “If you don’t see yourself, you can’t identify yourself. You start to model yourself after other people,” she explains, crediting her background in law for teaching her what can happen when people aren’t represented. “Awareness and recognition are important parts of gaining acceptance,” she says. “Then comes most important step of all: securing legal rights.” In America, the country that Daphne currently calls home, the rights of LGBT+ people are under threat. After Trump’s shock election victory, a wave of anti-LGBT+ hate crime swept the nation. Many queer people were attacked and others received threatening letters through their doors. “The way things are going in American and European politics, we’re starting to see each other as ‘other’ as opposed to ‘together’,” Daphne concludes.
Although research shows that a fifth of antiLGBT+ hate crimes since the election directly referenced Trump, the rise in hostility towards LGBT+ people in America predates his political rise. In fact, over 200 anti-LGBT+ bills have been introduced at state level since 2015, when the US Supreme Court lifted the ban on same-sex marriage. These laws are so severe that a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando could have walked into work the next day and been legally fired for being gay. And as Trump presses ahead with banning trans people from serving in the US military, LGBT+ Americans find themselves trapped in a state of hyper-vigilance.
Yet Daphne is optimistic things will get better, especially when she considers how young people are approaching gender and sexuality: “If a child wants to wear nail polish, wear a skirt or take ballet, parents need to be open enough to listen. It’s a different world now.”
She adds, concluding, “I believe in people raising their children to be whoever they are – that’s the future.”