Daphne Chan

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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

su­prem­a­cist so­ci­ety.

“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.”

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