Photographer widens view on gender in island nation.
In some ways, to take photographs is to study moments; it is to be preoccupied with glances, with lighting, with things that transpire in a quarter of a quarter of a quarter of a second. It seems right, then, to consider how two moments shaped the career of photographer Mariette Pathy Allen.
The first, which we’ll get to in a bit, was by a pool in New Orleans in February 1978, just as Mardi Gras was winding down. The second, which is where we’ll start, was at a Cuban nightclub called Las Vegas in January 2012.
For 35 years, Allen had taken
pictures of transgender people and communities in the United States, watching a movement unfold from something quiet, something kept close, to something loud, something shouting for visibility. That history brought Allen to the island for a conference about transgender health and to the dark club for a night out. “It was very lively, a lot of fun,” she says.
As she scanned the room that night, she found Amanda. There was something about her, something open. “We just sort of looked at each other, and we walked over to each other and she took my hand, and we walked to the bar.”
That moment was all it took. Allen spent the next week with Amanda and another woman, Nomi, whom she’d met through a different photographer. She got to know them and photographed them as they lived their lives. She would wind up returning to Cuba three more times during the next two years. The group expanded to include Malu, Amanda’s roommate. “It became a trio,” Allen says, her camera focused “on those three women, their lives, their friends and different things we did.”
The photographs are collected in a book called “TransCuba,” and some of them are on display through July at Rayko Photo Center (along with two other series, by two other photographers, exploring queer themes). Now, as the U.S. moves to normalize relations with Cuba, the photographs take on new relevance. “There are some terrible stories in the book, terrible things happening to people,” Allen says. “It’s obviously important for people to know about what goes on and now especially, because Cuba is opening up.”
That you can find value in Allen’s photographs for both their aesthetic merit and their utility is something that’s been true from the very beginning, which brings us back to New Orleans in 1978 and how all of this began.
Allen doesn’t quite remember if she was staying in a hotel or a motel at the time (not that it really matters), but she knows she was alone when she came down to breakfast. “I saw this incredible group of people — fascinating-looking people, done up to the nines, and here it was morning,” Allen says. “I was alone with my camera equipment. Somebody in the group said, ‘Well, you want to join us for breakfast?’ ” So she did.
Afterward, the group of cross-dressers (that’s the word they used to describe themselves then, the same year that Harvey Milk was sworn in as a San Francisco supervisor and months later assassinated) got up and walked to the swimming pool. “They stood in a line, and somebody from the group started taking pictures of them, and then I thought, ‘I wonder if it’s OK for me to take a picture?’ I didn’t know what the rules were. But I thought I’d try and I lifted the camera to my eye.”
‘I had work to do’
And here is the moment, the one so heavy with fate that Allen almost quotes herself, word for word, every time she tells this story: “The person right in the middle was looking straight back at me. And I had this incredible feeling that I wasn’t looking at a man or a woman but somehow the essence of a human being, I was looking into somebody’s soul. It’s just how I felt. I said to myself as I took that picture, ‘I have to have this person in my life.’ ”
That person was Vicky West, she lived just 20 blocks away from Allen in New York City, and the two became friends. That poolside photograph was the beginning of what would become an almost 40-year exploration of gender through photography for Allen (one, it should be noted, that wasn’t always embraced by galleries and collectors, given the content). “After I started to understand much more about this culture, I should say, I realized I had work to do. That I could make a contribution.”
Aside from “TransCuba,” Allen has published two other collections of photography focusing on transgender lives, one in 1990 and one in 2004, assembling a visual history as it actually happened. In identity, Allen finds an almost limitless inquiry.
“I saw it as not a tiny subject, but as an enormous subject. And I still do. I mean, I think it’s about our essence. What is a man? What is a woman?” Allen says. “I think that, um, your identity, your sense of self is about as big an issue as anything else. It’s something we all have to deal with every day. When you get up in the morning, what do you put on? What does it mean? How do you present yourself? What do you see when you look in the mirror?”
In “TransCuba,” there are moments of repose and intimacy, of a family sitting together, of a couple sharing a tender kiss on a warm beach, of a woman blowing on another’s drying fake eyelashes. In many of the photographs, the subjects meet the camera head-on, an old, unspoken gesture that says something like, “We are here.”
Courage to come out
The images, aside from exploring the lives of trans women in Cuba, also reveal the textures of a changing country. At the gallery, Allen pointed out one picture in particular, set in a barbershop. Front and (almost) center is a young man getting his hair cut, but around him, you can find a sort of timeline — artifacts of the past (a poster of Fidel Castro) and signs of now (a man wearing a Playboy tank top). “My thesis about trans Cuba is that as Cuba sort of opens up to the outside world and communism is less strict, that’s mirrored by the way improvements are occurring for the lives of trans people. It’s a parallel,” Allen says.
And times are changing. The conference that brought Allen to Cuba was put together by a group that provides medical and psychological services to transgender and gay people — a group that’s headed by Mariela Castro Espín, the daughter of Cuban leader Raúl Castro. Transgender surgeries are now covered by the state, there are days marked to fight and march against transphobia and homophobia, and a few years back, a trans woman was elected to public office for the first time.
“The revolution in 1959 was supposed to be for everybody, but not everyone benefited from it; homosexuals were excluded,” Malu, one of the women at the heart of the series, says in the transcripts at the back for the book. She adds later, “The march brought visibility to homosexuals in the population. It gave a lot of people the courage to come out of the closet.”
All of Allen’s books include transcripts of interviews with the subjects, and in the case of “TransCuba,” they appear both in English and Spanish. “To me, it’s a requirement,” Allen says. “How can you keep taking from people, taking pictures? You may have different skill sets or different visual gifts, but, at the end, you get it because they’re willing to be photographed.”
Malu, one of the transgender subjects photographed by Mariette Pathy Allen for “TransCuba,” with her parents and sister outside their home in Cienfuegos. “The revolution in 1959 was supposed to be for everybody, but not everyone benefited,” Malu says.
Laura, from Mariette Pathy Allen’s “TransCuba,” which has transcripts of interviews with subjects.