Female to “Male” is a project that documents —through photographs, vocal recordings and other materials— Neilly’s personal journey through gender transformation. The intimacy and attention to detail are undeniable, giving the viewer a rare chance to somewhat experience the different steps involved and understand gender identity in a completely different light. The Toronto-based award-winning photographer talks extensively about his project and shares his views on gender transition in this interview.
What does it mean to be “male” or, generally speaking, to not fall exclusively into one of the two main “gender boxes”?
To me, being “male” is my way of explaining my trans identity in the simplest form. I am male appearing in many ways, I live my life in society as male, but my maleness is really only based on my physical appearance and that alone. I like to use quotes around the word male because, yes, I do seem like I fit into the category of male, but there is a lot more to me and my gender identity. I don’t see myself as being born into the wrong body really; I’ve pursued this journey to reach a point where my physical appearance is comfortable for me. Everything about my identity is pretty queer.
A process is usually defined as a series of steps that leads to a particular end. Gender transition then may therefore be seen as a process by many. Would you say this piece of work is about a process —with a beginning and an end— or one continuous journey?
This piece of work doesn’t really have a beginning or ending. I started taking photos of myself at a time when things would be changing rapidly, and I was fascinated by the idea of being able to document puberty exactly when I knew it was going to begin. There are many parts of my journey that happened before this project started that aren’t included in the installation. As for an ending? I really have no idea. I want to continue documenting myself as I age and mature. I don’t really know when I will stop, but I have started spacing out the documentation process due to the fact that not very much happens weekly after a year or two has gone by. The work began to feel a little monotonous.
When did you decide that the project was finished and ready to be shown to the general public?
There was never a moment when I decided it was complete and ready to be shown. I had an exhibition planned and I knew that it would be landing right around the time of being a year into the project. At that point I knew I would have enough material to do the first installation without it seeming to early on in the process. I plan to show the work in many more stages as time passes and my collection of images becomes larger. I have a show coming up at the University of Arizona in the beginning of 2016, and that will be my second installment of this series, part 2 if you will.
You used various tools to aid you with the representation of this stage in your life such as photographs, voice recordings, amongst others. Does this call for a closer attention of the little details of such a big procedure?
Absolutely. It is easy to look at the overall process and say “Wow! He looks so different”. It’s the small things that have the most impact, in my opinion. For example: the moment when the viewer/listener hears my voice drop for the first time, or someone looking through my documents and realizing the financial and medical obstacles that stood in the way of my physical and emotional freedom. This is why I want people to take their time walking through the installation.
As much as there are physical and quite visual changes in transformation as the one you are representing in your work, there are also intangible elements present in such an experience, such as one’s psychological state. How does a visual artist succeed to demonstrate something as abstract as this?
This is a great question, one that I have had to ask myself a number of times throughout this project. My hope is that through the organization of the installation and the various contents within the project, this work will allow people to flow through the last three years of my life and feel connected to all of the stages. I hope that this work becomes educational, understandable and relatable to all walks of life. The physical installation of this series includes some very personal and vulnerable pieces that have been plucked out of this experience. I think that those details offer a huge glimpse into the physiological state I was experiencing at the time.
You’ve done work in which you shot other people (such as Of Center). What is the main difference, as an artist, of staying exclusively behind the camera to becoming the centerpiece of a project?
With this project specifically, I was able to have unlimited, uninterrupted access to a body that was constantly changing. My own. With the intentions I have now for this project, I don’t think it would be possible for it to become something ongoing and ever-changing if I was photographing another subject. There is a level of intimacy I can allow out of myself that I don’t know if I could have access to with photographing another person. The commitment and dedication is constant and reliable when doing a series of self-portraits. On top of all this, I was also just insanely excited to see what kind of results I would see from documenting myself.
The exhibition also focuses on something that is usually not discussed: the actual medical process and how draining it can be on the most diverse levels, including financially. Should this be more discussed in the society?
There are parts of the installation that focus on things like money and surgery and hormone access. I think things like this should be discussed more because these are most often the aspects of transition that are unattainable to most trans people. These are the things that are determined by government officials and doctors who more often than not, don’t understand or support a person’s decision to transition. Trans related surgeries are not covered in Canada unless you get on a 2 to 3 year waiting list through CAMH. This kind of barrier can be extremely dangerous when a trans person is unable to live comfortably in their body and when the suicide rate is extremely high within the trans community.
What are some of the main misconceptions around the matters represented in Female to “Male”?
You know, I don’t really know what kinds of negative responses or misconceptions people have about this project. I would imagine that many people go into the installation assuming one story or one narrative about trans people and maybe come out understanding that this assumption is wrong. There isn’t one story to tell about trans people because every person has a different relationship to their identity and everyone comes from a different set of experiences and challenges.
Do you believe art may be a more efficient way of reaching more people with regard to this subject?
Art is a universal language. It can get anyone thinking about a particular concept or problem. I think that there is potential for trans issues to be heard and understood better, but it will take more than just art to get to that point. Art plays a huge role in making changes for the community but it is vital that allies, families, schools, governments and medical professionals are providing support when it counts. Hopefully people who are in positions of power will be observers or participants of art with the purpose of making change.
What do you want the public to get from Female to “Male”?
I was talking to my roommate about my recent showing and some of my previous work that had been shown last year and their view was that my work essentially hands the viewers on a silver platter all the information that they might not be aware of, or understand. It is important to me that the viewer can walk away from this exhibition feeling less ignorant, more educated, and can understand that this work is about MY trans experience, not all trans experiences.
What can we expect from your work in the future?
I don’t have any plans for the near future other than to continue with this body of work and gradually get it into various gallery spaces around North America. I want to explore some new mediums and new ways of relating to myself in order to pump out another major project.
Wynne Neilly’s official website for more information on the artist and his work.