Interview with photographer Chloe Aftel
GenderQueer – Intimate and Genuine
Gender is a current topic of discussion and debate – politically, and socially. A political debate wages on in several states to decide who should use which restroom based on their assigned gender at birth, versus the gender with each person identifies themselves. Time Magazine’s cover story for March 27, 2017 is ‘Beyond He or She’; how a new generation is defining how they relate and interact with the world. This ‘non-binary’ sense of self-awareness is not just something one might encounter in psychology or sociology studies; It is literally front page news.
Genderqueer, along with the alternate term nonbinary, are umbrella terms that address individuals who feel that the terms man and woman, or male and female, do not adequately describe the way they feel about their gender and/or the way they wish others to see them. Members of the genderqueer community generally try to distinguish themselves from people who call themselves transgender, because that term more closely relates to a different sense of self in a binary comparison. Generally, it means the individual identifies with a different binary gender than their gender assigned at birth.
For her series “Genderqueer,” Aftel photographed self-identified genderqueer individuals in their homes in an effort to explore a community that she says is too-often misunderstood. Aftel says that a few years ago, she and a friend were talking about the GenderQueer movement and she felt she wanted to explore it further on her own. Aftel feels her gender identity never fell neatly into one group or another, so she was curious what this discussion was grappling with.
She had shot three portraits in her project, when she was assigned to shoot Sasha Fleischman for an editorial piece in San Francisco Magazine. In the fall of 2013, Sasha was set on fire on an Oakland, California public bus because they (Sasha doesn’t use she or he as identifiers) wore a skirt with a men’s shirt. After this terrible event, more people were willing to be photographed and take a stand about the basic human rights that should be extended to any person regardless of gender identification. Aftel has photographed this evolving culture that consists of those living outside or in between the gender binary, refusing to define themselves as strictly male or female.
Cary Benbow (CB): Beyond your project statement, please talk about the idea behind your GenderQueer portfolio. Does it relate to other work of yours?
Chloe Aftel (CA): Gender, identity and sexuality have always been subjects I enjoy exploring. Pieces of that permeate all my projects, I don’t think people fit neatly into boxes, nor should they, so I want to see what that looks like in real life.
CB: It has been a few years since you first started this project, is this an ongoing series? How much do you add to this project on a regular basis?
CA: Yes, I am constantly shooting for this series, until it is close to comprehensive, 1-2 times a month at least. I’ve been working on it since 2012 and it’s been interesting watching how the movement has grown and in what directions. I’ve never had a project that has been completed quickly, sadly! When I begin these, it’s with the knowledge it takes years to do correctly.
CB: As a photographer, what obligation do you feel to the people in your photos?
CA: I think my job is to portray subjects honestly, whatever that means. It’s not about a message or my intent, it’s about letting people be themselves and finding a way to shoot that.
CB: What photographers or artists do you take inspiration from? How does it affect how you work?
CA: I love a lot of the dead and older people, Arbus and Eggleston are favorites, as well as Gordon Parks, and Avedon, but there are so many who are still alive and awesome, like Steven Meisel, Alison Scarpulla, Joe Szabo, Matt Eich…. I don’t know if I am often inspired. I think I just like the work. I like problems and mistakes.
CB: Do you see your work as a way of documenting your life experiences in a way, or commenting on them with intent?
CA: I don’t discuss intent, as i want people to take from them what they will. Hopefully the images have enough structure to stay something and enough room for the viewer to take away what they will.
CB: Is the GenderQueer series specific to a certain place or community or would it be applicable to anyone who identifies as non-binary?
CA: The people in it are from all over the country, from rural Ohio, to Detroit, to Seattle, and a million other places. I hope this series speaks to people no matter where they live and how able they currently feel to be themselves.
CB: What compels you to make the images you create – for this project or otherwise?
CA: Oh man, I love taking pictures, I love making shit, I love making the technical change the visual. I also love making a living. I just don’t want the say the same tired crap that’s already been said. If i can do that, it’s very gratifying. I want to shoot a million different subjects, and I don’t want all the images to look homogenized, so it’s much less about adhering to a certain genre and much more about understanding a subject, if that makes sense.
CB: From the standpoint of a working professional, how do you decide to take on new projects? What type of balance do you try to make between editorial and commercial clients?
CA: I think you always have to do both. They do inform one another, but you need to eat and you need to do work that really pushes you. Once in a while, ad jobs do that, but the personal work is where you just have to figure it out. I think that’s what makes you better in all aspects of the job. You make mistakes and can take some joy in what they teach you.
CB: What are you currently working on? Any new projects?
CA: Yes, many! One on what it means to be a woman now, another on portraits of artists and intellectuals, and a few more. It’s the best work to do aside from making a living.
CB: What advice would you give to someone who wants to take on projects like GenderQueer?
CA: To be patient, it takes a lot of time and learning to figure out how to best do it and there will ALWAYS be problems and challenges that come up. One has to stay the course and remain focused while being open to changing as one’s understanding of the project evolves.
To see more of Chloe Aftel’s work, visit: www.chloeaftel.com
Also published on Medium.