KT: How did you get into photography? When/what was your first encounter with Art & Activism together?
MPA: I was a painter when I took a class with Harold Feinstein, the renowned photographer and teacher. I enjoyed it so much that I continued.
KT: Being involved with gender-nonconforming subjects since the late 70s, when did you start photographing the transgender community? What caught your attention in the first place?
MPA: I started photographing crossdressers in 1978 when I first met a group who were staying at the same hotel where my husband and I were staying. We were there for Mardi Gras, an annual festival in New Orleans, Louisianna. I became close friends with one of the people I met there, who turned out to live near me in NYC. She took me into her life. I went to all sorts of events, met her friends, and gradually, more and more people.
KT: You have published a series of very special artist books’ – ‘Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them (1990)’, ‘The Gender Frontier’(2003), ‘TransCuba’ (2014) and recent one being ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand’ which focuses on transgender community scene in South-East Asia. What do you like about the medium of photography in book format?
MPA: I love books because you can include a whole visual story, choreograph the photographs in all sorts of ways, depending on what you want the book to express. And, of course, you can include text. I also like to exhibit much larger images in a gallery. At that size, on a wall, the pictures interact differectly.
KT: Your recent book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand‘ talks about the gender-fluidity in the South-East Asia. How was the experience of photographing in Asia different from the pre-conceived notion of western trans-community? What according to you needs to be celebrated/highlighted more?
MPA: In Burma and Thailand, Spirit Mediums have a role in the community, and they are appreciated for being the conduit for communication from spirits that possess them. Although both countries are homophobic and transphobic, spirit mediums who start out as men,(there are many female spirit mediums as well) are usually gay or transgender. In the past, Native Americans, (and Hijra?) were revered for their spiritual practices, and were part of their community. Almost everywhere in the world now, ancient spiritual practices have been destroyed: considered superstitious, evil, and improper. I would like to see more interest in these practices, and more open minds.
KT: Having been awarded the Lambda Literary Award for The Gender Frontier, you are an activist more than a photographer who has given voice to trans-community by documenting their visual history. Do you always like to work on subjects which have social-impact on the society? What do you do you want to achieve with your photography in the end? =
MPA: I see myself as an artist first but am so happy that I found a place where I could make a difference in the lives of many people. I am lucky to be able to collaborate and give a voice to people who have been hidden for so long, or have been bullied by the society in which they live. I appreciate having been part of a movement that will lead the way out of strict and limiting binary roles to the joy of being able to express oneself in the way that feels right.
Images©Mariette Pathy Allen