‘Everyone wants to be seen, especially if you have been neglected, rejected, denied’ An interview with Katia Repina
Against the soft white light of the rising sun, Arisleyda Dilone cuts her hair at Rockaway Beach in New York City. With the hazy outline of the buildings of the city behind her, the sea in front, she appears resolved. She holds her long hair tightly in a fist as she positions the blade of the scissors against her scalp. We encounter the scene seconds before she cuts in an intimate moment that dances between stillness and movement, reflection and activity.
We’re proud to award Russian photographer Katia Repina who captured this image as a runner-up in This is Gender 2021. Our panel of international judges praised the image for its tender composition and the masterful visual storytelling that draws the spectator into the scene.
The image belongs to a broader transmedia project called My Own Wings, by Katia Repina and CarlaMoral, that explores intersex identity across the world. Notably, although intersex people constitute roughly 1.7% of the population, Katia’s image is the first and only image of intersex identity that we have received in the two years of running This is Gender. This stark underrepresentation in our competition reflects broader issues of erasure of intersex people, rights and issues from cultural, social, medical and legal discourse.
As part of our Representation Matters series, This is Gender curator Imogen Bakelmun connected with Katia to hear more about her winning image, the importance of rendering visible invisible intersex realities, and how to strike the balance between respectful representation and violent exposure.
My Own Wings: Challenging gender binaries
Six years ago, when the project began, Katia had no idea that it would develop into a project on intersex identity. Whilst living in Spain, Katia had resolved to produce a project on gender and the ways gender norms operate in society. She explains, “although I identify as a cis-woman, I have struggled with my gender for a long time. I am a woman, but I feel uncomfortable with performing my gender in the way that society expects me to. These gender constructs we are supposed to conform to are paradoxical; gender norms are fluid in time and space, changing depending on location, culture or period, and yet they’re strangely rigid and fixed. So, I wanted to produce a project that interrogated gender norms and how they’re enforced in society.”
The project only shifted after Carla saw a program featuring an intersex person. She had never met an intersex person before, and like many had a crude understanding of what it meant to be intersex, but together they endeavoured to find out more.
“I started at the hospitals, speaking to doctors who worked with intersex people. But I kept hearing the same response; that I wouldn’t be able to find anyone willing to be involved in the project, that intersex people are incredibly private, that for some there is no visible evidence, that many have not told their families, friends or communities, and that it wasn’t something people spoke about openly.”
“I spent a long time trying to find someone who would speak to me until I eventually met a couple who had recently had an intersex baby and were writing a blog about their experience. Over time, I built trust with the couple and, although they themselves were reluctant to feature in the project, they were able to introduce me to others,” Katia describes.
Through the conversations with the couple and with others introduced to her, Katia began to see how reductive pervasive attitudes and understandings of intersex identity are, and how dangerous such ignorance is for intersex people. Indeed, intersex issues expose a range of ways that gender and sex structure health and wellbeing. Sex diversities reveal the limitations of sex, gender and sexuality categorisation systems and body normativity, and highlight the role that social, cultural and medico-legal systems play in the formation of identities.
For Katia, these conversations and her exposure to these often invisible issues and human rights violations encouraged her to shift the project’s focus. She explains, “The topic of intersex is so huge. It affects all levels: medical, legal, social, family, and relationships, yet it is covered so little artistically. I felt that I needed a project that brought some visibility for intersex people and intersex rights.”
The long term project that ensued took Katia and Carla across the world; from the US to Ukraine, to Russia, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Panama. At each location, she connected with a range of intersex people and was given an insight into their experience, thoughts and feelings. The global reach of the project also afforded Katia an insight into the extent to which gender binaries are imposed and insisted upon across societies and cultures.
The binary conceptualization of bodies as normatively male or female is the heritage of colonialism, which took the western theory of two sexes- two genders and enforced it around the world. However, in many countries, and indeed some included in this project, gendered binarisms did not exist prior to imperial endeavours. Across many countries and cultures, understandings of gender fluidity and plurality have a long, established history. But is this reflected in contemporary attitudes to sex diversities?
Katia explains, “While there are some variations in the experience of the people that I collaborated with, each participant in each country and each culture shared the same experience of shame and silence. Shame and silence were the two recurring themes of the entire project and came up in all of my conversations with intersex people.
Of course, there are differences in social values and cultural norms across countries, and these can impact intersex people in different ways. For example, in Mexico, the dogma of the church and Machismo culture play a big part in setting the parameters of discrimination against intersex people, while in Russia the climate of homophobia codes intersex people as ‘gay’ and subject to the same oppression as queer people. However, the overall emotional experience is the same.
Our societies are made in a way that makes people who don’t fit the rigid moulds of the gender binary, and other such things, feel shame. And when you feel shame you want to hide, you want to become invisible. That’s why it’s so important to say there is nothing to be ashamed of and there is no need to hide.”
The violence of erasure
“In Mexican society, as in any other society in the world, there is no tolerance for people who are different.
There is no tolerance or respect for being different,
and even less for the intersex community that lives totally in the. darkness,
invisible to others.”- Salomon/ Mexico
At the core of This is Gender is the fundamental belief that there can be no equality until everyone is seen. The competition is designed to increase visibility of the diverse and complex ways that gender shapes health and wellbeing. But this question of visibility becomes particularly pertinent in relation to intersex identity.
In biological sciences, intersex variations are often framed as abnormalities or at best anomalies to be rendered invisible. In medicine, we see the erasure of sex diversity evidenced in the continuation of non-consensual and medically unnecessary ‘normalising’ surgeries on intersex children; a surgical intervention that is premised on the belief that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are discrete and homogeneous biological categories that must be conformed to. Most participants in the project had some experience of surgery, whether consensually or not.
Ale, one of the project’s participants from Chile describes, “I had my first surgery when I was just 2 months old. Later, at the age of 10 and 11 years old they made two more complex surgeries. These surgeries, along with the medications that they gave me (in order to assign me a female sex) were done without the knowledge of my mother and my family. The doctors made those decisions without asking if there were any concerns about these procedures. My mother was a young woman and didn’t have any understanding of what was really going on.”
Ale’s experience is echoed in Hana’s experience, a project participant from Mexico. She explains, “The circumstances that surrounded all of these medical procedures ended up being very destructive. It made me not trust in my relationship towards the world. I place the responsibility on the medical structure, the way they managed things just to comply with societal expectation.”
There is also a kind of double erasure of intersex identity that is enacted through the social, legal and cultural forces that render intersex people beyond the protocols and frameworks that are designed to enshrine human rights and protections.
Julia’s story encapsulates many of the issues that arise from this double erasure. When Julia was going through puberty, she felt estranged from her male presenting body, uncomfortable with the changes she was experiencing and at odds with the increasing social pressures of being ‘a man’. At first, Julia thought she was trans, but in her consultation with an expert, she discovered she wasn’t trans but rather intersex. For Julia, it made sense. Knowing and naming herself as intersex provided the tonic to the unease she felt growing up. She changed her name, started dressing in more female-presenting clothes, and became happier. Julia explains, “I lived part of my life as a homosexual, another part as transexual – and only the last years I am living like an intersex, what I really am.” Today, Julia is the only openly intersex person in Ukraine.
However, in Ukraine, there is no legal gender recognition of intersex and there is no existing legislation to protect intersex people from discrimination. So, when Julia tried to update her passport, she was declined and told that to change her sex in the eyes of the law, she would have to produce evidence of her transition as a trans person would. Despite Julia’s desperate pleas to be recognised as intersex, bureaucracy failed her.
Ale, Hana and Julia’s story expose how shame and silence are reinforced by society through laws, medical practices and culture. But their stories also highlight the dangers of invisibility, of not being represented, of not being included. As Katia argues, “lots of people have never even heard of intersex, it’s not always recognised in law, and where there are conversations about intersex identity it is so reductive and problematic that it doesn’t even reflect the reality. Imagine being born and nobody knowing that you can exist- that’s incredibly traumatic. It’s a human need to be seen. Everyone wants to be seen, especially if you have been neglected, rejected, denied.”
Bringing visibility… with dignity
How do you render visible a community that has long been invisible? How do you mindfully represent the experience of being intersex with dignity and respect?
Katia explains, ‘Depictions of LGBTQ+ issues and peoples are often incredibly sexualised. We live in an age saturated by images, we have been conditioned to see the most brutal, the most sexual, the most shocking images in order to feel. I didn’t want to fall into this trap. I didn’t want to play into the kinds of exposure common in medicine where the subject is the source of speculation and curiosity. You can tell a visual story about intersex identity without obsessing over anatomy”
“Visibility is essential to ensure that everyone is seen and acknowledged, but there is a difference between critical and engaged representational practices and violent exposure. For this project, I collaborated closely with my subjects. They had a huge role to play in how their image was framed. We had a lot of conversations about the places that they felt happy or safe and the places they felt triggered and uncomfortable in. Some wanted to be anonymous and others wanted to be seen. The result is a series of moments captured in collaboration with the subjects”
Indeed, across the project, subjects are photographed living their quotidian lives; one brushes their hair, one lies on a bed, elsewhere one reads a book. Each image, composed and directed by the subject.
For Arisleyda on Rockaway Beach, the image is a document of a cleansing ritual. As she cut her hair in the soft light of the rising sun, she incanted meditations and affirmations. Once the hair was cut, she ran to the sea and bathed in the waves. The ritual ended at a friend’s home, where the remaining tufts of hair were shaved.
Arisleyda found out that she was intersex as an adult, and explains, “I don’t like other people defining me, telling me who I am. I don’t like to define myself only as an intersex. It’s something that affected every aspect of my life, but it is not something that defines every aspect of my life. What I feel mostly is the power over my story. And I want to tell it by myself, with my own voice.”
Like Arisleyda, the voices of the participants weave through My Own Wings, so that the subjects become interlocutors in the encounter; demanding to be seen, heard and understood.
For any queries regarding This is Gender or Representation Matters please contact Imogen Bakelmun at firstname.lastname@example.org