This is Gender 2021
1000 moments, 1000 different lives, across 65 countries in the world, This is Gender 2021 provides profound insights into how gender shapes people’s lives in a time of unprecedented social pressure and crisis.
Visualising gender in times of pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is gendered. Not only has COVID-19 starkly revealed gender to be a major driver of health- who gets sick and who lives or dies-, it has also exposed existing social fractures and inequalities and exasperated pervasive and restrictive notions of gender.
Our work reveals a systematic failure to address gender in the global pandemic response. Governments that fail to record sex-disaggregated data; whole communities of trans and gender-diverse people occluded from reporting; a global health system unwilling to factor gender into their response; these gaps and imbalances create major blind spots in our understanding of COVID-19 and inhibit our ability to achieve better health and equal opportunities for all people of all genders, everywhere. There can be no equality until everyone is seen.
To counter pervasive gender blindness and to accompany our 2021 report Gender Equality: Flying Blind in Times of Crisis, This is Gender 2021 drew together a panel of international experts to select 30 images from across the world that explore gender in pandemic in all its diversity.
From trans sex workers struggling to get by in Brazil, child-rearing in a Rohingya refugee camp, a sari fashioned into makeshift PPE in a rural Indian clinic to reflections on intergenerational trauma and masculinity in Australia, each image offers an aperture through which to witness the diffusion of gender norms through our lives. They cast light on how our gender shapes the systems in which we live, the opportunities, choices and rights we have, and the way we understand our own minds and bodies.
Taken together, the photographs offer a greater field of depth that renders visible what it means to be a gendered body in a time of pandemic. Vibrant, dynamic, and defiant, they disrupt the gender blindness of the COVID-19 response and demand to be seen.
Winning image: Black drag magic – portrait of a drag artist and activist
Lee-Ann Olwage. South Africa, 2019.
Belinda Qaqamba Ka-Fassie, a drag artist and activist, poses at a Shisanyama—a community space where women cook and sell meat—in Khayelitsha, a township located on the Cape Flats, near Cape Town, South Africa. Discrimination, harassment and violence is part of everyday life for LGBTQ+ people in townships such as Khayelitsha, and yet here Belinda reclaims the public space. Defiantly positioned in the centre of the frame, hands on hips, gaze unbroken, she draws the admiration of the local food sellers.
Palomas, transsexuality and pandemic
Dan Agostini, São Paulo, Brazil. 2020.
Celina injects female hormones in Stefany in one of the bathrooms of Casa Florescer II. The bureaucracy that involves documents and consultations with endocrinologists, besides the limited number of vacancies for feminization treatments in public health units, are some of the reasons that lead transgender women to the use of hormones and industrial silicone injection without medical follow-up. Now, due to the pandemic, access to healthcare has worsened.
Celina 19, and Lourena 21, live in a support house for transgender women in São Paulo and work at Praça do Jaçanã, a prostitution spot near where they live. Celina left Fortaleza for São Paulo at 16 with the dream of becoming a model. Lourena left home for the first time at 19 after family conflicts related to gender identity. Prior to the pandemic, they both worked in bars and at events, but lost their jobs when COVID-19 lockdown measures were introduced . Both Celina and Lourena now support themselves with sex work.
Mikhail Kapychka, Minsk, Belarus. 2019.
A young girl from Turkey prepares for her race at an international swimming championship, Minsk, Belarus. Gripping the belt with her teeth, she firmly holds herself in place. Her face turns upwards, her eyes evidence her resolve. She is ready to race.
My own wings
Katia Repina, New York City, USA. 2016.
Arisleyda Dilone cuts her hair at Rockaway Beach in New York City. Hours later she shaves her hair completely. Aris discovered that she is intersex as an adult, and has since used her career as a documentary filmmaker to tell her story. She explains, “What I feel mostly is the power over my story. And I want to tell it by myself, with my own voice.” Aris says that silence is common in families with an intersex member: “Some members of my family discovered what had happened to me only after watching my documentary film.” Constituting roughly 1.7% of the population, intersex people remain severely underrepresented in discourses on gender.
Fake fur and real scars
Su Cassiano, Vermont, Australia. 2020.
Liam gazes towards the camera, his fur coat slipping off his shoulder to reveal a torso patterned with scars. He’s been crying. He used to self harm when using drugs. Mapped in the scars is Liam’s struggle with the pressures of a rigid masculinity, and the visual trace of his complex relationship with his father. Liam’s dad, an Australian veteran of the Vietnamese war, suffers from PTSD. Growing up in ‘bloke’ culture, where feelings are deemed weaknesses and pain can be endured, Liam craved paternal affection and recognition. Liam was never hugged by his dad, but he inherited his trauma.
Darwin: LGBT in Honduras
Francesca Volpi, Honduras. 2017.
Darwin’s friends flick through a photo album at their home in Honduras. The photographer first met Darwin outside a morgue on the day Darwin’s brother Marco’s body was discovered wrapped in plastic in an alley. Marco, like Darwin, was a sex worker and lived within a severely marginalised and discriminated LGBTQ+ community, disproportionally targeted in the hyper-masculinised violence epidemic. His body had signs of torture and choking. No one has been arrested in connection with his murder. This project was supported by the IWMF (International Women Media Foundation).
Making it work
NASHCO Photography, Washington State, USA. 2020.
Hotel housekeeper Liza Cruz, age 42, poses for a portrait at her home in Auburn, WA. Since the start of the pandemic, she has been taking care of her elderly parents, helping her high school student with her digital learning, and desperately calling around to ask for deferment on the bills coming in. Afraid she will lose her home she recently returned to work. She struggles to balance each of her working roles.
Anyone can fly
Jibon Malaker, Horipur, Kushtia, Bangladesh. 2019.
A man and woman travel by train in Bangladesh. Contained within the blackness of their box-like window frame, they travel differently. The man faces forward unaware of the unfolding landscape, perhaps content with the forward progression and speed of the journey. The woman leans her arm on the frame and peers out of the window. Above her a bird takes flight. Steeped in the symbolism of restriction versus freedom, the image echoes Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi’s notion- “A woman could be totally powerless, and still give meaning to her life by dreaming about flight”.
Assam Gabriel , Lekki toll gate, Lagos, Nigeria, 2020
A protester holding a flag with #EndSARS scrawled across his white vest. He is part of a crowd of thousands gathered in Lagos to protest police brutality and demand the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a notorious unit of the Nigerian Police with a long record of abuses. Oct. 20, 2020, will be remembered in Nigeria as the day military officers, or soldiers, shot directly at peaceful unarmed protesters, killing dozens and wounding more.
Health centre in a remote island
Arpan Basu Chowdhury, Sunderban, West Bengal, India. 2020.
A healthcare worker gives an tetanus injection to a pregnant woman at her clinic on the remote island of Sunderban, India. Reaching across the hospital bed to maintain social distancing measures, her face is concealed by the swathes of silken yellow fabric fashioned into a face mask. The makeshift PPE is a visual reminder of the struggles healthcare workers face in rural settings. Here, boats are the only form of transportation and supply deliveries are irregular. As one of only three nurses on the island charged with serving the diverse health needs of the 20,000 strong population, innovation is essential.
Flowers are beautiful
Anwar Sadat Swaka, Kenya, 2020
Behind the pink petals that cover his eyes and the lumescent green wig is Ryan, a 24 year-old Ugandan refugee living in Kenya. Ryan was forced to flee his homeland in fear of violence and imprisonment due to his sexuality. In a country where gay sex is punishable by life improvement and politicans exploit homophobic rhetoric to win the ‘moral’ vote, Ryan was afraid to embrace who he was. Prior to the photograph, he vividly recalled a friend that was violently beaten and left for dead after members of his community leaned about his sexual orientation. Here, anonymous, concealed behind his masked, he explained “Everybody loves flowers because flowers are beautiful. If anyone learned about me, I would be dead. So I have to hide my identity for my safety and protection. When you look at me this way, you will love me because I look like a flower. I am not a flower but I can’t be me either. I can only be beautiful in my own way.”
Eish…MA1 & PAKAIPA
Tadiwanashe “Tadiwa” Murowe, Harare, Zimbabwe. 2020.
A young boy’s face fills the frame. He seems vulnerable under the close inspection of the camera, he bites his lip. The two portraits belong to a photographic series entitled “Eish…MA1 & PAKAIPA”, a play on Zimbabwean slang -‘MA1’ meaning times are hard or tough luck’ and “PAKAIPA” meaning ‘things are bad’ – that explores the socio-economic challenges young boys and men face in Zimbabwe. Socio-economic pressures arise especially in less privileged and poverty stricken communities and are exacerbated by poor national economic conditions such as high unemployment rates and inflation. Men and boys are particularly vulnerable to the system, often expected to support their families financially from a young age. And yet, it remains taboo to discuss mental health, particularly in more rural and traditional communities. Boys such as this one captured here are expected to grit their teeth and bear it.
A nation in distress
Abel Alonzo, Los Angeles, United States of America. 2020.
A young girl waves the US flag in front of a large grey building at a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles. The flag is upside down. According to the US Flag Code, the only circumstances in which the US flag can be turned upside down is to signal ‘Dire distress and extreme danger to life or property’. The girls message is clear, police brutality and systemic racism puts hers and others live in extreme danger.
Mason Rose, Portland, Oregon, USA. 2020.
Two houseless transgender teenagers hold each other in a field. They’ve been sleeping outside of the justice center in Portland, Oregon, where nightly protests have been held since the murder of George Floyd. Previously the two had slept at a shelter, but were kicked out for attending the protests for fear of COVID-19 infection. Their soft gaze and intimate pose tells a story about the tenderness of teenage years.
Havana queen story
Robin Yong, Havana, Cuba. 2019.
Drag Queen Salma poses on the bed in a room in Cuba. Although Drag Queens, together with much of the LGBT community in Cuba, have not been well-tolerated in Cuba historically, recent years has seen a shift, with many drag queens performing to sold-out crowds.
Ismail Odetola, Obake village, Nigeria. 2020.
Bolatito emerges through the morning mist at Obake village on the mountain of Erin in Osun state, Nigeria. She is clad in a heavy shawl and concealed behind a brightly coloured mask. Bolatito is a passionate social responsibility officer who has volunteered with NGOs across Nigeria and Europe. However, in this time of pandemic her underlying health issues – which include Endometriosis, peptic ulcer disease, chronic migraines, hand seizures and depleted immunity – render her vulnerable.
Mohammad Reza Gemi Omandi, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. 2020.
A transgender dancer leads the performance at the Beksa Wiraga Satria dance studio in Yogyakarta. Dressed in bright colours and adorned with symbolic accessories and a transparent polycarbonate face shield, the dancers move synchronously to the music as onlookers watch. Performances such as these play a key role in both preserving local and traditional practices and encouraging progressive change. Although transgender women and men have a long history in Indonesia, known locally as ‘waria’ (from the Indonesian words wanita, meaning woman, and pria, meaning man), the condition for trans people in Indonesia is deteriorating with trans communities routinely targeted in political rhetoric and social violence. Here, by centreing a transgender dancer, the performance celebrates the diversity of gender.
Greta Rico, Mexico City, Mexico. 2019
Siomara cradles her niece and nephew at her mother’s funeral. Siomara, the photographers’ cousin, has taken care of the siblings since her sister was murdered as a victim of femicide in Mexico in 2017. Although at first glance the image may seem familiar and comforting, it belies the long-term trauma and consequences of the epidemic of violence against women in Mexico. Femicide does not end with murder, it has psychosocial impacts that cause trauma in mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts who become Substitute Mothers.
Avra Ghosh, Taluka, Uttarakhand, India. 2016.
A woman smokes a cigarette next to her child in a small mud hut kitchen in the village of Taluka, Uttarakhand, India. Both mother and child appear pensive, lost in thought. Since her husband left years ago, they have struggled to get by. To earn money, the woman cooks for the handful of tourists who pass by, for them she smiles brightly treating each transient punter like a family member. This picture was taken after the food was served in a moment of reflection.
Queen Nicki Rangoon
Chiara Luxardo, Yangon, Myanmar. 2020.
Queen Nicki Rangoon, 24 years-old, poses for a portrait in her bedroom in Yangon, Myanmar. Lounged on a green sofa, her eyes meet the viewers. In Myanmar, the continued enforcement of Section 377, an outdated British colonial discriminatory law that renders homosexuality punishable by jail, and social conservatism deeply impact the lives of the queer community. In the past, this widespread discrimination and prejudice made Nicki afraid to walk the streets and from living as her authentic self. But as things have slowly changed, Nicki proudly fights for her right to equal job opportunities and to be legally recognised.
Rohingya refugee life in Bangladesh
Ziaul Huque, Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 2020.
A grandfather gently brushes back his granddaughter’s hair on a makeshift hammock in the Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The joyful moment of intergenerational care and familial love contrasts starkly with the reality of their situation. Both grandfather and granddaughter were forced to flee their home in Myanmar in light of the ‘ethnic cleansing campaign’ carried out by Myanmar security forces. Enduring a perilous journey, both now live in a spontaneous settlement where lack of adequate shelter, water, sanitation and access to basic service leaves them both vulnerable.
The Nature that inhabits us
Tamara Merino, Santiago de Chile. 2020.
Photographer Tamara Merino takes a self-portrait with her son Ikal on their first day of quarantine during sunrise. In 2020, Chile experienced more than 140 days in mandatory quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Exploring the connection between mother, child, and nature while being in total lockdown with limited exposure to the outdoors, this photograph highlights the vital importance of the environment in society’s collective well-being.
Micha Serraf, South Africa. 2020.
A fisherman displays his catch during Stage 5 Lockdown, South Africa’s strictest lockdown. Forming part of a broader project on the lives of front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the fisherman stood out to Micha who explains ‘Whilst having a masked conversation with this person, he took off his mask for a second to shout to his colleague about the fact that I was an artist “too”. In our conversation, this person described a dream that they once had of becoming a “famous fashion designer” but “because life is what life is, I accepted that I must become the man everybody needed.”’ The person in this portrait is so well hidden by their profession, circumstances and performance of masculinity that it is impossible to see the glamorous designer they see in themselves. To “become the man” is a becoming we must always challenge.
The butcher’s family
Ibrahim Abdelaziz, Egypt. 2019.
Nadia and her two sons clean the entrails of a slaughtered cow during a festival in Egypt. The work is arduous and tiring. While men take over the work of slaughtering the animal, the women typically help with cleaning the entrails of the animal which is used to make special Egyptian meals.
Love fuck & pray
Jonas Van der Haegen, Tokyo, Japan. 2019.
A young man stares directly into the camera in front of a blurry blue backdrop, his red lipstick slightly smeared. Elsewhere a young man lies on yellow grass. The portraits form part of a series called ‘Love, fuck & pray’ made in collaboration with the LGBTQIAP+ center in Tokyo and Osaka (Japan) as a visual research project on queer sexuality and the body in Tokyo.
Together they provide an intimate and tender insight into Japan’s queer community. Playing on the writings of Yukio Mishima- the portraits dance between masculinity and femininity, coolness and warmth.
The man’s woman
Francis “Beloved” Ogunyemi, Ogun, Nigeria. 2020.
A woman shaves her husband’s head in their home in Ogun, Nigeria. Like many living in lockdown, unable to venture to local salons or barbers for a trim, the couple must navigate the new roles and responsibilities the pandemic has forced upon them.
Ramazan Cirakoglu, Turkey. 2019.
Two women grind green lentils on a hand mill in a village in Turkey. The preparation of the soup is one of the many domestic tasks the women of the village are expected to do. Here, as elsewhere, women do the cooking, the cleaning, the child rearing even in their elderly years.
Karen Toro, Quito, Ecuador. 2020.
Sisa (Narcisa) Lozano Guayllas, a 33 year-old teacher from Saraguro, Ecuador, poses for the camera. Sisa belongs to the Achik Muyu Educational Community, a group of parents who promote non-directive education for their children, an educative methodology based on children’s learning rather than teaching. Due to the sanitary emergency declared by the Ecuadorian state, classes and productive activities were suspended. As a consequence, the school could no longer pay the rent for the space where it had been operating for two years. Parents organized a day to vacate the place and directed their efforts so that classes could continue virtually. In the image, Sisa looks hopeful and determined. *This image is part of a Fluxus Foto collective project that was awarded a National Geographic Society grant for journalists in the context of the global health emergency.
Mohammad Rakibul Hasan, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 2020.
Toma and Tuktuki kiss each other through their masks during the COVID-19 lockdown in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A staged moment of intimacy, designed to educate their transgender community of the dangers of COVID-19 infection and the importance of preventative measures.
Locally known as Hijra, the third gender population in Bangladesh is severely discriminated against; an ‘untouchable’ community who are socially and religiously excluded from society. Unable to undertake higher education and discriminated against in the workplace, many Hijra in Bangladesh live together in groups and support themselves with sex work.
COVID-19 has exasperated the situation for this vulnerable group. But community leaders like Toma and Tuktuki are working hard to help their community protect themselves and to secure food donations and medical supplies to those most in need. In these desperate times, they have become heroes.
Women of Srebrenica
Mara Scampoli, Srebrenica, Bosnia. 2015.
A group of young women at the entrance of the Potocary cemetery of Srebrenica on the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. One of them looks straight at the camera. During the war in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, on 11 July 1995 the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Mladic occupied the town of Srebrenica, a Muslim enclave within a territory of Serba, recognized as a “safe zone” since 1993 under the protection of UN blue helmets. All men and boys aged 12 to 77 were separated from women and children. Sons little more than children, husbands, fathers were taken to execution sites, murdered and finally abandoned in mass graves. The genocide claimed the lives of at least 8372 victims.
A group of women mourn at the graves of their loved ones who were slaughtered during the massacre. These photographs are part of a reportage of the 20th anniversary of this genocide that aimed to reflect on the role that women and men have in the peace and conflict processes.
Maze of metamorphosis
Silvia Alessi, Nagoya, Japan. 2019.
Rosa selects her clothes for a gig later that night. In the next room Usagi, a young geiko apprentice already an expert in drum sound and dolphin dance, touches up her make-up. Separated by a wall, the two figures represent two very different experiences of being women. For Rosa, a transgender woman, to be legally recognised as a woman in Japan she must appeal to the family court under the GID Act introduced in 2004 and undergo psychiatric evaluation to receive a diagnosis of ‘gender identity disorder’ and be sterilized. For Usagi, her experience is contoured by a long history and culture of ideal Japanese femininity.
The judging panel
The shortlisted This is Gender images were chosen by a panel of expert judges from over 1000 submissions. We are grateful to our judging panel for the time, insights, expertise and critiques they provided in producing this selection of imagery.
Jessica Horn, Founding member, African Feminist Forum and Commissioner on the Lancet Commission on Gender and Global Health
Suhair Khan, Strategic Projects at Google and Founder/Director of Open/Ended
Azu Nwagbogu, Founder and Director of African Artists’ Foundation
Esra’a Al Shafei, Human rights activist and founder of Majal.org
Ayesha Ahmad, Lecturer in Global Health, St George’s University of London
Imogen Bakelmun, Communications lead, Global Health 50/50 and curator, This is Gender
Rochelle Burgess, Lecturer in Global Health, University College London