Since 2013, Brussels-based photographer Anne-Sophie Guillet has been photographing young people whose identities refuse to be categorised according to conceptions of gender as a fixed binary principle. The series, titled Inner Self, is collated in a book of 34 portraits taken between 2013 and 2018, produced earlier this year by Japanese publishers Case Publishing.
Anne-Sophie’s work seeks to break down the societally enforced dichotomy of male and female. In her words: “The portraits of the individuals in the series invite us to interrogate ourselves, our roles and appearances in society, and our relationships with each other. By taking portraits of individuals whose identity slips out of the ‘norm’ that prevails in society, I attempt to question our binary and normative society. This series raises questions on gender issues and perceptions.”
Speaking about how the series began, Anne-Sophie tells us: “It was actually when I met a young trans person who particularly touched me with their story. This specific encounter probably gave me the impulse to push further reflection.” As well as the emotional connection she felt, Anne-Sophie also perceived a similarity between non-conforming gender identity and the androgyny of painted figures in Italian Renaissance artworks. Drawing on the gender ambiguity of these figures and the play of light in the paintings, Anne-Sophie frames her subjects in natural daylight, in stripped-back compositions that echo traditional portraiture.
Because of the minimalism of the environments in which Anne-Sophie shoots and the neutrality of the subjects’ clothing, no elements are involved in the presentation of identity beyond the people themselves. Similarly, the consistency of style between the portraits leads us to focus on each individual, each meeting our eyes with their own.
Discussing the compositions, Anne-Sophie says: “Each portrait is taken against a plain backdrop, either the subjects’ homes, mine or a friend’s place. They are either sitting on a bed, leaning against a wall or simply standing serenely in front of the camera within an atmosphere of trust and respect. The mutual confidence has been developed during the almost-silent shooting session. Each encounter is different as each individual has their own personality and story. Some of this is kept confidential; their names are anonymous. The individuals in the series are facing us, they have that same consistency in their gaze.”
Anne-Sophie’s approach is collaborative, and rooted in her awareness of the responsibility she takes on as a photographer when laying bare another person’s “inner self”. Her measured and sensitive process when it comes to taking a picture reflects this: “The use of a medium-format analogue camera on a tripod using daylight implies a very slow process,” she says. “Only one or two film rolls of ten pictures each are used within the hour and a half duration of the shoot. It takes time to build up confidence, reach that loosening of the body and get a conscious presence all at once. I like the moment at which a level of complicity mutually arises. It’s an honour for me to be given the opportunity to capture a portrait with such faith.”
The anonymity of Anne-Sophie’s subjects further enhances the focus on unique personhood rather than any additional elements – labels, pronouns, even names, are stripped away. “The one with the long braids leaning against a wall in a hallway could be one of my favourites but it could also be the individual wearing glasses, with this particular sensitivity in their eyes – or any of them,” she says. “Each portrait has its own story, of which only a glimpse is told.”
In summation of the project, Anne-Sophie states: “In front of a portrait, one usually asks who this person is and tends to categorise their gender by naming them as male or female. In the series, the portraits raise doubts on their gender, leading the viewer to hesitation. Gender isn’t binary, there are plural identities with various names that one should be aware of.” Challenging the mythic link between biological, anatomical makeup and gender identity, and deconstructing the impulse to assign people to the categories of man and woman, Anne-Sophie shows, with simple honesty, that the body is not always reflective of the “inner self”.