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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

Work / Film

An exclusive look at Joshua Gordon’s heartfelt story of Havana’s trans women

Today, we’re turning our focus to the Cuban capital of Havana. Making its global debut, London-based Irish artist Joshua Gordon has launched a new film and multi-media project that serves as a portal into the lives of its local trans women. Devised from a collaboration with cult fashion streetwear label Aries, the result is a capsule collection, exhibition, publication and film, titled Butterfly.

The project was spawned when Joshua met Aries’ creative director Sofia Prantera through Misha Hollenbach and Shauna Toohey of Perks and Mini (PAM), a Melbourne-based lifestyle brand. “[Sofia’s] an OG and I have a lot of respect for her,” he says, “and she’s done some really cool shit and doesn’t give a fuck about what anyone else wants from her or her brand – she’s a true punk.” Sofia enquired about Joshua working on something in Cuba, and the concept steered towards the lives of trans women, the nightlife “and a little bit of drag”.

Throughout Butterfly, Joshua depicts what it means to be a trans woman during 2019 in Havana. It’s a subject matter that has been at the root of his work for six to seven years, but never before has he produced a whole project dedicated to trans people. “They have always just been one of the many types of people I’ve shot in the past,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I’ve always been inspired to work with trans women since seeing characters like Venus Xtravaganza in Paris is Burning and Agrado in All About My Mother by Pedro Almodovar. Trans women have a unique strength, courage and beauty, and make incredible, interesting and complex subjects.”

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

We last wrote about Joshua’s work back in 2017, and since then he has continued to build on his practice – with a style that still remains as heavily contrasted with dark tones and a current, prominent subject matter. Perhaps his analytical view of the world stems from his childhood, which he describes as one that was abound with misbehaviour. “I was a smelly little street kid in Dublin constantly looking for trouble and causing mischief,” he says. “With that came the need to document all the crazy things I saw along my way, so that I could show the evidence of the madness to people who didn’t believe me.” Sadly his archive has been disposed of, but the memories still live on. “I never felt creative as a kid, all I cared about was staying out and smashing things, photography, film and art, which saved me from being a middle-aged delinquent.”

Far from delinquency, Joshua’s latest film, Butterly, sees a four-week project come to fruition. There were, of course, a whole bunch of challenges met along the way, such as travelling, the shooting process and immersing himself into a community. But, the thing is, he sees everything he creates as a challenge, and sees his obstacles as a minor roadblock to those that his subjects have to deal with on a daily basis. “I prefer not to dwell on them too much,” he says. And asking a person to stand and speak in front of a camera is going to be a somewhat sensitive task, yet Joshua approached his subjects – in places such as bars, on the street – with utmost sincerity. One of his most memorable photographs is that of Shayra, holding up a portrait that a Japanese photographer had taken of her when she was 19, before she had any plastic surgery. “It shows her youth and it shows her now; there is a sadness in her eyes,” he says. “She is still beautiful, but I can see what she’s been through in that photograph.”

The accompanying publication features an essay written by Joshua. Less about recounting his experiences, the essay serves a much deeper purpose: “The project was emotionally and physically draining – there were some emotional, special moments, but in general it was really difficult,” he explains. In some ways healing, the text also provides as a necessary backstory – a contrasting tactic compared to his usually mysterious endeavours that often leave the audience longing to interpret its meaning. “I wanted to highlight and respect the girls’ lives, personalities and stories, so this essay was a way to introduce everything and everyone so that the pictures are really digestible.” It’s a new turn for Joshua that, wholeheartedly, enables both himself and his readers to navigate through a touching narrative in Cuba.

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly

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Joshua Gordon: Butterfly