Both celebratory and tender, there is something immediately disarming about the images of Canadian non-binary photographer Laurence Philomène. Their work focuses on portraits and self-portraits that challenge binary notions of gender, allowing for vulnerable and honest – but also incredibly empowered and joyful – explorations of trans identity.
Growing up in a cis, straight community, Laurence “didn’t know that you could be queer and be happy about it,” they tell It’s Nice That, lying in a hammock while on break from a shoot in their native Montreal. Today their work shows confident, playful and candid depictions of gender non-conformity, that completely upends the idea of masculinity and femininity as distinct. Talking about early ventures into photography Laurence says: “I started to really embrace this idea that these two things that we are taught are opposite can actually coexist. I started thinking about about these concepts [masculinity and femininity] outside of gender altogether, and just having fun with them.”
Laurence first began taking photographs carrying around a point-and-shoot as a little kid but it was around the age of 14 that they first started focusing on it as an art form. Early investigations included photographing Blythe dolls (a cult collectable from Japan), uploading them to Flickr and being bolstered by the positive feedback of a supportive community. Laurence then progressed into shooting self-portraits, family and domestic surroundings – something still integral to their work – rushing home after classes to set up their tripod.
“Photography became my main escape from high school,” Laurence says of these formative years. “The culture of Flickr during that time period, from 2007 to 2010, was of a very specific moment in time in the world of photography. There were a lot of projects where you’d take a picture every day, or once once a week. It was all about forcing yourself to create constantly to evolve as a photographer. I think there’s definitely a circling back to the early days of doing work for myself about myself, and using it as a tool for self-exploration.”
One such project is the ongoing series Puberty, where Laurence has been making daily portraits documenting their experiences taking HRT and testosterone since the beginning of 2019. The project sprung out of a period of intense burnout, where Laurence had to take a few months off to take care of themselves. During this very challenging time, Laurence began to really appreciate the daily mundane moments and started photographing themselves doing quotidian things like doing the dishes, taking a bath and watching TV. “At first I was taking photos just to keep myself on my toes and make sure that I practiced every day. But then I quickly realised that it was a really great method to talk to about the changes that were happening in my body, like hair growth and muscle tissue changing.” Laurence explains.
Intimate and touching, these self-portraits retain Laurence’s playful use of colour and you can really feel the warmth of someone enjoying their domestic environment. “My main goal with Puberty is to show a trans life through a lens that’s not so glamorised,” Laurence explains. “I feel like a lot of the representation that I see in the media is people on the cover of magazines, people in movies, people transitioning from one body to another seemingly overnight. That’s not really the reality for the majority of trans people. There’s a lack of understanding of what the reality of the day to day is – we’re just human beings just going through things like everyone else.”
Another self-portraiture project, albeit one with a much more playful tone, is Me Vs Others, an ongoing series Laurence has been working on since 2014. Here Laurence dresses up friends and family in a striking orange wig to resemble Laurence’s own bright tangerine hair, and shoots them with striking, colourful backgrounds. “The whole point behind Me vs Others was studying the idea of selfhood, and how we create a sense of self through certain objects and colours, and how we project that on social media. A lot of my work is about the joy of being queer and trans and with colour, I can effectively communicate that.” With this in mind, many of Laurence’s portraits of their friends, chosen family and others are developed collaboratively with their sitters. For the series Non Binary Portraits (an ongoing work since 2016), Laurence makes portraits of trans and gender non-comforting youths, inspired by how they see themselves and how they want to be presented.
Similarly since 2010, Laurence has also been photographing Lucky, an intersex trans-masculine, working class social worker, and a very close friend, documenting the presentation of identity over a decade. “The series looks at the body as a space outside of gender,” explains Laurence. “It looks at identity as a shifting force and how that evolves over a period of ten years, and how relationships shift. I also wanted to capture another trans life in a very humane, intimate way. The trans gaze – what happens when trans people witness each other – is an idea that I’m really interested in at the moment. Society is really at a shifting point in understanding how gender informs our sense of self and how we can play with it, rather than feeling confined in it. I think that’s a really important moment, culturally, that we’re all taking part in.”