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Work / Photography

Olivia Schenker documents sexual freedom in Cuban LGBTQ+ communities

In the last ten years, Cuba has reinvented itself as a progressive nation when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. During the 1960s and 70s, many LGBTQ+ people were imprisoned or forced to spend time in “re-education camps” and during the 1980s when the AIDs epidemic hit, HIV positive Cubans were quarantined in sanitariums. However, since 2008 – the same year that Fidel Castro eventually announced his retirement – both gender reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy have been available free of charge under Cuba’s national healthcare system, and in 2013 a law was passed banning discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation.

When researching ahead of a trip to the Caribbean nation with her third-year photography class at ECAL, Olivia Schenker stumbled upon this information and decided to dedicate her trip to documenting the new communities that have formed as a result of the country’s changing attitudes.

Throughout her photographic career, Olivia’s work has inched closer and closer towards an investigative and documentary practice. “Reality has an important place in my work,” the Lausanne-based photographer tells It’s Nice That, “I get to meet interesting people and bring their realities to light, reveal phenomena that fascinate me, even if it requires taking some risks.” With series’ published in Gut and Novembre, magazine Olivia’s work encompasses themes of identity, fetishism and travesty.

Despite the island’s lack of internet, Olivia was able to ascertain, ahead of her trip, the neighbourhoods where she would be likely to meet those who could help her document Cuba’s LGBTQ+ community and their sexual freedom. “What I found was an open and big community in a county which still incarcerated LGBTQ+ people a few decades ago,” she recalls, “every night, I found the same people in the clubs and cabarets, dancing, performing and expressing their freedom.”

Although attitudes towards homosexuality and transgender people have been practically revolutionised, many members of these communities (particularly transgender women) still live on the margins. “I met a lot of transgender women, especially at night, most of them sex workers,” Olivia explains, "when I decided I wanted to focus my series on them, Cuban people told me it would be practically impossible because prostitution is so highly illegal.” Despite this, Olivia found a group of women open to being photographed: “They posed so casually, they were all amazing! I know I could not have done such a project in Switzerland, or anywhere else.”

The photos in Olivia’s series depict a story at odds with the depiction of Cuba we’re used to seeing. In ten short days, the Swiss photographer managed to integrate herself into a community that easily could have rejected her venture. “I had the chance to meet people who advised me and redirected me. Then, the integration was much easier, because the more I took pictures, the more I could show them what I was doing, and the more they opened up to me. Photography actually helped me a lot in overcoming the language barrier,” she describes. As a result, Olivia’s images feel affectionate and supportive, far from the voyeurism we all too often see in series such as these.

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