The editors of the Swedish Academy, the body tasked with overseeing the country’s official language, received worldwide praise in 2015 when it decided to add a new pronoun to the dictionary. “Hen” in Swedish is the gender-neutral pronoun that has found a place alongside “han” (he) and “hon” (she) in the official lexicon.
“Hen” was also the apt word for photographer Bex Day to choose as the title for her latest series, which, as she puts it, “examines how gender stereotypes have affected the older transgender community and which questions how we define gender and if, as a society, we even should”. Bex has been working on it for three years, in between other editorial and commercial projects, and is now looking to exhibit 30 portraits from the series for the first time.
Over the years, we’ve covered many of Bex’s projects, from a series of portraits celebrating the transgender community for Adobe Stock, to a personal project focused on Berlin’s bodybuilding community. One thread that runs consistently through much of her work is an eagerness to tell stories that are often neglected by mainstream media, even by more progressive platforms.
Hen, which depicts transgender people above the age of 40, is just the latest example in her portfolio. “I noticed there was a lack of older transgender individuals in the media,” Bex explains, “and wanted to give them a voice and a legacy.” She believes that generally there isn’t enough awareness of “the struggles that the older transgender community had to go through at a time when it was far less accepted to be transgender. There is nowhere near enough recognition of their stories and past.”
The project has taken Bex all over the country, from the cliffs above England’s south coast to the heart of the Wanstead Flats. But before she could begin shooting she had to first find subjects who were willing to take part. That process started with logging on to online forums and getting the message out. “The most difficult part was at the beginning as I was only existing as a forum post on the internet,” she says. Gradually, though, word spread “as I photographed more people and the project expanded, as did the trust.”
Building that sense of trust with each individual has been absolutely vital. Once they had agreed to be involved, Bex would meet each person for a coffee to talk about the project and “see what we both wanted from the photos to avoid any miscommunication”, she says. Then, for the shoot, she would spend a day at their house or a weekend, depending on where in the UK they were based. “It was always a surprise staying at someone’s house I didn’t know very well, but it was always fun in the end. I put a lot of trust into each person and I suppose that was reciprocated, and you can hopefully see that in the photos.”
You certainly can. The portraits display Bex’s uncanny ability to capture a person’s character, often in an apparent moment of repose. Many of the shoots took place in more domestic settings, inside the houses of Bex’s subjects – her portraits of Sameer and Irene (below) are examples that feel intimate and personal. For others, the setting is the natural world, sometimes expansive and sublime (as in the image of Zoe, at top) and sometimes softer (as in the portrait of Dan Jones, below). For these shoots outside the domestic sphere, Bex would ask her subjects to take her to a “meaningful place that they visit regularly”. It was for this reason that Dan took Bex to the Wanstead Flats, to a quiet glade covered in a carpet of green moss.
One image Bex has chosen for the exhibition shows Dan lying on his back on the forest floor looking calmly down the lens with his head tilted towards the viewer. “It was January, so a bit cold,” Dan recalls with a chuckle. The whole scene conveys a sense of stillness, something Dan puts down to an inner peace he has managed to find in recent years. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done a photo shoot. I think it’s about where I am in my life at the moment,” he says. He transitioned when he was 19, over 20 years ago now. “I always thought I would reach a point when the part of my life before I transitioned would cease to be important. But actually I’ve realised it’s still really important. To ignore that part of my history is to cut myself off from celebrating the richness of my life experiences.”
The project also provides an interesting contrast between what Dan refers to as “chronological age and transitioning age”. As he puts it, “It strikes me there are two different stories: one about people who transitioned some time ago and understanding society’s response; and another story about people who transitioned later in life. Bex’s project touches both.”
Irene Heath, another of the subjects in Hen, transitioned later in life and has therefore had a particular experience. “I was brought up in an era when being trans meant that something must be wrong with me,” she says. “I didn’t even know other trans people existed until the internet came into existence. So I had a lot of fear in me when I decided to come out after I retired, and it took me several years to get rid of it.”
As someone who transitioned over two decades ago, Dan has witnessed significant shifts in both legislation and attitudes. When he was starting his career as a mental health social worker, for instance, he was told: “Don’t be out. You’ll never be allowed to work with vulnerable people.” Consequently, he didn’t come out for a long time. He even had to field questions from colleagues about what they should do if they were presented with a transgender client. “It was so othering, that experience,” he says, “hearing people make statements like that and not feeling I could say, ‘I’m one of those.’”
Since then, legislative changes have meant that trans people are more protected, not only when it comes to access to services but also in employment. But there is still much more to be done. “Legislative changes have outstripped social changes,” says Dan. Just one example he cites is the fact that an anti-trans group was allowed to lead London’s Pride march last year.
For Bex, there is an added geographic dimension to this. “I feel that a lot of progress has been made in terms of education and awareness regarding the transgender community. However, there is always more to be done,” she says. “I think cities such as London have slightly more access to resources, and it’s smaller towns and villages that could benefit from a wider understanding.” It’s for this reason that she’s hoping to tour the show around the UK, after its opening week in London.
Hen the exhibition, which is curated by Sandrine Servent at Mina Raven and William Esdale, will take place at the Herrick Gallery for one week from 1 April, following Trans Day of Visibility on 31 March. To coincide with the exhibition, Bex has also co-directed a film with Luke Sullivan to raise more awareness about the series and its subject matter. “The film allowed me to give a voice to some of the participants involved and show their talents and create a deeper sense of intimacy and understanding about the participants,” she says. Bex also hopes her project will in turn benefit the younger transgender community. “I’ve heard from a great deal of participants that they rarely interact with younger transgender people and it’s a real shame because I think they could learn a lot from one another.”
That’s chiefly what the project as a whole attempts to do – to give a voice to people who are left out of the mainstream discourse, and through giving them a voice, encourage understanding. Asked what she feels the message of Hen is, Irene puts it simply: “The message I want to convey is that there is nothing wrong with being trans, and being trans can lead to a new and wonderful world, where I can explore my femininity openly, without any fear.”