“Transitioning or surgeries does not give you perfect bodies,” reads a message by one transgender man, written by hand over an image of his own half-naked body.
Sham is one of six subjects featured in “Writing on the Wall,” an ongoing photo project by Singaporean photographer Grace Baey. The series depicts transgender men and women in intimate settings of their choice, from a kitchen where one person endured hurtful comments from family members, to a bathroom where another was confronted with scars from their sex reassignment surgery.
“In Singapore, as well other places, LGBTQ issues can be quite polarizing,” said Baey in a phone interview. “This project is trying to emphasize the emotional journeys people go through when they transition, and the tremendous physical, financial, social and emotional costs.”
Originally a human geography researcher, Baey moved from academia to photography in 2015, and spent over four years getting to know her subjects.
Portraits of Singapore's transgender community
“I feel a deep sense of responsibility in terms of telling their stories in a very authentic way, because there has to be a deep-rooted reason why it became inevitable for them to undertake this journey,” she said.
Ahead of her recent exhibition in Singapore, a country known for its relatively conservative attitudes towards LGBTQ issues, Baey spoke to CNN Style about the project and the stigma faced by her subjects.
CNN: Many LGBTQ communities in Southeast Asia are marginalized. Did your subjects share their experiences of discrimination or violence?
Grace Baey: Yes, certainly. I took a photo of Jose (Jude) shaving in front of a mirror because he is required to shave his beard every time he goes back home to Malaysia. That was a compromise his father made when Jose became a man six years ago. His beard is a source of pride and his masculine identity, and it was very painful for Jose to shave every time. But he accepts it as he wants to give his family enough time to come to terms with his gender identity.
When the individual is transitioning, the whole family is transitioning as well. This is why I decided to talk about issues of family, because I think the real battle and challenges of being LGBTQ take place in everyday life when we are back with our families.
A lot of times it ranges from non-acceptance and people becoming estranged from their families, to an awkward tension in the household. I wanted to encourage conversations through different familial stories and hopefully flesh out these tensions in different contexts.
Many of the portraits have been captured in natural light, with your subjects going about their daily lives. What elements were important to you?
What was most important to me was having a very honest chat about trans issues in Singapore. For example, by drawing muscles to cover his love handles and scars around his chest on the photo, Sham and I wanted to discuss the issue of post-operative gender dysphoria.
A lot of times, people see gender confirmation surgeries as the kind of pinnacle of your journey, hoping to get a body that you finally feel comfortable with. But it is not a reality for many people.
Sham always dreamt of going to a beach and taking off his shirt, but he is still afraid of doing it because of people’s stares. The point he was trying to make was that transitioning does not give you a perfect body, and it transcends physical aspects.
What were some of the most striking or inspiring moments or stories you heard while photographing them?
Jose’s chest binder is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices he had to make because he couldn’t afford gender reassignment surgery, even after saving up for over five years. He has to bear the weight of the binder in hot Singapore while he’s working 12 hours a day at a bar. He wanted to put an image of the binder out there to add to existing imagery of what transitioning looks like.
Cassandra Thng shared a long letter from her grandmother where she told her not to harm her body, to think twice before making any decisions and to stay strong. I could totally visualize an elderly Chinese Singaporean woman, like my own grandmother, saying that and it really put a lot of things into perspective.
Singapore lags behind more progressive Asian countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights. How have people reacted to your photos and has Singapore’s attitude towards the LGBTQ community changed?
Some people were really interested and others had conservative remarks, saying nobody can go against the flow of nature. It is great that this project has helped to generate these conversations.
We have a very long way to go and it may have to be a slow change in Singapore. Any form of public assembly or protest that includes more than one person requires a permit, and any form of advocacy needs to be very thoughtful and not adversarial.
I think in Singapore, by virtue of the political landscape and cultural landscape, it needs to be this very nuanced way of presenting issues. Hopefully, over time there will be more projects and initiatives that will help build understanding, and empathy as well.