Being queer these days sometimes feels like we are a hot commodity, with representation increasing to levels we've never seen before. Transpeople walking in major fashion shows, mainstream publications like Cosmo and Teen Vogue writing about the experiences of queer people, and that monumental win for Moonlight at the Oscars. Are we finally breaking boundaries into the mainstream? Is that even where we want to be?
Despite all this forward momentum, we must never lose sight of how far we have to go. Trans women of color are still being killed at disproportionate rates and queer people are being discriminated against all across the globe. Our Eurocentrism gives us a limited view on what it means to be queer in this world and all the ugly, wonderful, and often tragic experiences one might face. Our stories must keep being told.
When All the People, a photobook collaboration by photographer Bernd Ott and writer Emily Besa, landed on our doorstep, we were blown away by the queer magic that was leaping off the pages. The subjects of the book not only represent over a dozen nationalities, but their ages range from 5 to 69. Besa sat down with each of the 39 subjects to help tell their unique story, while Ott used his camera to capture their beauty. Individuals from Jerusalem to Trinidad and Tobago, each person's story speaks to a universal truth about queer strength and resilience in an unforgiving world.
"We offer this document, so that connection, understanding, and acknowledgment of one another can be created," Besa wrote in the book's intro.
WUSSY spoke with the two creators about their creative process, queer representation, and moving forward with the project. Enjoy!
Your book includes subjects from 4 different countries, 5 cities, with over a dozen nationalities. Even within the queer community, a lot of people have opposing views of gender identity and queer politics. Did you notice these differences of opinion in the subjects you were documenting?
Bernd Ott (B): That is a tough question to answer. To be honest, views and thoughts differ between the individuals a lot. If you are looking for a more general answer: You certainly see major differences between age groups. We have people in there that grew up in the 50s and 60s and their experiences differ dramatically from young people that are today still in their teens. Things have certainly improved and acceptance in the Western hemisphere has increased.
As far as politics go: Trying to sum it all up, I’d say people were least happy with their options and help provided by the state in the UK compared to the Netherlands which offers the best support network of all the countries we have been to.
Emily Besa (E): Yes, there were many differences of opinion—which is natural in any community especially when identity and identity politics are involved. Inevitably, there is a push to define and delineate what trans or queer is. That can seem counter-productive or counter-intuitive when there is a fluidity of identity (trans) or when the concept itself is a rejection of (cis)heteronormativity and labelling (queerness). But we could talk about this for days!
I would say the the differences we found weren’t so much cultural but generational. Every decade between the age of five and 69 years old is represented in the book, and many of our older participants mentioned that they weren’t even aware of the concept of being transgender until fairly recently. But what I think most people in the book would agree on is that from their experiences spanning six decades, that things are slowly but surely improving for trans and GNC folks.
With so much attention now being brought to queer identity in certain parts of the world, trans people now visible in huge fashion magazines, etc - do you think there has been even more pushback against us? Where do you see the queer community moving forward in the next 10 years?
B: The recent increase in public presentation of the trans community has certainly sparked a lot of controversy in a sense that suddenly people who didn’t even know trans people existed 5 years ago now open their mouth and find it hard to accept that transgender people claim the same rights as everybody else. But I believe that will pass. What I am hoping for is that gender fluidity, being transgender or gender queer won't be an issue anymore, that it can be seen for what it is, one of the many elements of human expression. And that we can move on from silly discussions like bathroom usage and passport alterations.
E: When people’s realities are challenged, there is bound to be pushback. But I think the positive effects of trans presentation, representation, and visibility far outweigh the pushback. I see these times as our growing pains. In ten yearsI believe we will have educated, engaged, and activated enough people to reach the next level of humanity. I’d love see the day when zero phobias are tolerated.
Who was the most interesting person to shoot/interview and why?
B: It’s like asking me to choose my favourite child…couldn’t do it. I have love and admiration for almost each and everybody in that project for very different reasons.
E: Same here, the book wouldn’t be what it is without each and every person who take part in it. It’s a big, rowdy, diverse, and beautiful family.
How long have the both of you worked together? How did the collaboration come about?
B: This was our first collaboration ever and as a matter of fact the first real long term project we have ever done. I have been working for commercial fashion clients and magazines in the past and was very eager to do a long term photographic project focusing on portraiture. I really wanted to use my abilities as a photographer and create something that allows people to connect to each other on an emotional level. Emily had for the longest time an interest to do something about gender identity. When we got talking we realised quickly that this would work perfectly together. On top of that we both had close personal friends that are now part of the book.
E: We had collaborated on a fashion/beauty shoot before, but that was only a few days’ work. Bernd expressed that he wanted to return to his portrait work and take on a long-term project. I’ve been interested in gender identity forever so I pitched the idea of exploring gender diversity and fluidity to Bernd and he loved it. We developed book together—I wanted to contribute with writing so that there was another dimension to the portraits, the stories.
We’ve been collaborating since fall of 2013.
Do you both identify as queer? What drew you both to document these individuals?
B: None of us identifies as queer. We both might have experienced to a certain degree being an outsider in the world we were thrown into. For me it was what I would call a long term admiration born out of friendships for people that were able to live a live honest to themselves despite a lot of resistance. The joy I encountered in people that managed to break out of the mold.
E: I have queer friends and queer family. I carry the queer gene but it’s recessive in me. ;) I relate to being queer, even if I’m not. One of my friends, who is the book, really got me thinking about the complexity of gender identity and expression and how it’s possible to shed and add many layers of identity over one lifetime. Humans are much more magical than what the old hetero cisgender tropes lead us to believe. Hopefully the book shows that in some way!
Are there plans to continue the project?
B: It is continuing in multiple ways as we speak. We are still working on creating additional events, hopefully more exhibitions with the project.
We would love to expand it to more countries and continents. But the crowdfunding only raised money for the biggest part of the printing costs. All other expenses of this project came out of our pocket. And once you do something like this for two years you reach some limitations. To go further would require some sort of financial support and funding.
E: And we’re open to this!
We’ve also started a new aspect called All The People: Voices and we will be engaging some of the people we meet through the project by videotaping an interview with them and photographing them. We want to continue the conversation, further the connection, and send positive ripples out into the world.
Who inspires you as an artist?
B: Everybody who expresses individuality, insight and kindness. And my partner Emily :)
E: People who are fiercely individual, original, innovating and pioneering. I like the unexpected and the weird but a good heart really gets me. I’m inspired by people with open hearts and open minds, people with relentless curiosity and unflagging kindness. Like Bernd. :)
Anything else you want to add?
B: This is the most important project I have worked on so far and some of the most exciting people I’ve met during my career. So glad and grateful that we were able to realize this book.
E: Ditto.This project and the people I’ve come to know through it have profoundly impacted my life and my being. I am so thankful.
Buy your copy of All the People by clicking here.