In his project 'Transmongolian' Alvaro Laiz (Spain, 1981) depicts a world of solitude and crushed dreams within the Mongolian community of homosexuals and transgender. Maria Teresa Salvati, Director of the Slideluck Potshow in London, interviewed him.
How did you come across this little community in such a remote part of the world?
I've always been interested in the concept of identity linked to the idea of considering ourselves a unique character. But at the same time we are living in a society that tries to uniform us. In 2008 my photography started to be focused on under privileged minorities such us HIV orphans in Uganda and ex-child soldiers from Lord's Resistance Army amongst other issues. Identity may be social, sexual, cultural. It is for this reason that I became interested in this issue. Transgender people usually live in between two genres without being fully accepted by one or the other. Mongolia is a male driven society where acceptance for this collective becomes difficult and many of them are forced to live aside society.
I decided to travel to Mongolia for several reasons. It is located in the junction in between three different worlds: Russia, Europe and China while still retaining its identity. Mongolia is facing sudden changes after opening their borders to Western investment, but in the other hand their nomadic and communist heritage still remains. It is this duplicity in their contemporary time that fascinated me.
I happened to travel to Mongolia by chance. After doing research on nomadic tribes in Russia I came across the figure of Genghis Khan. He is considered the first leader who declared homosexuality illegal under death penalty in order to increase his population and face the Chinese army under the Song Dynasty. I was not looking for this kind of approach at the beginning, but I decided to take a look by myself when I noticed there was barely any information.
Your project depicts two parallel worlds, either in terms of story or in terms of photography genre. One is made by order, magnificence of traditions and costumes which seems a stunning piece of art photography; and the other, shot in documentary style, is hidden, sexual, real, made by night clubs, make up, transformation and solitude. The two worlds seem to be separated only by veiled curtains or the simple act of make-up removal in the transition from one world to the other. Was your intention to juxtapose these two worlds and ways of photographing? Could you tell us more?
I can tell you they seemed to be more enthusiastic than me with the idea of portraying them as Mongolian Queens ha ha ha.
I am aware that it may look like I was shooting in two different worlds but the link that keeps them together is tougher than it seems. Gambush, Nyamka, Chinzorig and Nurbul are forced to live their lives hidden and alternatively overexposed, in some kind of schizophrenic behavior. It is this duplicity that I wanted to underline. When they allowed me to share their daily life I began to realize I was just telling half of the story.
They may only express themselves in certain places. And these are usually underground parties where they may be accepted by society with certain roles as prostitution or night clubs. It is at this time when I developed a closer relationship and decided to take the photo-essay a step ahead. What I wanted to do was to take the viewer to a place far away from prejudices on transgender. The viewer must understand that these people are nothing but human beings who are trying to live their lives. There is nothing wrong about it.
How did you engage with your subjects? Was it easy or difficult to get access to their lives?
I fully understand their cautions because it is not easy to trust someone who has just arrived, especially in a place like Mongolia.
When I plan a trip like this I do as much research as possible. NGO´s and foundations are the type of organizations that allow you to get to know better a place, its people and their customs. It is a shame that internet was not very helpful. It took me a long time and so much patience to get the access. Luckily I was accompanied by my friend and colleague David Rengel, who was at the same time recording an astonishing documentary about Transmongolian (it will soon be released).
In regards to their everyday lives, how do you think that these people compare to other communities that are operating in an environment of repression?
I'm not a war photographer, so I have a limited experience in terms of ethnic violence or open conflicts. What I can tell you is that this kind of repression is as cruel as the ones that arise during conflict. It is more similar to a low profile conflict. Being on the spot becomes part of their daily lives. They cannot express themselves normally but only in certain places. Your life becomes a scenario where you are pretending to be someone else. Your job, your relatives become part of this performance and little space is left to act as you would really want to be. It is insane. It is this kind of continuing pressure that has a great impact in their emotional stability.
Is this a one-off project? Do you intend to expand and go back to document more?
Transmongolian has become the first step of a long term project about transgender people in nomadic societies all over the world. I would definitely love to come back and document again how life is treating them. We are in touch through social networks and we write each other periodically. As for what to do next, I am now focused in expanding this project to other countries and communities. But keep it a secret.