Love triumphs in two photo series
by Sura Wood
With the Supreme Court's recent marriage equality ruling, 2015 may well be remembered as San Francisco's second – and most inclusive – summer of love. In a turbulent period of social change, the decision engenders hope for greater tolerance and humanity and an end to discrimination, longings that are at the core of Darrin and TransCuba, two new concurrent photography exhibitions at RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco.
Low-key, unassuming and surprisingly moving, Darrin is part of an ongoing series in which San Francisco photographer Jamil Hellu has affectionately documented everyday moments of his loving, long-term partnership with his husband, Darrin. The pair married last year in Dolores Park at an "all pink" wedding ceremony. But the spur for the project was something darker. In 2005, Hellu saw a news story about two teenage boys who were executed in a public hanging in Iran on charges stemming from homosexual behavior. "Of the few published photographs of the episode, the most shocking to me was an image of the boys, blindfolded, just moments before their death on the scaffold," recalls Hellu in his artist statement. "Thinking about ways to counter homophobia, I began to depict my own life in my work to challenge stereotypes in mainstream media. I started to photograph Darrin as an expression of love, aware that relationships such as mine continue to struggle for acceptance and social justice in many parts of the world."
The show of over 30 images, which begins with a large, traditional portrait of a smiling, gentle-faced Darrin, emphasizes the quiet, intimate moments that add sweetness to life and the un-self-conscious domesticity that most married couples, gay or straight, will recognize. Hellu intentionally focuses on sensuality, vulnerability and shared experience rather than the overt homoeroticism that, he says, "typically permeates representations of gay men." Note the two pairs of wet hairy lower legs standing beside each other outside the shower; Darrin reading in bed in Paris, and in a cowboy hat at Burning Man; the nape of his neck and a glimpse of his hearing aid: a bath for two that necessitates the intertwining of big feet; the two bearded lovers locked in a smooch; and Darren caught dozing, his brawny, naked torso sprawled on a rumpled bed, an image that calls to mind a male version of Bonnard's "Siesta" (1900). As the subtle emotional power of Hellu's images accrues, his visual diary of the ties that bind will sneak up on you.
TransCuba is the latest body of work from Mariette Pathy Allen, whose stated goal is "the de-freakification of gender variant people," having photographed and advocated for the transgender community for 35 years. Her exhibition of glossy, technically assured color photographs, which is accompanied by a handsome monograph that includes the personal stories of some of her subjects, arrives at a pivotal juncture when relations between Cuba and the U.S. are thawing, and there's potential for increased acceptance of gays and newfound freedom for transgender people. "As Cuba transitions [away] from strict communism, sexual minorities in this macho-inclined country are becoming more visible and less despised," observes Allen, adding that the work camps where those deemed to have "corrupt morals" were once dispatched are a thing of the past. "I see transgender Cubans as a metaphor for Cuba itself; people living between genders in a country moving between doctrines."
Allen credits Cuban President Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela, a sexologist, with spearheading an anti-discrimination campaign and improving conditions and treatment. But the farther away one gets from Havana, the more prejudice men who've transitioned to living as women encounter; their standard of living tends to plummet, and work opportunities dry up, forcing many to turn to prostitution. When she visited Havana in 2012, Allen spent an evening at the Las Vegas Club, one the city's most outrageous drag-performance cabarets, where she connected with Amanda. She would later meet Nomi and Malu, the "best-known transgender person on Cuba" and the focus of several intense photographs here. The group traveled the country together when Allen returned to the island the following year. She dedicated her book to them. Amanda and Nomi grace its cover; they're seated together, dressed to the nines with plenty of bling, on a red leather banquette at the Club. Serving up a bring-it-on bravado and attitude to burn despite the oppression and a host of medical, psychological and financial issues they face, the trio of transgender women became the main, though not the only camera subjects in Allen's photographs. They took a risk in the simple act of being visible, and have, by necessity, developed a strongly defined sense of self that is communicated and felt in Allen's images. She shot them at the beach, on the streets of Havana, in their homes and at the cafes and clubs they frequented. No wonder they look like they own the place.
Malu posed with her parents and sister outside their house, and in other pictures, she's alone and naked on a hotel bed or showing off her new breasts; the 15-year-old Rapunzel, photographed at night in knee-high silver rodeo boots and mini skirt, holds a candy apple which betrays her youth; and a spirited, raven-haired Alsola, in low-rise black jeans, stands with hands-on-hips swagger, laying claim to a road in Santiago de Cuba. Although the women Allen befriended were distinct individuals, she recalls one thing they had in common: their desire for cute teenage boyfriends. None wanted to be with someone their own age.
Through July 31 at RayKo Photo Center, 428 3rd St., SF.