In 2012, photographer Chloe Aftel began a photography series, titled Genderqueer, aiming to document the gender-nonconforming community. Inspired by a friend’s child’s partner, who mentioned they were nonbinary, Aftel became interested in exploring the various ways people identify, and she began photographing nonbinary people. Although Aftel paused capturing new portraits the past two years due to the pandemic, the Genderqueer series has continued growing and evolving since the early photos. The Denver Art Museum acquired two works from the series—Emma and Amanda—in fall 2021.
Aftel’s photographic practice stemmed from a start in film production—first at USC and then managing a production company in New York, both of which she found to be unpleasant experiences. But what she found in those experiences was a desire to make “cinematic still frames” to tell people’s stories.
“I just thought, if I could have more control, if I could tell the stories I wanted to tell, if I could delve into people’s lives and look for the sort of real and authentic and interesting experiences, it seemed like photography was more of a place to do that,” she said.
Learn more about what inspired the Genderqueer series, Aftel’s two photos in the DAM’s collection, and her process below.
I hope that [people who see the photos] maybe give themselves a little more space in terms of who they are [and] that they also give the world at large a little more space where people can just be and present and dress the way they want to and love who they love and be who they are.
What inspired your Genderqueer series?
The thing that I think is great about gender nonconforming is that it's not like everyone is this one specific way. The whole point in my mind is that it just opens up a space where people can be like, ‘I don't totally fit in this box. I don't fit in this other box. I don't really want to be in this box. I can just sort of be.’ And that can also change over time. It just allows someone space to explore without having the confines of this rule or that rule, this identity or that identity, which I thought was really interesting. But I also thought, how do you demonstrate that physically, and how do you also fight against all the preconceptions people have of ‘Oh, well, you're a lesbian, or you're gay’—how do you work within these very narrow definitions that people have?
So, talking to people about that, photographing them, and exploring it, I just felt like, ‘Wow, this is really cool, this is really interesting.’ So many people, which I did not expect, don't feel like the sort of traditional gender rules are 100% who they are. They're not this narrow definition of a person. There are all these different ways that people want to be themselves, and how hard it is when you have to fit into a mold that doesn't make sense to you.
I personally just thought, ‘Alright, let's see all the different ways that people interpret this and how it works and what it feels like.’ So I just started photographing, and it went on and on and on. There were more people and more people, and then slowly it started to sink into the cultural zeitgeist, so then there were more people who were available. I was acutely aware that I did not want this to look like it was a movement for only a very select group of people, and also how hard it is within certain demographics and cultural milieus to be able to be this person when it's not something that's understood or accepted. I wanted to explore all of that.
It's interesting seeing how the world has changed since the project started. And while I selfishly really enjoyed doing it, I think the big thing is trying to figure out how to get these communities and these bodies into more of what we see every day. So that's more the push now, on the advertising side, to say, ‘This is a thing, this is a real part of life. You need to start embracing it and representing it.’
And it's nice to have something that helps validate so many experiences. It's sort of like, ‘You're not alone. This is not a problem. Here's a whole group of people who all feel the way you do, and there's a zillion different permutations. And maybe you won't feel that you're part of this later, but if this is what you're struggling with right now, this is a resource.’ It's nice to be able to know that it helps the next generation just not feel quite so isolated.
The Denver Art Museum acquired Emma and Amanda from your Genderqueer series in fall 2021. Can you share a bit about each of those portraits?
Amanda is intersex… I think what's fascinating about intersex [is] it really calls into question all of our ideas about gender and born sexual identity, because these are people who oftentimes are very much living in two realms at the same time. There's a ton of science behind it, there's a lot to think about, there's a lot to explore, and the idea of a spectrum seems to be 100% validated. People can exist in what we hold as separate realms at the same time. And I also think there's very little understanding about that, and there's a lot of ignorance and lot of difficulty about being intersex, which I think would be a benefit to society at large to have a better understanding of.
Amanda is a big advocate and a very understanding and very articulate subject.
That picture to me, and part of the reason I wanted it done topless was, I wanted to flirt with this idea of ‘You may think X, you may think Y. You may think it's a woman, you may think it's a man, you may think it's an intersex person.’ Whatever. But what are you bringing to that exchange when you look at that photo? And I hope the image disabuses people of the confines that we usually think about for gender.
Emma was the second subject [in the series]. With Emma, I wanted to flirt with very basic sort of gender ideas, where it's like, ‘There's lipstick being put on. What is happening? I don't totally know.’
Maybe people are unfamiliar; maybe it's confusing. But again, I wanted this whole thing to bring into question a lot of things that people took for granted. And I felt like playing around with Emma, who was wearing a bright colored lipstick; I was like, ‘Oh, could you just touch it up for me?’ and what that was like for them—all of that was interesting as well. As well as the ceremony and the idea of how they put themselves together. And hopefully someone will look at it and say, ‘Oh, this isn't fitting neatly into a box. What's happening and who is this person?'
When people are spending time viewing the portraits from the Genderqueer series, what do you hope they notice? What would you hope they walk away with?
Honestly, my real hope is that they have some sort of experience inside themselves. And that may sound lofty, but the hope is that they look at it and think, ‘Huh, how beautiful,’ or ‘How interesting,’ or ‘I didn't expect that,’ or ‘I don't know what's going on, but I’m interested.’ But that there's some tiny measure in that private moment of calling things they take for granted into question. Where they might be like, ‘Oh, what a beautiful person.’
And it might make them initially uncomfortable, but to sit with that for a minute and think, ‘This is something that I think is beautiful, this image, and what is that like for me when it's slightly uncomfortable or it's unfamiliar or there's something else going on that isn't the way that I always thought of myself?’
I hope that extrapolating from that, they maybe give themselves a little more space in terms of who they are, but that they also give the world at large a little more space where people can just be and present and dress the way they want to and love who they love and be who they are.
That's my hope: That there is a beauty and that [it] sort of disarms people very briefly.