“I always had questions about what constituted society’s gender roles,” says American photographer Mariette Pathy Allen. “What made people decide that women and men were supposed to behave in one way? Who made these rules?”
After reading the work of anthropologist Margaret Mead in high school, Allen realised those rules weren’t necessarily rue for the rest of the world, or even historically. “I found that the American configuration wasn’t the only one,” she explains. “Each culture makes their own decisions about how they want to act and behave, and that came as a great relief to me because I felt rebellious.”
In 1978, Allen met a coterie of cross-dressers in the lobby of a New Orleans hotel where she was staying during Mari Gras, and from that serendipitous encounter a new life path emerged. Over the past half century, Allen has traveled the world documenting trans and gender nonconforming communities in their many-splendored forms.
Throughout the course of her career, Allen has adopted an immersive approach, creating a space within the community where her work as a photographer acts as a space for collaboration, representation and visibility among many who have been forced to live double lives.
“In the 1980s, my focus was male to female cross-dressers, who were men in very masculine jobs: truck drivers, fire fighters, engineers, computer programmers, and CEOs,” Allen says. “But they were not involved with the arts and had no clue how to present their feminine side, so I started teaching them things like how to move, how to stand, how to sit. I’m not a make-up artist but I could make suggestions.”
In those moments of shared vulnerability and intimacy, bonds of trust and respect were forged, and their photographic sessions together reflected the love they shared.
“I wanted to present them as relatable people, both to themselves an to the outside world,” Allen says. “One of the things I tried to do was to communicate with their wives and partners, and to include photographs of them in my first book Transformations.”
In the ‘90s, Allen began meeting more people in the gender expansive community, many of who were activists, and began photographing people across the spectrum. As the rigid lines around sexuality and gender began to dissolve, Allen remembers a feeling of optimism in the air.
“There was so much activity and progress, an it was exciting to see gains,” she says. “Obama was the first president who ever mentioned the word ‘transgender’ in a speech. There were conferences about religion, and the Unitarian Church was all-welcoming. People would cry because they were finally accepted in church.”
Five decades in, Allen’s devotion only grows. “People had a fabulous sense of humour and there was a strong philosophical bent of questioning, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is a human being?’” she says. “The same questions I ask myself.”
Breaking Boundaries: 50 Years of Images is on view through July 30, 2023 at Culture Lab LIC in Long Island City, New York.
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