On one dreary day last year, photographer Rene Matiç was walking with performing artist and writer Travis Alabanza around the Hillfields estate in north-east Bristol. The pair had met pre-COVID on the dancefloor at Pxssy Palace – an iconic London club night focusing on queer and gender non-conforming Black, indigenous, people of colour – and having followed Travis’s work online, while also sharing a Black, gender nonconforming trans identity with them, Rene felt instantly at ease.
“A first impression doesn’t really exist for a lot of us anymore because there’s already these preconceived ideas of a person – especially when they are a performer like Travis, or has a heavy online presence so they kind of offer themselves up to the world,” they say. “Then when we met in person, I think I kissed them on the cheek. I’m like: ‘Hey babe, how are you?’ It felt familiar already, which is interesting thinking about the access that we feel we have to people – especially trans Black people.”
Built in 1919, Hillfields is the oldest council estate in the city, as well as the place Travis spent much of their childhood years. They hadn’t been back to the area in over a decade, but with Rene having been commissioned to create a photographic series about Travis and Bristol, that day felt like the right time to return. As they turned into what would appear to be a nondescript alleyway, Travis stopped and said: “I’ve brought a skirt with me and I really want to put it on, and I really want you to take my photo in this alleyway. Because this is an alleyway where I’ve experienced some fuckery.”
“I was like ‘let’s do it’,” Rene says, reflecting on the moment. “I think that up until that point it was my gaze, and this was like a merging of the gazes together, which was really special and I just understood. We did it and it was really beautiful.”
That picture now forms part of their new exhibition, a girl for the living room, which is currently running at The Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. Alongside that photograph is a series of intimate portraits and candid shots of Travis living their daily life, made over the last 12 months. From eating a fry up with all the trimmings to cleaning up their kitchen and hanging with friends in a studio, the photographs give a peek behind the curtain into Travis’s domestic day-to-day, while simultaneously showcasing their full-throttle, authentic expression of self away from the performing stage, the online eye, and the dancefloor.
“Everyone sees this very energetic person online, and actually it just was like that,” Rene explains. “They do not turn off – their humour, their wit and how intelligent they are, it never stops. And how honest they are just blew me away.”
The title of the series, a girl from the living room is a nugget of openness and honesty in itself, derived from Travis’s confession that they’re a “homebody” at heart – a stark contrast to their very public, open persona. But the project also serves as a reminder that everyone has a private life. “They should give themselves more credit,” says Rene. “They say that they are a homebody, but I think you can still be at home and still have your mind dancing, and I think that’s what I learnt from the project.”
While the lens focuses on Travis, the photographs are also an expression of the blossoming synergetic relationship between the pair as they spent prolonged, intense periods of time working with one another. The series by design had to be collaborative – subverting the traditional photographer and subject relationship, Rene explains, simply because of who they both are – Black, trans, queer people.
“I’m quite a nervous photographer. I was very aware that I was interrupting Travis in their life and being a body in that room was a bit of an interruption and then to have this other presence of the camera… I do get shy about that,” they say. “Part of that comes down to privilege. I’m not really afforded the privilege of being able to get up in someone’s grill non-consensually.”
The collaboration has taught them a lot about their role as a photographer, but also about their personal relationships. “It’s a huge blessing and a reminder why I do the things that I do,” they continue. “And in terms of moving forward for myself and my work, this has taught me a lot about the amount of care and precision that I want to spend on the people I photograph, and don’t photograph as well. It was just a really beautiful thing.”