Interviews, New Talent, Ones To Watch

Uncovering Mongolia’s transgender community

All photos © Álvaro Laiz

"I can’t think of anything more terrifying than the idea that a large part of our identity relies on facts and things we can’t control or even know exist.”

As a child, Álvaro Laiz came to relate photography with travelling, fascinated by the Konica Minolta his dad would carry on holiday. So when he began travelling the world after finishing his studies, it was only fitting he took a camera with him. “I photograph what I do not understand or what scares me,” he says. “I can’t think of anything more terrifying than the idea that a large part of our identity relies on facts and things we can’t control [or] even know exist.”

His quest took him to Mongolia, a state which lies between the domineering civilisations of Europe, China and Russia and which is in the midst of deep social transformation. Researching the region’s nomadic tribes led him to consider the nation’s founder, Genghis Khan, who declared homosexuality illegal and punishable by death in a bid to increase the population. Eight hundred years later, little has been done to rehabilitate the community.

With Transmongolian, the Secret History of the Mongols, Laiz sheds light on the lives of the country’s transgendered population, and seeks to restore some of their dignity.His soft and majestic portraits of his subjects  in magnificent, traditionally female, garments contrast with candid shots of their nightly transvestite activities. “Every project has its own rhythm, but I usually like to begin with portraits,” he explains. “It’s like shaking hands with someone you don’t know.”

For Arianna Rinaldo, director of documentary photography magazine Ojo de Pez, it’s this two-pronged approach that sets Laiz’s project apart. “Álvaro easily and efficiently mixes the language of more classical reportage with staged portraits,” she notes. “He thus manages to deal with a subject that has been explored by many photographers in many countries with originality.”

The 33 year-old, who founded the Madrid-based collective An-Hua (Chinese for “hidden image revealed when affecting a spotlight on it”), continues to explore transgenderism in remote communities. For Wonderland Magazine he travelled to the Delta of Orinoco, for example, to find the Indigenous Warao tribe whose ancient animistic rites value those with dual gender. “In a society where every second counts, photographs can reach deeper levels than anything else and therefore spread awareness,” he says.

See more of Álvaro’s work here.

First published in the January 2014 issue. You can buy the issue here.