With the transgender identity more visible in the mainstream than ever, Dave Naz visited genderqueer communities to take portraits and question the structures of gender
Transgender rights and representation has steadily built momentum over recent years, with public figures like Laverne Cox, Antony Hegarty and Caitlyn Jenner bringing a broader spectrum of gender nonconformity to the public sphere. Los Angeles-based photographer Dave Naz’s work revolves around the diversity of identity, and in his recent book Genderqueer (Rare Bird), he documented communities who are “transgender, intersex, pangender, and every shade in between”. We spoke to him about the difficulties of handling such a sensitive subject and reaching out to marginalised communities.
Why did you decide to make the shift from fetish photography to your recent work on pan-gender identity?
I’ve never considered myself a fetish photographer, although I have covered the subject through the years in my work.
The gender identity series came about when Drew Deveaux emailed about modelling for me – he has a look that defies gender. Around this time I found models Jiz Lee and Syd Blakovich online and asked them if I could take their portraits. All three appear on the cover of my book Genderqueer: And Other Gender Identities.
What was the turning point that marked that shift?
I spoke with Jiz about helping me reach out to folks in their community about modelling and being interviewed. Most of the people in the book live in the Bay Area, so I set up shoots in San Francisco. The response was positive and the days were full with models excited about having their photo taken and sharing their stories. The stories are in my photo zine: Identity. Later on in the work I started doing video interviews which turned into my documentary Identity: In & Beyond The Binary.
How did your Genderqueer book project came about? How did you select the essayists involved?
A few years into the work I approached Rare Bird Lit about publishing the work along with five personal stories on the subject of gender identity.
Having the trust of everyone involved in a project like this is a lot of pressure and I didn’t want to let anyone down. I wanted to make sure the work was presented in a sensitive way and wouldn’t come across as exploitative. I knew the people at Rare Bird would understand this and they agreed to publish the book which came out after five years of work.
For the essays I asked Jiz Lee & Sarah Burghauser. I photographed both for the book. I had Jiz Lee in mind to write something from the beginning. Sarah I met at the WEHO book fair and found out she was a writer when I photographed her. Morty Diamond I met when he was on a panel at the WEHO Book Fair with my wife (Oriana Small). I bought a copy of his book Trans Love. Jiz suggested I contact Ignacio Rivera. I checked out their work online and thought they’d be a good fit. Jenny Factor is a published poet and teacher at Antioch University (and also happens to be my cousin). Jenny has a book of poetry: Unraveling at the Name. We spend Sunday dinners together and I would tell her about the project as it was progressing. She was an obvious choice with her knowledge of gender studies.
The adult film and fetish photography worlds and ‘genderqueer’ communities seem, at first blush, very distinct. Are they? When you were shooting Genderqueer did you have any hurdles to overcome in relation to gaining the trust of your models? Any political points of sensitivity based on your previous work?
Some of the models from the book I found through queer porn. This is a group that is sensitive to: queer, trans and gender variant people. Many in the queer porn community identify as feminists.
I should note that all of the models in the book are not from porn and not everyone in the book identifies as genderqueer. Some identify as trans, queer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, etc. There are many different identities and they can always change.
Some of the people in the queer community were familiar with my work and others read about it on queer message boards and found me through them.
It’s challenging when you’re asking people for their time for a project like this who don’t know you and what your motives are. It’s important to use the correct pronouns. For example, those who identify as Genderqueer prefer the pronoun “they”.
How have your photography influences figured into this new body of work? Are you conscious of your influences when creating this genre of work, or is it a complete departure from everything that’s come before it for you?
I am conscious of my influences, but it was important for me to make this work my own. Nan Goldin’s book The Other Side is an important book for me. The first I’d seen of its kind. Bettina Rheims’ book Modern Lovers is important too, as is the work of Catherine Opie. Two of Catherine Opie’s models, Buck Angel & Pig Pen, appear in my book.
Nan Goldin and Catherine Opie both had a different relationship with their subjects than I do. They were photographing the people around them and the world they live in; Rheims’ styling and look is unique to her work.
I learned about gender identity through the subjects I photographed. When I started the series I had never heard the term genderqueer, [but] I am happy to say I made some great friends working on this series.