Birds of Paradise – Interrogating Notions of Gender in the Photography of Daniel Handal, Sara Davidmann, and Victoria Holguín.
How can photography enact social change? How can it be used as a tool by marginalised groups to advocate for their rights to exist? How does photography capture the diversity and complexity of gender and sexual identities without turning its subjects into spectacles? The bodies of work by Sara Davidmann, Daniel Handal, and Victoria Holguín each, in their own way, provide answers to these questions.
Sometimes your brain short circuits and your thoughts enter into a strange feedback loop. I experienced this whilst poring over Daniel Handal’s recent series Canarios/Pinzones. In it, he portrays tiny vibrant birds in brazen contrast to the soft pastel backdrops against which they sit. It is strongly reminiscent of Luke Stephenson’s An Incomplete Dictionary of Showbirds. So far, so deceptively simple.
But unlike Stephenson’s photographs, Handal’s images start to throw up questions upon closer inspection. I notice the shadows cast by the birds and the backdrops in the picture plane. The images begin to feel sculptural, three-dimensional, layered. The birds rest on perches mounted onto pastel-hued backgrounds. These, in turn, are fenced off by frames of an identical colour, mounted onto a white wall. What is this, then? A photograph? A sculpture? A photograph of a sculpture? My train of thought careens on. What about the birds? Are they alive? Are they taxidermied objects? Why depict these birds? Why choose these colours?
Handal explains that they are portraits of live canaries and finches. He prints these to scale, frames them and re-photographs them to create the final pictures. By having the fixtures in an identical colour to the backdrops, they become an integral part of the work. A trompe l’oeuil is thus at play in the resulting images. The colours of the backgrounds are a deliberate choice, as are the birds:
“I wanted to work on a project that celebrated beauty and visual pleasure. Canaries and finches are so pretty—they are bred to have these incredible colours. Because of their scale and colour, there’s something unusually fragile and delicate about them. [In this project] I embrace two cultural references: the constrictive idea that in our culture colours define gender—blue for boys, pink for girls—and also the liberating realisation that I can defy the expected by emphasising the delicate beauty of birds with the flamboyant use of pastel colours. These conflicting ideas are both reconciliatory and cathartic; they are a deconstruction of gender norms.”
But the prettiness is marred by a palpable tension. The frames hold the birds captive in very circumscribed and uniform, albeit colourful, cages. The perches act as a foil to the frames. They are a potential launch pad for the songbirds to escape their enclosure and set themselves free. Handal acknowledges this:
“I love that the birds appear to be both caged and free at the same time … For me this tension takes on a more personal meaning. The feeling I am trying to express is what it felt like growing up gay; not being able to escape these feelings and trying to change who I was, unsuccessfully. My project represents a landing place for my life journey, and the embracement of my queer identity. They are also my way of transforming pretty into a statement of rebellion: the angelical beauty of these songbirds resting on a perch in front of immaculate pastel colour backgrounds is as much a statement of grace as a state of defiance.”
And this brings us to the heart of the matter. Canarios/Pinzones is Handal’s attempt to reclaim the term ‘pajaro’ or ‘bird’. In Honduras—the artist’s country of origin—this is a derogatory term for a gay man. But oddly enough, the immediate associations to birds that pop into my mind are all of a stereotypical masculine, working-class, heterosexual nature. After all, canaries have been used throughout the 20th century as a sentinel species to detect carbon monoxide in coal mines, that veritable bastion of the male working class. This in turn conjures for me scenes from Kes, Ken Loach’s seminal film from 1969 set in a mining community in the north of England. It portrays a young working-class boy, doomed to a life of powerlessness, poverty and petty crime, until he finds, tames and befriends a kestrel. This brings me to photographic bodies of work such as Ricardo Cases’ Paloma al Aire, or Zak Waters’ Birdmen. These reportages document working-class men in Spain and the UK, respectively, who keep and race pigeons in their spare time. Even though these films and photographs are visually miles apart from Handal’s work, I cannot seem to shake the associations.
But perhaps what they all have in common is that the birds function as a proxy for the men, an embodiment of a perhaps quixotic desire to be free from their own cages. Handal attests to this:
“Canaries and finches represent joy, freedom and individuality, so they are well suited for what I was trying to express. It’s interesting to point out that although these birds are kept as pets, they are never fully domesticated; so, in a sense, they also represent [a certain] lack of freedom.”
A lack of freedom in embracing one’s sexual and gender identity imposed by religion is addressed by Sara Davidmann in her series Eve, Adam, and the Garden of Earthly Delights. It is an obvious nod to the Book of Genesis, albeit one with a twist. Her critique is manifold. To begin with, there is Davidmann’s interpretation of what constitutes a paradisiacal setting. Instead of capturing her subjects outdoors in a landscape of unsurpassed beauty, she takes her models into a studio and poses them against an artificially created backdrop. The garishly painted cloth shows waving palm trees, the sun setting against a rose-fingered sky, and calm waters leisurely lapping onto the foreshore. It is oddly reminiscent of Joan Fontcuberta’s series Landscapes without Memory, in which he creates landscape images with the help of virtual reality software. He thereby exposes ideological notions of what primordial landscapes should look like: majestic, tropical, and unspoiled by the presence of either humans or animals. Both Fontcuberta’s work and Davidmann’s backdrop are a far cry from the Book of Genesis, in which man is firmly planted into the Garden of Eden, and explicitly instituted by God to rule over animals.
Eve, Adam, and the Garden of Earthly Delights thus provides a subtle critique of the notion of the sublime in the landscape in photography and painting. In addition, the series addresses the chequered role that photography studios have played throughout the history of the medium. They have been instrumental in recording rites of passage such as baptisms, communions, graduations and weddings. More importantly, they have reinforced the notion of the nuclear family and assisted in the promulgation of apparent achievements of success, happiness and wealth, especially within migrant and diasporic communities.
On the flip side, there are studios such as Maryam Şahinyan’s Foto Galatasaray, which operated from 1935 to 1985 in Turkey. As Şahinyan was a female photographer of Armenian descent, she attracted a clientele that was predominantly female, minority ethnic and transgender. Davidmann acknowledges this:
“Photographic studios can function as a safe space for LGBTQ+ people to express their gender and sexual identities. This is particularly important in situations where the society in which people live does not accept who they are and enforces a masquerade of hetero-normativity.” She continues: “Photography studios can be liminal spaces—outside everyday life and beyond the pressures of the visual regime of the street or the identity space of the home. I have found that the photography studio can offer people a safe space to express their identities on their own terms.”
One way or another, photography studios have long been instrumental in creating an idealised and performative image of oneself.  Art historian Florian Ebner goes one step further, and posits that ‘if we consider the photo studio as a locale that not only reproduces civic identity, but constructs an “image” as well, then it is not a neutral space, but one of metamorphosis.’  Transformation can be achieved through a considered choice of clothing, whether it is simply by putting on one’s Sunday best, or by wearing outfits associated with another gender.  Not so in Eve, Adam, and the Garden of Earthly Delights.The models have all shed their garments and present themselves to the viewer completely naked. This is significant, because, as John Berger points out, ‘to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.’ 
The nakedness of her models is therefore the real strength of Davidmann’s work. They appear utterly comfortable in their own skin, regardless of age, gender or conformation to any prevalent notions of beauty. This comfort is a direct result of her approach:
“The way that I usually work with people is that we spend hours—sometimes days—together taking photographs and talking. Very rarely have I photographed someone just once. During the hours that we spend together, a relationship develops between the people I collaborate with and myself. I’ve worked with some people over several years. In Eve, Adam, and the Garden of Earthly Delights everyone who took part in the project was asked if they would also like to swap places and photograph me. This was important to me—that I should not stay behind the lens—and that I should be seen alongside the people I photograph.”
There is another criticism implied by the comfortable state of undress of Davidmann’s models. Coming back to the Book of Genesis, God forbids Adam and Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of ‘knowledge of wisdom and good and evil’. When they eat from it anyway, not only are they cast out of the Garden of Eden, they also become painfully aware of their own nakedness. Davidmann’s models therefore embody a certain, and perhaps temporary, state of innocence and bliss before being ejected from paradise forever. But until such time, a wide variety of people with as many sexual and gender identities reside in the Garden of Eden of the artist’s making. In her photographs, the male–female binary is firmly shattered, as is the notion of women’s subordination to men, and the necessity of heterosexual intercourse for procreation. Ultimately, this wide-ranging cast of characters forms the most obvious and withering critique of the limitation of sexual and gender roles set by any religion.
But can we even escape the attraction and seduction of, and reduction to binary categories when we engage in the practice of looking at ourselves and others? As John Berger muses, ‘men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at … The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’ 
So, what do we make of a female photographer looking at men in the process of becoming women? How do we feel about her subjects essentially demanding her to look at them, to record them, to make them into an object of vision? And her models, being vocal and in control of how they should be seen, how they should be looked at? There is something transgressive about the entire process. To transition to another gender is therefore not just a physical transformation, it entails a complete shift in scopic regimes. As we know, the gaze is never innocent. But who gazes at whom and for what reason?
Following the various lines of sight is the crux to understanding Victoria Holguín’s body of work Ellas. Whilst in every single image the photographer, and by extension the viewer, gazes intently at the two models, they in turn never meet our eyes. Sometimes this is because only parts of their bodies are on display—their backs, their legs, their shoulders—but in others, Holguín’s subjects actively choose to look away. And whilst the models in Davidmann’s work are naked, Holguín’s subjects are nude. Sexual organs are hinted at, but not displayed. There is an ode to a certain notion of youth and female beauty at play in these images, a celebration of form over matter, a subtle desire to be desired, an underlying hankering for a goal not yet obtained. Whilst it could be argued that the portraits objectify the models, it is important to realise that it is the models themselves that set out the rules of the engagement, not the photographer.
As Holguín explains: “I met Mariana first when I was doing some photos for another project. She told me she wanted to have some more pictures of her transformation [as] she was going to have her breast surgery.” She continues: “[Mariana and Mati] are really open about being photographed, they love their bodies and, thanks to that, it was really easy to show them my ideas for the pictures. I keep talking to them, and they are really happy to see the results of the photos. And [in the course] of the project they introduce me to other transgender friends, and that is how this project is growing.”
Photography has long been a means for making the invisible visible, with the aim of furnishing proof, furthering acceptance, creating a sense of understanding. But whilst many projects documenting transgender individuals fall into the trap of creating a spectacle through fetish for sordid detail, Ellas sidesteps this in various ways. This is partly the result of the models collaborating closely with the photographer, but also by Holguín’s use of neutral colours, the soft and even lighting, the circumscribed location both in space and time that the images evidence. All of these elements work to take the sting of the spectacular away from the photographic encounter. The result is that Mati and Mariana can present their bodies to the viewer almost as if they were blank canvasses. They are a work of art yet to be started, an identity still to be formed. Perhaps it is worth remembering here the words of Stuart Hall: ‘The body/self is not photographed, but positioned, worked on. It has become a place of inscription: literally, something to be written upon and “read”; an “auto-graph.” 
This essay was previously published in Photoworks Annual no. 24 ‘LGBTQ+’
 Ute Eskildsen, “Introduction,” in Ute Eskildsen (ed.), Street & Studio. An Urban History of Photography (London: Tate Publishing,2008), 10.
 Florian Ebner, ‘Urban Characters, Imaginary Cities’, in Street & Studio. An Urban History of Photography, ed. Ute Eskildsen (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), 191.
 Nicholas Mirzoeff, How To See The World (London: Pelican, 2015), 59.
 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London, Penguin Classics, 2008), 54.
 Berger, Ways of Seeing, 47.
 Stuart Hall, introduction to Autoportraits (Autograph ABP’s first touring exhibition), in Newspaper No. 10, February 1990.