Sara Davidmann (2013). Untitled
The work of artist and photographer Sara Davidmann is based around collaboration with individuals whose self-identity places them into categories other than the polarised female and male. By doing so it questions the relationship that exists between the individual and the state, and is, therefore, an important counter to mass media stereotypes which often misrepresent.
Since 1999 Davidmann has worked collaboratively with London’s queer and transgender communities, recording a time of sweeping social change in relation to gender identity, sexual identity and sexuality. Davidmann’s work continues to focus on the themes of self-representation, transgender relationships, and ‘the family’.
Ken. To be destroyed, tells the story of one individuals transgender identity in 1950’s Britain.
Arising from the discovery of photographs, letters and other miscellaneous papers amongst her mother’s possessions, the project explores the life of Davidmann’s uncle Ken after his wife, Hazel, discovered in 1958 that he was transgender.
The following is an extract from Davidmann’s lecture transcript:
‘In 2011, after our mother Audrey had moved into a nursing home, my brother, sister and I began to clear her house and then we found the archive. Finding this archive was amazing. I had no idea that it existed and I was particularly struck by the correspondence, the letters, between Hazel and Audrey. Hazel was Audrey’s younger sister. Hazel and Ken married in 1954 and then in 1958, Hazel discovered that Ken was transgender. She was shocked and she didn’t know what to think about it, or what she should do. She turned to my mother, Audrey and wrote to her asking for advice. Hazel and Audrey then wrote to each other about this, many times, over the next five years.
Hazel’s letters are really vivid and powerful and Audrey’s responses are supportive and nonjudgemental. I found the letters really moving. I felt as if I got to know my aunt and also my uncle much better than I’d actually known them in life, through these letters. They also brought to life how little was known about transgender people in the 1950s and 1960s. The difficulties that Hazel and Ken faced trying to reconcile the fact that Ken was transgender, with their marriage and with society. There was almost no support available at the time.
By the end of this correspondence in 1963, Hazel seemed to have become reconciled to the fact that Ken was transgender. Just to give you an idea of the amount of letters that went between Audrey and Hazel, the archive contains 93 letters. The letters and papers were found in a brown paper bag and two large brown envelopes. On one of the envelopes Audrey had written ‘Ken, to be destroyed’. On the other envelope she wrote ‘Ken’s letters to Hazel, to be destroyed’, and on the bag, ‘letters from Hazel re Ken’.’
Davidmann used a variety of techniques to produce the work, ranging from analogue to digital photography, from digital image manipulation to alternative imaging methods. For example, one image is of Ken’s head transposed onto Hazel’s body wearing the dress she wore on the day she married Ken. Davidmann suggests that such fictional photographs allow Ken to be seen as a woman in public, something that was not possible during his lifetime.
It should be remembered that in 1950’s Britain, homosexuality was illegal, chemical castration was seen not only as an effective but also civilised method of treating what was regarded as an illness, and societies treatment of homosexuals led to the death by suicide of mathematician Alan Turing.
This, then, is an extremely good point to introduce the relevance of Ken to my work.
A key point of Davidmann’s Ken, and her work in general, is about giving a voice to those groups who are often hidden from, or marginalised by, society.
‘From Hazel’s letters, I learned that Ken had felt very uncomfortable having to present himself as a man. The word that was used was that he felt that he was masquerading as a man, and this led to Ken avoiding being in public places and avoiding social interactions as much as was possible.’
I think the social injustice that arose from ignorance in Ken’s situation is clear.
What is equally clear, based upon my research for Jo-Ana so far, is that anorexia (and other eating disorders) are widely regarded as being a lifestyle choice. One area in which anorexia is not discriminated against, however, is in the way it is regarded, alongside other mental illnesses, as being somehow less ‘real’ because it cannot be seen, because it is intangible, or being a sign of weakness, or as being something of which to be ashamed.
Mental illness is not a sign of weakness, nor something to be ashamed of. Mental illness is no less real because it cannot be seen or touched. And this is just as true for anorexia and all other eating disorders.
Attitudes need to change. The media, which has done so much to promote the cult of being thin whilst stigmatising those who succumb to an eating disorder, many for whom the medias glorification of thinness has been a trigger, needs to be both more accountable and responsible. An industry which exists to inform us, needs itself to become much more informed, certainly where eating disorders and body perception is concerned.
In summary, then, Jo-Ana is about helping to raise public awareness of a life-threatening disease. It is also, however, about challenging public perceptions of an illness that can crush completely those that suffer from it, perceptions which are formed not only by the media, but also social media – stereotypes which are misguided and misrepresentational. Davidmann’s work has been highly influential in the development of Jo-Ana, demonstrating clearly that beautiful imagery can also be deeply thought-provoking.
Davidmann, Sara (2018). ‘Guest Lecture (Publication) – Sara Davidmann’. Lecture to PHO705 17/18 [online]. Available at: https://flex.falmouth.ac.uk/courses/86/pages/guest-lecture-publication-sarah-davidmann?module_item_id=8348 (accessed: Wednesday 14 February 2018)