JJ Levine's "Switch" was an interesting look at how men and women can easily change gender roles with a few well-executed wardrobe changes. While modern society imposes rules about what is masculine and feminine, some individuals confound these social norms and choose to be something in between. This is how artist Bettina Rheims sees the third sex with her "Gender Studies". (WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS NUDITY).
Bettina Rheims began working as a model, journalist and art dealer before moving behind the camera. She then focused on sexuality and eroticism, expanding her subject matter to include transexuality. She also began working with advertisements, particularly for fashion magazines. Here, work exploring female and male concepts were put to good use. Among the many subjects she's worked with, she's well known for her work with androgynous model Andrej Pejic.
Rheim's current gender studies began a year ago when she was approached by Candy magazine to republish her old artworks "Modern Lovers" and "Les Espionnes", both of which deal with transgender and androgyny issues. Some of these older images were uploaded to her Facebook profile, which later generated comments from those who felt that they could relate to those in her photographs.
In looking for subjects for her Gender Studies, Rheims sought those who felt that in their early years, "there was something amiss with how they saw themselves in their bodies", that is to say, his or her body did not reflect who he or she really was inside. In the earliest stages of Rheims' search, she would find many who were born as males now identifying themselves as females (and vice-versa). What made a lasting impact on the photographer were others who refused to be classified with either gender. Today, they might want to be a guy, tomorrow, a girl. Neither man nor woman, a little bit of both, they are the third sex.
The topic of third gender is difficult to discuss because it varies from culture to culture. In India, the Hijra are males who adopt female clothing and roles, and in Thailand, most kathoey or ladyboys see themselves as women. In Australia, passport holders are now allowed to mark their gender with an "X" to indicate intersex or indeterminate, while in Germany, the matter is still up for debate.
Rheims' photos forces viewers to think about a new standard when meeting new persons. This isn't an easy thing to do because when people look at other people, their minds immediately try to classify them as either man or woman, boy or girl, male or female. With Rheims' images, it becomes difficult. Some have masculine faces with feminine bodies, while others are straddle the line between those two extremes.
In selecting the subjects for her Gender Studies, Rheims wasn't particular about their appearance nor their sex before their transformation. Instead, during their initial interviews, the photographer looked for their sincerity about their whole identity and not just in terms of gender. Even with all of the physical changes they've made to their body, the real person isn't just a face in a photograph, but someone who's worth getting to know as a friend.
This is Bettina Rheims' website. Some of her published works include Rose, c'est Paris: Bettina Rheims & Serge Bramly, Bettina Rheims: Can You Find Happiness, and Bettina Rheims: More Trouble. For a different take on gender studies, take a look at JJ Levine's "Switch".