Three Exhibitions of Thought-Provoking Photographs by Clarissa Sligh

Sligh's thought-provoking work challenges assumptions and generates discussion about race, sexuality, and gender identities.

February 22-April 13


Known for incorporating change, transformation, and complication in her work as a means of fostering social justice, photographer Clarissa Sligh exhibited her art in three displays at Haverford College, February 22-April 13: “Jake in Transition,” “100 Americans: A Presence of the Past In Philadelphia” and “Masculinities.” These exhibits were made possible through the John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center Leaves of Grass Fund. 100 Americans: A Presence of the Past in Philadelphia is in the Multicultural Center. This exhibit was originally commissioned by the Rosenbach Museum and Library. Sligh took digital portraits of citizens of African descent in the streets of Philadelphia and then hung 100 portraits as an introduction to the museum’s exhibit on African-American histories. As she met her subjects and asked them for their participation, she talked about the exhibit and encouraged them to visit it. Her goal was to bridge the gap between African Americans in Philadelphia and one of the city’s leading cultural institutions. T he men and women in her photos stand as subjects and spectators, intervening in the museum experience. The Magill Library Study Gallery presented Masculinities, in which images such as a stay-at-home dad, a burly flower arranger, a “butch” female in repose, and a gun-toting cowgirl challenge gender assumptions and boundaries in order to interrogate them. Jake in Transition was featured in the gallery of the Hurford Humanities Center. This photo essay chronicles a female-to-male transition and interprets transgender identities through narratives of racial “passing.” As over the course of the year Deborah becomes Jake, the metamorphosis evokes generations of African Americans who passed for white as they sought freedom. Sligh links Jake’s transsexual journey to the historical account of runaway slave couple Ellen and William Craft, who “passed” as two males, master (white) and slave (black) during their escape. She recounts these interwoven stories in a limited edition artist’s book, Wrongly Bodied Two, on display as part of the exhibition. A roundtable discussion on “Jake in Transition” was held Friday, April 4. Participants included photographer Clarissa Sligh; Israel Burshatin, Barbara Riley Levin Professor of Comparative Literature, Professor of Spanish, and curator of the exhibit; Gayle Salamon, Costen LGBT Postdoctoral Fellow from the Society of Fellows in Liberal Arts at Princeton University; Heidi Schlipphacke, Visiting Associate Professor of German; and William E. Williams, Professor of Fine Arts. They addressed issues of photography and transgenderism, the affinities and differences between racial and sexual “passing,” and the roles of performance and narrative in the fashioning of gendered and racialized bodies.

From the "Jake in Transition" Round Table Visual pleasure and FTM passing in Clarissa Sligh’s Wrongly Bodied Two Gayle Salamon, Costen LGBT Postdoctoral Fellow from the Society of Fellows in Liberal Arts, Princeton University

Clarissa Sligh’s Wrongly Bodied Two is a palimpsest in several registers, one text superimposed on another, so that each text bears the imprint of or bleeds through to the other. Legal documents, letters, and first person narratives are layered over photographs of Jake’s body in various stages of transition. Words layer over other words, and photographs of Jake are layered over one another, evidence of Sligh’s deliberateness in working and reworking to find the right frame for her subjects. As Sligh states in one caption, the task of documenting Jake’s physical change made it “difficult to preconceptualize the frame.” This difficulty turns out to be fortuitous, since it enhances the richness of the series of images that Sligh presents. I would suggest that there are (at least) two distinct types of visual pleasure involved in looking at transgendered bodies. The first is the pleasure of beholding a hyperrealized masculinity or femininity: this is the pleasure of drag or of spectacles like the trans beauty pageants held in Manila, Singapore or Las Vegas, or Bravo’s reality series Transamerican Love Story. This kind of visual pleasure often stems from the seamlessness or persuasiveness of the gendered performance. But it is no less true of representations of gender in general, since gender so often resides in the gesture. From a manly swagger to a feminine swish of a hip, gender is read through its gestures. Gender is, as Judith Butler puts it, “a stylized repetition of acts,” a social language experienced through movement and unfolding over time. Since time is notoriously resistant to the lens, questions of framing are bound to be fraught where gender is concerned, and this conundrum is only amplified when gender transition is the object of the camera’s look. All of the layering in Wrongly Bodied Two, all of the dual-framing, from the images to the text to dual narratives of Ellen Craft and Jake to the title is a particularly apt choice for the documentation gender transition, in which the FTM body bears the evidence of a gender to which it no longer belongs, or perhaps never did belong.

That title is worth lingering on: Wrongly Bodied Two promises two tales of the wrongly bodied, one bisected by race and the other by gender. But Ellen Craft, thelight-skinned slave who escapes to freedom in the North by posing as the invalid white master of her black husband, is emphatically not dysphoric. Her passing is an ingenious and instrumental response to the conditions of slavery, rather than a flight from bodily dysphoria. Sligh sometimes interprets Jake’s passing as similarly instrumental, suggesting that his transition is motivated by a desire for the cultural position of power that men have enjoyed compared with women. The feminist insight about power is undeniably true, but is an unsatisfying response to transgenderism, for it does not explain why the trans community is comprised of more Male-to-Female transfolks than Female to Male ones. The suggestion that FTMs become men to gain power or social standing is similarly unresponsive to the day to day realities of trans lives, which are often beset with justified fears that they will be met with discrimination, harassment, hazing, violence, sexual assault and murder because they are transpeople—hardly a description of a day in the life of an average straight white heteronormative man. And though the text argues quite convincingly about the parallels between racial and gender passing, the power relations that attend each kind of passing cannot always be equated. To wit: racial passing involves the traversal of racial categories where an individual leaves a devalued group in order to pass as a member or a more valued group. The danger to that individual lies in the possibility of being exposed as actually belonging to the devalued group. In gender passing, the groups in question are indeed be differentially valued—feminism has taught us as much. But for someone "passing" as male, the danger does not quite inhere in being exposed as being “really” a woman, but rather in being perceived as having no proper gender at all. It is the realms outside either category, those bodies and people who seem to depart altogether from the properly categorical, that meet with social execration and physical violence. The question of motivation is a complex one in this text, and we see Sligh’s understanding of Jake’s motivation change over time. She initially understands his transition to be a series of “cosmetic changes” motivated by the desire to enjoy the cultural trappings of manhood and undertaken with relative ease, as indicated by the language of “exchange” with which she characterizes transition: “a tit or dick or vagina can hardly be looked at. But they can be medically and legally exchanged for something else” (38). But this vision of the willful subject who brokers his gender is in marked contrast to Jake’s description of transition in his assertion that “You don’t wake up one day and say ‘I’m going to do this.’ It’s a long, on again, off again process that started when I was young.” Sligh’s mind is finally changed during a visit to the hospital in which she brings Jake some soup that she had made, a gesture that recalls the hospitality that Ellen and William found in their journey north. It is significant that what finally changes Sligh’s mind about the nature and meaning of transition is not any particularly felicitous gender performance, not a convincing display of masculinity on Jake’s part, but rather bodily evidence of the painfulness of his surgeries and his tenacity in the face of slow recovery that seems to sway Sligh. Suffering then becomes the mark of his gender.

There is the possibility that Sligh herself is that second body of Wrongly Bodied Two: she says, when meeting Jake: “Trying to avert my eyes so as not to stare, I thought, if this chick is a man, than what in the hell am I?” This is a portrait of Jake’s transition, but also of Sligh’s: She documents her own transition on the question of transsexuality itself: from disbelief to uncertainty to a measure of respect and an acknowledgment of the difficulties of Jake’s process. Sligh is his documentarian but not quite his advocate, and some of the framing speaks to this ambivalence. The caption “I am so happy that they are gone,” captures Jake’s relief at having his breasts removed. In the full-sized print that we see here today, this quotation is printed over a photograph of Jake’s torso taken after his chest reconstruction surgery. It reads “I am so happy that they [the breasts] are gone.” Even as Jake is exulting in their disappearance, those breasts refuse to disappear. Sligh has textually replaced them in the caption, and the brackets restore what Jake’s will and embodiment worked so mightily to exclude. This textual replacement shapes the meaning of the image, where those bracketed breasts act as the interpretive framework through which we ‘read’ Jake’s chest, scrutinizing it in the context of missing breasts rather than as an affirmation of his male gender identity. This feminizing hermeneutic is also enacted at the level of framing: in one sequence, Jake’s body reads as a compositional play on the supine female form of Manet’s Odalisque. In each of these cases, the textual caption or the composition and framing of the photographs advance an understanding of Jake’s gender that he himself does not share. Sligh understands Jake’s medical interventions as “the destruction of a beautiful female body” and seems to be credulous on the question of Jake’s gender and his suggestion that he never really felt like a woman in the first place. This raises the second kind of visual pleasure attending photographs of trans people: a kind of fascination as the viewer attempts to read the “old” gender past and through the new body, a palimpsestic interpretation of gender that is not always terribly kind to transpeople. In this sense, Jake can be read as both of the Wrongly Bodied Two: he felt wrongly bodied before as Deborah, but his bilateral chest scars and his genitals insure that we as viewers read has body as a transsexual body, as a not-quite-right embodiment. Sligh tells us that she backed away when Jake initially approached her to document his transition, worried that “a transsexual experience would challenge my worldview (3)."

But she persisted to produce the eloquent and intimate series that we now have, reaching toward that otherness rather than fleeing from it. Her words, I think, point to questions of the self that come to the fore when we are looking at other people, particularly when we are looking at the otherness of other people. What does the otherness of this person say about me? Does my cultural context, family history help me understand them? Or conversely: do they help me read my own cultural context or family history anew, and differently? Sligh suggests that Jake’s masculinity gives her a fresh perspective on her own father’s gender saying: “My deceased father would be horrified. His picture of himself as a macho man pretty much destroyed our family life.” Wrongly Bodied Two contains many of Sligh’s thoughts about gender in its various forms occasioned by her work with Jake. In this way, Jake’s experience of his own gender acts as a kind of cultural palimpsest of and for gender more generally. Rather than serving merely to familiarize the gender of transgendered people to the nontransgendered, Sligh reports that at the end of the project, her experience of nontransgendered white men was defamiliarized. “Today I really look at white male bodies, noticing the face, the hair, the nose, the teeth, the lack of boobs, the lump in the pants, the gestures and interactions between those bodies and other bodies. Had they all started out that way? For me the suppositions had changed.” . Allowing one’s own world to be defamiliarized is a difficult and lovely response to embodied difference. It allows for the possibility that the other “wrong body” of Wrongly Bodied Two might be as proximate as the next “normal-looking” person that I pass on the street, or even closer, in the person of I who am looking on.

From students in Professor Burshatin's course, "Gender Dissidence in Hispanic Writing

Colleen Hotchkiss:

Do photos of transgendered subjects hold the same power for non-transgendered viewer as they do for a trans audience? Is it possible for a non-transgendered viewer to be as affected by a photo with a trans subject as a trans viewer?

What is the nature of the response the viewer has to the photo? Is the aim of such photos to establish a connection between the non-trans audience and the trans subject?

Is it necessary to try to gain some sort of larger meaning from photos of trans subjects or can they connect with the viewer on an emotional level and nothing more?

Can we say that photos have a responsibility to reveal something about the identity of the subject? What does this mean for photos of transgendered subjects pre-transition? Daniel Guilfoyle “Jake in Transition” is in many ways a narrative of pain. Clarissa tells us that Jake “looked like he was in so much pain that I could not make myself take the photograph.”

The pain of the body is vividly registered through the camera’s focus on Jake’s scarring, and even Jake’s resigned positioning on his bed with new male genitals bespeaks the physical travail of his “transition.” But the project is also painful for Clarissa, who “saw my biggest challenge as looking at what I thought of as bodily mutilation.” To attempt to make a connection with Mari’s question, how does the visual documentation and narration of pain lend itself to or reconfigure what we could call the “gaze” (Clarissa’s, Jake’s, ours)? How is this pain unique as an object of visual representation? How does it affect the relationship between Clarissa and Jake? Does Jake assert a kind of power by willfully calling on Clarissa to render his pain in a visual medium? Is “Jake in Transition” mutually cathartic for Clarissa and Jake, or do the incisive markings on Jake’s body constantly reaffirm the pain of transsexual embodiment?

Ella Willard-Schmoe:

How does the existence of photo documentation change the meaning of the transgendered body? Does the proof of a transition affect the ultimate reality of the achieved gender?

We talked yesterday about the tendency of F to M’s to get their tops done first, and the prevalence of trans people who stop there, without going through full genital reassignment. Do these people seek only to “pass” as men in polite society? What does this say about our gender’s dependence on being observed?

Mari Christmas:

Because these pictures were made public, we as viewers are gazing at what Clarissa, the photographer, is referring her gaze towards. This indexical gaze however is not lost in many of the photos because he is either returning our gaze or directing his gaze towards his own reflection. He is often not referring his gaze to something else, or outside the photograph, or even deferring his/our/clarissa’s presence. In this way, the gaze works more parenthetically: (the viewer(clarissa/Jake).

Johanna Anchundia:

In the popular media the transgender body has been overly sexualized and their most intimate parts showcased for the viewers examination. After looking at the exhibit, I wondered about the goal of the photographer to showcase the transition from female to male. Is there an inherent desire in the photographer to convey a different story about the transgender subject that departs from the overtly sexualized story portrayed in the popular media. Furthermore, I am interested to learn about the thought process involved in selecting the images for the exhibit, and whether the photographer had in mind a specific audience.

Biographical Information about Clarissa Sligh

At age 15, Clarissa Sligh was the lead plaintiff in the 1955 school desegregation case in Virginia. Since that time, she has combined photographs, drawings, text, personal stories and social justice issues to open up conversations on provocative themes. She received the Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grant in 2006, and has been awarded fellowships from Anonymous Was a Woman (2001), the Andrea Frank Foundation (2000), the National Endowment for the Arts (1988), and the New York Foundation for the Arts on multiple occasions. She also received the Annual Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in 1995 and the Annual President’s Award from the National Women’s Caucus for Art in 1994.

In addition to Wrongly Bodied Two, her publications include Voyage(r): “A Tourist Map to Japan”; “Reading Dick and Jane with Me”; and “What’s Happening to Momma?” Sligh holds a B.A. from the Hampton Institute, a B.F.A. from Howard University, an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. from Texas Women’s University, and an M.F.A. from Howard. She currently teaches at Penn and New York University.

Sponsored by a generous grant from The Leaves of Grass Foundation.