Book Review: Revealing Selves; Transgender Portraits from Argentina by Kike Arnal

Book Review: Revealing Selves; Transgender Portraits from Argentina by Kike Arnal

 El Gondolín Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal. These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves:Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

El Gondolín
Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal.
These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves:Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

By Ilana Jael
The photobook Revealing Selves was conceived by Kike Arnal as part of, about LGBTQ communities around the world that is the result of a unique collaboration between the Arcus Foundation, Emerson, Wajdowicz Studios, and The New Press. And the selves it reveals are those of three Argentinian transgender women and one transgender man, who are here profiled in biography and photograph by Kike Arnal. As a result of the tireless activism of its trans citizens, a process briefly outlined in an introduction by anthropologist Josefina Fernandez, Argentina is one of the world’s most progressive countries in terms of legal rights for the transgendered. But despite these technical protections, substantial social barriers remain for trans people, and especially for trans women. Discrimination bars them from most formal housing and most formal employment, causing them to resort to hotel rooms or the street for shelter and to sex work to make their livings, a harsh lifestyle that contributes to these women’s heartbreakingly low life expectation of only 35 years, less than half the national average of 77.

 Cinthia and her three daughters, Amira Ayelen, Nahir Daiana, and Zamira Nahomi, in Villa 31, Buenos Aires Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal. These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves:Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Cinthia and her three daughters, Amira Ayelen, Nahir Daiana, and Zamira Nahomi, in Villa 31, Buenos Aires
Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal.
These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves:Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

In portraying his transgender subjects, Arnal bravely shrinks from stereotypical images of “idealized femininity or elaborate artifice”. Instead of glamorizing them or turning them into a spectacle, he simply shows them as they are; as everyday people, living the best lives they can in a society that has thrown them nothing but obstacles. The ordinary life Arnal captures was a hard won one for transwoman Cinthia Arroyo, who spent time amounting to 5 years in prison for repeatedly violating former governmental restrictions against public cross dressing and now enjoys steady employment as a librarian, a far cry from her turbulent streetwalker past. Another former sex worker, Florencia, is now an empowered activist, pictured presenting on progressive trans literature and marching for her rights amidst a sea of protest signs, hand raised in a victorious fist.

 A smiling Rihanna Rios sits in front of El Gondolín. Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal. These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves:Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.  

A smiling Rihanna Rios sits in front of El Gondolín.
Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal.
These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves:Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
 

But as remarked upon in the introduction by Fernandez, for a trans woman, even something as simple as stepping onto public transportation instead of opting for a secluded cab is a revolutionary act. It is with great courage that these special woman dare to be as feminine and nurturing as any other; Florencia to her nieces and nephews, Serena to patients in her work as a nurse, Cinthia to the three children of whom she is the biological father, but, after officially changing her gender, now the legal mother. And while trans men more often than the women manage to stay under the radar, Arnal’s empathetic eye extends to Emmanuel, a handsome trans-male tattoo artist. And the photographer makes an effort to show that living as one’s true self doesn’t have to mean giving up on love; Emmanuel and Florencia are portrayed in intimate moments with respective partners Tamara and Alejandro.

 Emmanuel and Tamara Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal. These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves:Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Emmanuel and Tamara
Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal.
These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves:Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Along with its profiles, the book also features a series of shots taken at the “El Gondolin” makeshift shelter for trans women, which houses many teenagers who have been kicked out of their homes for their gender presentation. These woman are shown finding sisterhood and solace in their creation of adopted family, relaxed and lounging together in a scenic courtyard, enjoying meals prepared by a trans chef and attending high school classes taught by a trans teacher. Grimmer are shots of these same young women dressing up for a dangerous night on the town and walking the streets in “red-light district” Bosques De Palermo. Though there is plenty here to find hope in, there is also still plenty to fear, and plenty that demands change. While Arnal is to be applauded for the skilled portraits that give these brave men and women the chance to tell their stories, in being courageous enough to reveal their true selves in an often hostile world, perhaps the real heroes of this work are its subjects.

 Serena stands at the entrance to the ballroom with her friend Miguel Angel, waiting for the guests to arrive at her birthday party. Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal. These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves: Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Serena stands at the entrance to the ballroom with her friend Miguel Angel, waiting for the guests to arrive at her birthday party.
Copyright © 2018 by Kike Arnal.
These images originally appeared in Revealing Selves: Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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