Aserica had the chance to interview the raw and controversial photographer; Bex Day. Bex’s work tackles issues of representation and marginalization, pushing back against normative constructions of beauty. Her work unapologetically and with utmost humanity promotes values of gender fluidity and diversity.
XP: Your work seems to be a fresh air in a photographic industry dominated by traditional and normative representations of beauty. Representations of marginalized groups such as the disabled have historically been subject to a certain normative gaze where people from these social categories are turned into some type of spectacle. How do you go about photographing individuals from marginalized communities without it becoming some act of fetishization or act of ‘othering’?
BD: Thank you. This is always at the forefront of my mind whenever I engage in any type of documentary series focusing on marginalized communities. My whole ethos, which is central to my work, is about equality; treating everyone with respect, I truly believe we are all the same and my work is a way of taking this on and showing it to the world. (In this respect I am extremely interested in Buddhism and Zen teachings, which is how I expanded my knowledge on this topic).
It is of the utmost importance that everyone I photograph is happy with their image, besides that emotional connection is also vital and a collaborative effort - if the subject is not interested in the series or my work as a photographer then it will not work and it is better to not work together on this particular occasion.
XP: I have read in an article that you have a strict no-retouching policy. Could you elaborate on your decision to implement such a policy?
BD: In terms of strict it would only be in the case of my personal work, commercial work is always slightly different in this case which I can also understand as you are taking a step back from your “show” as you could call it, it’s a collaborative effort between you and a brand so it is also important to keep their needs in mind.
I used to work as the photo editor for PYLOT Magazine which laid the foundation for the decision to not retouch my personal work, as the publication’s ethos is all analogue photography with zero beauty retouching.
Challenging beauty ideals plays a huge role in my work. I seek to find something that someone may not consider beautiful in themselves and then spin it round and really change how they feel about it as it is often a negative feeling towards it because of what society imposes on us to make us decide what is supposedly beautiful.
It's like that quote by the columnist Mary Schmich, which was later used in that Baz Luhrmann song, "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen": "DO NOT READ BEAUTY MAGAZINES THEY WILL ONLY MAKE YOU FEEL UGLY." It's important to break rigid beauty ideals and challenge how people think.
There are constraints due to the fashion industry but I think it is becoming more and more open to change which is great to see. I am happy that more and more photographers are using street cast models, and ‘normal’ sized people; the more unusual is becoming more attractive, non-perfectionist ideals like blemished skin and quirky characteristics like bigger noses.
XP: How much of your work is informed by academic discourses within fields like for example gender studies or sociology? How do you go about researching your subjects before the actual photographing process? Is this something you do?
BD: A large amount, anthropology and sociology are important to me, my aunt often inspires me as she is a professor of anthropology and has helped me with various concepts.
I read a number of gender related books (both fiction and non-fiction) before embarking on Hen (which is being exhibited on March 31st in London to coincide with Trans Day of Visibility and will be showing for 2 weeks), the most poignant being Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides as well as Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques. Besides book research I’m very much into people and hearing their thoughts and opinions, particularly those I’ve photographed for Hen; it’s the experiences with them in their daily lives and the things they have told me about their experiences that has really enhanced my understanding of what it truly means to be transgender.
I come from a journalistic background so research and narrative are also predominant within my work. I am also extremely interested in psychology which plays a large part in my role as a photographer.
In terms of specific subjects, we will meet before the shoot predominantly to see if the connection is there and it works (it usually always is because both parties are interested).
XP: What is process like casting the models for your photography? What do you base your decisions on?
BD: As I mentioned previously, emotional connection is important within my work.
I like to shoot individuals that have not been shot before because they ascertain this almost virgin-like quality that I find difficult to evoke when working with signed models. Their sense of awkwardness is so beautiful to me and usually they have no idea just how beautiful they really are. I like that kind of unearthed, undiscovered beauty. I was always taught to be modest growing up and I strive to find that in people I photograph now.
XP: What role do you think photography has in influencing wider social discourses on gender and issues like transgender acceptance?
BD: It is hugely important, I feel like text cannot emphasize the hugely in that sentence enough. It’s a duty to photographers to do something positive for the community.
Hen for instance came about due to the lack of aging trans people shown in the mass media. It annoyed me and shocked me because their stories are really vital in educating and expanding our knowledge on the topic. Ignorance usually arises from lack of information.
I recently photographed my good friend Alex who is transgender which will be showing on Vogue Italia in January 2019. The whole point of the shoot was integration; essentially looking past the fact that she is trans and focusing on her as a person, showing aspects of her personality. She said the shoot made her feel beautiful, accepted, classy and confident.
XP: In your biography it is mentioned that you are a self-taught photographer. What exactly does this mean? How did you go about teaching yourself photography? And what advice would you give to aspiring photographers looking to follow a similar route?
BD: I got very very bored during my journalism degree. My father was a journalist and I thought that was my path too. After various internships at huge publications I decided working in an office was not for me.
By my third year I decided to teach myself photography. I used the studios and dark rooms at university and spoke to the tech guys whenever I could. I snuck into some photography lectures too. I read every book I could about the subject. Then I started shooting age 21. I assisted Ryan McGinley in NYC amongst others in London, and dated a few photographers who taught me a lot too.
I would say use everything you have that could enable your career and don’t compare yourself to others too much. Focus on what makes you, you. Originality is key to success.
XP: And lastly, where do you see yourself progressing artistically? Which issues of marginalization will you tackle next?
BD: Progression wise I would like to continue to balance my fashion and documentary work side by side. I am about to move into my studio in London.
I am focusing on Hen completely at the moment as a lot needs to be done before the exhibition. I am sure it will also become a book at some stage.
I am also currently working on a zine of imagery titled Pattipola (in collaboration with Bruce Usher, creative director) I shot when I lived in Sri Lanka for a while. The zine is a reaction to my friend being sexually assaulted on the train there – there is a big issue with sexual assault in Sri Lanka so it is a homage to that. I was volunteering in psychiatric wards and took time away to compartmentalise and shoot this project afterwards.