Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Interview with Ianna Book

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Ianna Book, an inspirational photographer from Canada, author of Trans Avenue, a series of photographic self-portraits taken in Montréal and New York from 2011 to 2013. Hello Ianna!
Ianna: Hi Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Ianna: Of course! I was born in Lévis, a small town in Québec, Canada. My parents divorced early and I lived with my brother and my single mom in a difficult economic situation. From a young age, I’ve always felt perturbed and was always asking myself many questions.
Puberty is when I started to fell a need to express my femininity. I isolated myself to live out that reality, because I was scared. At the beginning of adulthood, I moved to Montréal to study visual arts.
After many many years of denial and hesitation, I started, four years ago, to move forward with the process of my transition and gender adjustment (mtf). It was very difficult at first but necessary. In 2013, I published Trans Avenue, a collection of photographs tracing a part of this period of change.
Courtesy of Ianna Book.
Monika: When you were younger, you used to make paintings and sculptures. Then you switched to taking photos…
Ianna: Yes, I created many paintings at a given time. Because I was poor, I’d use found materials from the garbage on the street. At one point, I realized that all this material was so cumbersome and that I would need some sort of workspace to create and to store all these projects in.
I woke up one day and threw everything out. My artistic thinking evolved differently from then on. My studies became oriented towards photography, video and performance.
Monika: Why did you decide to document your transition and then publish such intimate photos?
Ianna: I’m an artist. Expression to me is a necessity. My new trans reality being a source of inspiration. Therefore, it seemed important to document my transition. It’s an uncommon phenomenon that I wanted to share. To do that, I used the language I was most comfortable with; visual arts. I then experimented different angles. I worked the public and the intimate space in order to tame it, to appropriate it.
Monika: You chose the public places of Montréal and New York such as streets, alleys, rooftops, subway stations where you often posed nude. What was the reaction of pedestrians?
Ianna: It seemed important to present the bodily changes caused by my sexual transition. Revealing my naked body was interesting in that context. It was quite a challenge in urban settings, I was frequently nervous.
However, the pictures were always taken in out-of-the-way, isolated places without anyone else there. I always managed for it to do it safely.

Courtesy of Ianna Book.

Monika: What effect did you want to achieve through contrasting urban places with your physical transformation?
Ianna: Trans Avenue represents a progression of images depicting an atypical body integrating the public space. I wanted to insert my genuine difference into concrete spaces.
At the early stages of my transition, I took pictures on a plain white backdrop. It wasn’t the best approach for me. Psychologically, working in urban spaces was more helpful because it increased my self-confidence. I took the liberty of inscribing my unusual self in the public space that, by definition, belongs to everybody. That way, I overcame my fear and solitude to take my place in society. The project was simultaneously both artistic and therapeutic.
Monika: The transformation from flat-chested and straight-hipped to curvy femininity seems to be art itself…
Ianna: Even if body modifications are unusual, they aren’t necessarily artistic in themselves. Context in art is super important, we need to analyze Trans Avenue in its entirety.
The project is an aesthetic research combining transsexuality and the urban context, the body and the city as spaces of transformation and emancipation.
In addition, the choice towards self-publishing, following the zine tradition of do-it-yourself (DIY) is an integral part of my artistic approach. The publication was carried out without any demands or expectations and with a certain amount of risk taken. It was made by necessity, in response to an urgent need for self-expression.

Courtesy of Ianna Book.

Monika: Is there anything like transgender art? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Ianna: I approve of and encourage trans cultural initiatives. Art being accessible to all, so it is for trans people.
However, I don’t believe we can affirm, in a uniform manner, that trans art exists. It’s more varied that we believe.
Monika: How big is the community of transgender artists in Canada?
Ianna: That’s a difficult question. There’s a young new generation that seems to increasingly question the gender binary. I think that in the coming years, we’ll be witness to some really interesting projects about the notion of identity. The queer movement is worth watching out.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Ianna: I have a few influences that aren’t specifically from a trans viewpoint.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Ianna: I was afraid of being isolated, rejected. Finally everything turned out fine, I’m very lucky. But I know that for some trans people, there life is hell. I really hope things get better, I feel very sensitive about it.

Courtesy of Ianna Book.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the Canadian society?
Ianna: It’s important to obtain additional rights. For trans people to be protected, there’s still a long way to go. People are mostly misinformed about trans issues, and often act defensively. Racism and homophobia are still very present in Canada.
Raising awareness towards differences is vital and ongoing, because so many phobias are just irrational. It’s also difficult for trans persons to point out instances of transphobia. There are often dubious, subtle attitudes that are difficult to identify. Those are real psychologically violent behaviours, micro-aggressions that are next to impossible to prove.
In short, I wish for more openness. The media has a large role to play.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Ianna: That’s an interesting question. I think there are new challenges to take up.

Courtesy of Ianna Book.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Ianna: By default, the trans condition has political repercussions. Trans existence disturbs the established order of things, because the sacrosanct union of man and woman is challenged.
Therefore I think the most political action for trans people is to assert oneself. In addition, different groups and trans associations play a significant part to effect change. 
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Ianna: It’s the key to open beautiful accomplishments in one’s life. Nothing is more important than love, all our human energies should move towards that direction, even if it’s difficult sometimes. 
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Ianna: Sure I like fashion, but personal fashion and not style that should be followed like sheep. I’m very ambivalent towards mainstream industry. I always manage to stay in the margins, relatively.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Ianna: I know many trans people that write and that’s fine but for my part, it isn’t my biggest strength. I have a better understanding of visual creation, a facility with non-verbal language.

Courtesy of Ianna Book.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Ianna: Yes, I’m working on 2 new photo essays. A project mixing trans people portraits in relation with space and another series of self-portraits, this time exploring the notion of risk.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls, dreaming about being an artist?
Ianna: I don’t think that art is something to only dream about, inaccessible and for the privileged, as if you had to be exceptional. Art is a necessity and belongs to no one. It must simply be done. My advice is just to go for it, and not let yourself get intimidated.
Monika: Ianna, thank you for the interview!
Ianna: Thank you! It was a real pleasure. I must congratulate you Monika. It’s great to interview all these trans people worldwide, I hope you continue.

© Ianna Book

All the photos: courtesy of Ianna Book.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska  

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