Bex Day is a fashion and documentary photographer who has shot for major brands, including Stella McCartney and Topshop. But Day has never given us what we’ve come to expect. In both her commercial work and her personal projects, the young artist has been at the forefront of a revolution in the way we see each other, creating radical new images that have changed the way we understand gender, bodies and beauty. In her pictures, Day proposes a new normal.
Her latest project, Hen, (the word is the gender-neutral pronoun in Swedish) brings our attention to the older generation of transgender and non-binary people across the UK. Shooting more than thirty people in locations all over the country, Day creates a narrative that gives space to each person’s unique story, but that also makes their shared story visible. The portraits will be shown at Herrick Gallery, London, from April 1 to April 7, to coincide with worldwide celebrations around International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31.
As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Maggie Nelson recalls in her brilliant book The Argonauts, once said: “What it takes–all it takes–to make the description ‘queer’ a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person… anyone’s use of queer about themselves means differently from their use of it about someone else.”
Here, Day reflects on the making of the series and the inspiring people she met.
I met Angela, who was born in 1949, in London, first of all, we met for a coffee at the British Library after her committee meeting in 2016 to discuss the project. She lives in coastal Suffolk, which is where we took the photographs. She kindly drove me around the village, and we stopped off at intimate locations ranging from fields of flowers to the beach near her house. It was a really lovely day, and it’s often hard going back to daily life after days like these as I miss spending such intense time with each person and learning about their lives and identities.
Angela related: “When I was young, the idea of gender flexibility didn’t exist, apart from drag acts – which seemed tacky. It was only when I was older, and family commitments faded, that I realised that maybe I could face the world as a female. Now it just feels right and has led to a whole new life as what seems like the real me. Now, ‘being’ male is the pretend me.”
I met Dan in East London in 2018. I photographed him a couple of times, first at his house and then we in nature nearby. I then interviewed and filmed him as part of the Hen Film, which shows more of his talents and the intimate parts of where he lives. The film embraces the identities of each person and gives them more of a voice; looking past being gendered and focusing on the individual.
Dan has beautiful energy. He read Physics and Philosophy at Oxford University, specialising in the philosophy of quantum mechanics. He has a history of working in mental health services and has since gone on to manage mental health services for homeless people. We connected as we are both very interested in psychology; he is about to embark on training as a psychotherapist and has just started a new job as a Student Mental Health Advisor in a university setting. “I hope I may offer students a similar level of support to that which I received at such a critical time of my life.”
Irene was 70 at the time of the photoshoot; I photographed her in 2015 at the very beginning of the project. I try to meet everyone before shooting to discuss the nature of the project and the outcome is clear. We shot in Orpington where she lives, in her beautiful living room. Irene specialises in writing her own psychoanalysis and will be publishing a book on this very soon, and she used to work as a care assistant. She came out in 2008 with one of her local transgender friends after retiring in her 60s.
I photographed Melody in 2018 on a cool autumn day in her hometown Luton. She has amazing style and so many beautiful clothes, we photographed her in her apartment and then in the park. She began living full time as a woman in January 2018. She works as Supplier Development Manager for Thales UK, has been in the role for two years and was a Consultant for Thales for three years before that. Thales has been very supportive over her transition. Melody plays Guitar in a Soul cover band called 360 which gigs regularly in Herts and Beds and is a lover of ’40s and 50’s vintage fashion; currently, she is learning to do Lindy Hop dancing.
Zoe identifies as non-binary, and we met on Facebook. At age 42, Zoe had a significant re-evaluation of their identity after separating from a long-term partner when they were on the cusp of turning 40. With the freedom to engage in serious self-examination, they began to join dots that had been there since childhood. Slowly, they started linking their confusing urge to be perceived as neither female nor male with a range of new and interesting words they learned while spending time with the queer community. A community from which they had felt isolated during their very normal marriage between the ages of 19 and 39.
Growing up in South Wales in the 1980s and 90s, there were no words for how they felt and no role models to help them find their way. They knew they weren’t gay, and since that was the only option if one wasn’t straight, they worked very hard to fit themselves into the straight mould. They absorbed themselves in music, playing viola in orchestras at school and university and touring the UK and Europe. They pursued acting training in their 20s and performed in theatre productions across South Wales. After studying the applied theatre methods of Augusto Boal, they spent time in their 30s using these techniques applied with perpetrators of domestic abuse and survivors of human trafficking to understand and tell their own stories.
Zoe now lives in rural Mid Wales with their partner, a small community of queer families. Their creative urges are now expressed in fibre arts; namely knitting, crochet, embroidery and sewing. They currently work as a manager in the NHS and are almost halfway through retraining to be a counsellor and psychotherapist. They hope to use these skills to specialise in supporting older people from gender and sexual minority groups to explore and better understand themselves.
I met Sameer at his home in Leeds. He is originally from India and faced deportation in 2013 from England when he lost his case. If he had been deported, he would have to live life as a woman again and would have been discriminated and tortured.
Sameer was allowed to stay in England and now works as an advocate in Kirklees Advocacy Services under Touchstone charity organisation. During our time together, he showed me all his degree certificates – he is highly accomplished and a generous and beautiful soul. I love his humour and positivity.