Michael Bailey-Gates, Paolo Roversi, Marie Tomanova, Kacey Jeffers, and Nina Manandhar respond to the theme transgression through image and text.
The word transgression evokes immorality but also allure — even empowerment. Photographically, it calls to mind The Ballad of Sexual Dependency — Nan Goldin’s visual history composed throughout the seventies and eighties, amid a haze of sex, pain, love, and friendship. Images of beauty and power, and also of sadness and suffering; many born out of transgression.
As Hilton Als writes in The New Yorker — “By the time Goldin was thirteen, she was… aspiring to become a junkie, a ‘slum goddess,’ a bad girl free of the limiting roles with which so many women define their social self—daughter, wife, mother.”
The Ballad is not voyeuristic; its subjects hold the power. The images transgress in unveiling the unseen, the wild, the free — the worlds of those uninhibited by codes of conduct and rules. Rules which may protect us, but may equally repress us — and it is those rules, which are ripe and ready for us to overrule.
“It is the 4th of July in quarantine, and although this summer has brought nightly fireworks for weeks already, tonight remains the biggest show so far. Light from each firework blast illuminates the closed pink curtains in my room. I don’t partake in our country’s celebration, but I do look for the pixie dust from the flamboyant explosions. During every revolution, there is the dust of sparks like these fireworks. It is the inevitable magic dust that moves in tandem with people, as one beautiful thing transforming.
“Transgressions, for the twee at heart, are not a prince who rescues, but rather the glamour of transformation, a new dress that fits, and a carriage that takes them away from just surviving.”
“The concept of transgression is a shifting, blurry one, changing in time, space and contexts. I always had a difficult relationship with limits and restrictive definitions, finding the beauty in haziness, subtleties, and ambiguity.
“Certainty is a barred door for creativity; doubt, on the other hand, is liberating and empowering.
“I took this portrait of Tanel in 1992, and it shows him in all his glorious vulnerability, complexity, freedom and grace. And I am happy that more and more those are the only things you see when looking and this portrait. No transgression, just beauty.”
“I’ve chosen an image from What We Wore, part of the collection I curated of people’s own photos of British youth style. The contribution is from Paul Dyson who took the shot in 1984 when he was 19.
“Back then, almost 40 years ago, I think dressing in a certain way had more power to be an act of transgression that could set you apart from mainstream society. I like to think about him composing the photo and choosing his backdrop, the act of framing himself against the Formica kitchen, the suburban interior perhaps standing for everything he was desperate to break away from. He captioned his photo, ‘Early 80s, into Tik and Tok. Just before I ‘ran away’ from Leicester to London. Heavy drinking and smoking followed. Upon hitting 30 I never touched a drink again’.
“In this 20th-century selfie, a young man attempts to make a record of himself during a time of adolescence. His gender fluid New Romantic slash Gothic styles, which would have surely elicited looks on the streets of his hometown. But the street is no longer the centre stage for making an impression or transgression. Today, it is the space of the photo, with its never-ending reach into the digital universe.”
“To leave one world behind and to go into an unknown one defined who I am today.
“I grew up in a small town in the south of the Czech Republic, as the youngest of three daughters. Looking back, the life there was very slow, centred around nature and the dynamic of our farm and everything felt very familiar, almost repetitive. I remember having strong indefinable cravings when wandering the streets of my little town, longing for something ‘new’. Something else. Something challenging. Something that would rip me out of the routine that felt so suffocating.
“So I transgressed.
“When I turned 18, I left my town to attend university to become a painter in a bigger town not so far from my hometown. It brought a change in my life and I felt alive. Yet, when I graduated six years later with a Master’s degree, I could not feel more broken and discouraged to pursue art as a career. The mentorship during my studies was extremely sexist and favoured my male peers to the point that I gave up on my painting.
“So I transgressed.
“I left behind everything that was familiar and stepped into the utterly unknown and uncertain. I left to the United States. I was not sure what I was doing, where I was going, or what I wanted to achieve. I felt lost inside. That mirrored how lost I was in the real world, a new culture, a new landscape, a very different world.
“I left behind the peer pressure of getting married, having kids, building a house, and my own stale idea of who I should be. And that decision has nurtured my inner curiosity ever since. The frequent encounters of new places and people breathed life into my being.
“I started to chase different dreams. Dreams that were much closer to my heart. I picked up a camera and started to photograph myself and others. It became my passion and the camera represented the perfect way to meet people and connect. It allowed me to reach out to strangers, listen to their stories, and to spark precious friendships.
“The photograph of Kate and Odie, taken in the pink bathroom of their Brooklyn apartment the first time we met, marks a very special moment for me. I had never met them before our shoot, yet an hour into it, we were laughing and sharing something amazing together. I managed to establish a new home, a new circle of friends, a new family — a new world here in NYC.
“Ever since Adam chose to bite into the apple, the social constructs of man have slowly evolved. Archaic sex and gender expectations trap us in boxes. And, to survive, everyone learns how to suffer in silence.
“Tears: I learned how to suppress them; ‘to have water in my eyes’ meant I was a girl — less than a man. Tears fall freely now.
“Our mother swallowed her tears for sustenance; ours seldom hers. When we crossed her, to command authority, she would yell, ‘I am the man in here!’ All along, it was an affirmation of her obligation to become more than a woman.
“My initial notion of a man is one of contradiction, conflict and absence. I will myself to become better.”
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.