Repina and Moral’s ongoing series aims to create a celebratory platform to champion intersex identity
Many attributes of our physical existence are assigned to us at birth; our names, legal guardians, blood type, and eye colour, for example. Another key attribute determined at the point of being born is our biological sex – usually reduced to a binary, boxed category of one of two genders, which describes how one will perform through the rest of their lives. But, these categories, as we understand them in a contemporary society, are anything but binary. Gender is not a simple tick of one of two choices, it is an ongoing exploration of self, determined from the inside out, not from the outside in. Just as much as it can stand still from birth to death, gender can move, shift and blur in a multitude of directions over the course of one life.
But, for about 1.7 per cent of the world’s population, these ticked boxes are a contention from the moment they are born. ‘Intersex’ is an over-arching term used to describe those who bioligcally do not allign with binary understandings of gender. This means variations in sex characteristics and biological determiners such as chromosomes , gentials, and sex hormones. This can refer to a myriad of conditions, some of which only become apparent later in life. Intersex identitiy, like all identities, is not a monlothyhic experience, and shouldn’t be understood through outdated and offensive terms such as ‘hermaphodtie’. Because of the greatly personal and private nature of intersex life, representation for those idenfitying as such can be hard to find.
“All my projects are very sensitive. I think for me, it’s more important to create a safe space. The conversations are more important than the actual photos,” explains Katia Repina, who has been working on a project about intersex identities, with fellow photographer and videographer Carla Moral, for five years. The pair have interviewed over 35 intersex people from all over the world, including Spain, the US, Ukraine, Russia, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Panama. The project has grown beyond what they originally thought possible, creating networks not just for the photographers, but for their participants.
An unfortunate fact of portraiture is its invasive nature. When made badly, a distant creator controls the representation of a passive subject. Bad portraits can be dangerous, a slippery slope to sensationalisation, even fetishation. When portraiture works, as it does in My Own Wings, it becomes a duet, not a solo. My Own Wings attempts this throughout the project, working with its participants every step of the way. Repina makes it clear that the consent and control given to the subject is the number one priority. She gives the agency not to herself or the viewer, but to the intersex people at the center of the image.
“Trying to ‘fix’ and change intersex people surgically is one of the biggest human rights issues faced by intersex people. Doctors are trying to ‘fix’ newborn babies, and assign them a certain gender. This is centred around the idea of fixing something. It’s so wrong.”
“My projects investigate these things in society that categorises us into all those boxes,” Repina explains. “They all have the same kind of message that difference is beautiful.” By creating a project charting the lives of intersex people, Repina is attempting to do many things at once. She wants to champion intersex identity, and give it a visual, celebratory platform it currenlty lacks. She wants to create a community, a global network of intersex people and allies who can come together to share stories, communicate, and learn. The twin mediums of photography and film are especially equipped to educate, and she wants the world to learn more about intersex reailites, removing myth and stereotypes.
“Trying to ‘fix’ and change intersex people surgically is one of the biggest human rights issues faced by intersex people. Doctors are trying to ‘fix’ newborn babies, and assign them a certain gender. This is centred around the idea of fixing something. It’s so wrong,” Repina explains. Despite posing no health risks, intersex bodies can be seen in the medical community as an error to be corrected. Repina hopes that through a wider societal conversation about intersex people, more will understand that it is not something to be rectified, but celebrated.
“So many of the people I met have become my friends,” says Repina. One of these friends is Juilia Pustovit, a Ukrainian intersex activst, who invited Repina to stay with her and her mother in Kiev. After the two met and became friends, Pustoivt joined the team, eventually reaching out to NGOs and creating a dialogue around intersex Idenity in Ukraine. This work led to an exhibition of My Own Wings at the The Kyiv History Museum, the first exhibition devoted to intersex identity in the nations history.
The title for the project, My Own Wings, came from one of the individuals that Repina and Moral interviewed. “He said he feels that finally, after so many years, his gender is beautiful.” Repina hopes that this gender euphoria, a reclamation of one’s wings, is a message spread by the project.
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.