Showroom by Tiane Doan na Champassak

Showroom is a collection of images Champassak made in Tamil Nadu, India, focusing on an annual festival attended by thousands of hirja or eunuchs, a transgender community who are permanently trapped in an identity and social class that is seen as both sacred and shunned by Indian society.

Champassak’s photographs bear witness to the events as they reach their height in a village called Villuppuram where the hirja come each year to be ceremonially wed to Mohini, the female form of Krishna a character of the fabled story of Aravan, son of famed Hindu warrior Arjun.

The sacred event becomes a frenetic party when, at the height of the festival the stone effigy of Mohini is pulled around the village, after being wed to thousands of Aravanis and then burned – immediately widowing all the symbolic brides. The result is a frenzied display of grief and loss, followed by a strange mix of festival and wanton displays of sexuality.

In his photographs the artist reveals the complexities of a blurred sexual identity. The showroom is the hirja’s desperate moment within this festival where they strive to be seen and accepted in a society where their position is viewed from the polar opposites of spiritually divine and the unspeakably depraved. Champassak looks at this culture with an unflinching eye; the resulting images are explicit, yet truthful and captivating in their honesty.

Peggy Sue Amison

platformPHOTO: Hi Tiane, please share with us how you came across the village of Villuppuram and its annual festival. What inspired you to produce this series?
Tiane Doan na Champassak: In 1999 I was on assignment in India for Stern magazine working on a story about the spread of HIV/AIDS and while there I read a magazine story about this event which takes place once a year. So I decided to travel to Tamil Nadu and see if it would fit with our story. I had seen many festivals and was expecting yet another colourful event but as soon as I reached the city I realized this short trip to Villuppuram would not only make for a very powerful magazine story but would be the start of a long term project on transgender communities in five countries. For many years I kept coming back to Villuppuram but only on my last trip in 2011 did I feel convinced by my photographic approach to the story. I understood the only way for me to tackle such a rough environment was to stop censoring myself by keeping the work direct, raw and without any effects.

platformPHOTO: What equipment did you shoot the photographs with? Can you tell us more about the method you used and why?
Tiane Doan na Champassak: I was carrying two very small point and shoot cameras (Yashica T4), one with black and white film the other with colour negative. This camera is amazing with it’s very fine glass Zeiss lens. The reason for that was to remain inconspicuous.

platformPHOTO: Tell us a bit about your journey from the planning stage to shooting and processing the series.
Tiane Doan na Champassak: Very little planning was needed as I knew the area well. It was about making the right choice such as gear, film format, etc. The editing made sense when I combined both the black and white and colour prints.

© Tiane Doan na Champassak

© Tiane Doan na Champassak

platformPHOTO: Can you explain your approach to the people that you photographed? Did you ask them before photographing them or did you take spontaneous shots?
Tiane Doan na Champassak: Most of the photos were done having the consent of all the people in them. It is impossible to simply rock up in such places and start taking photographs without having spent a lot of time with the people. The fact I knew many of the eunuchs from previous visits helped a lot.

platformPHOTO: The images in this series are very intimate and provocative. Have you faced any issues with censorship or causing controversy?
Tiane Doan na Champassak: I wouldn’t say the images are provocative but were intended to be a realistic portrayal of the behind the scenes of a religious festival. To my surprise I have been able to show the full uncensored series in two galleries so far and feel most of the censorship comes from the internet.

platformPHOTO: You are part of the A.M collective of six photographers, including yourself. Why did you decide to become part of this collective?
Tiane Doan na Champassak: My friend Olivier Pin-Fat and I decided to create a collective with photographers from different parts of the world who share similar ideas and visions but with very distinct styles. Also I liked the idea of uniting a group of photographers who have never met but join only for specific projects, as we are a project-based group.

© Tiane Doan na Champassak

© Tiane Doan na Champassak

platformPHOTO: Although you are already a successful photographer in your own right, do you feel that being part of a collective helps you to further your career?
Tiane Doan na Champassak: No and that is not the point. We all have our own paths as individual artists but our collective let’s us experiment with ideas and projects we could not explore alone. It is a great learning process and the dynamics of group work can be very rewarding.

platformPHOTO: What other projects have you worked on and will be working on in future?
Tiane Doan na Champassak: My new series Sunless which is an extension of Spleen and Ideal and will be shown for the first time by the Kahmann Gallery at Unseen Amsterdam 2013. The photographs continue to confront questions regarding gender and sexuality.

platformPHOTO: Thank you so much for your time today and here’s our last question. If we were to send you to a desert island and allowed you to bring only one picture taken by another photographer, what would this picture be?
Tiane Doan na Champassak: That is almost impossible to answer but ok I wouldn’t mind carrying with me a fine vintage print by Fernell Franco. The image shows a prostitute lying on a bed, another one standing but cropped in half and a third one passing by like a ghost. This warm and slightly solarized print was my favorite of all Paris Photo a few years ago. It is difficult to know if it is a multiple exposure with just one person sitting, standing and walking away or three distinct prostitutes in one room. Pure beauty and mystery.

© Tiane Doan na Champassak

© Tiane Doan na Champassak

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