Let’s meet up with … Risk Hazekamp!

In 2012 you were one of the winners of Pride Photo Award. Your photo series Solitary Fruit (2012) won the second prize in the Open category. What made you decide to enter the competition?
 
When submissions opened I had just completed my photo series, so the timing was perfect. On top of that, Pride Photo Award always has very interesting jury members, which added to the appeal.
 

Solitary Fruit was made in the Deep South of the United States. You followed the route taken by the white writer John Howard Griffin who travelled the ‘Deep South’ in 1959 in the guise of a black man and wrote about his experiences in his book Black Like Me (1961). Your journey revolved around gender: during the road trip you were dressed as a man and you wore an artificial beard. You captured yourself in twenty photos. How did you undertake this?
 
I had a car that functioned as my mobile home, and I had a list of towns and places that I wanted to visit along Griffin’s route. On arrival I would look for spots that appealed to me, so not necessarily the exact locations in Griffins book, with their fraught history of racial segregation. Black History is not my history.
 
Once I found an interesting site, I would observe it for a while to see what kind of people were around and whether it was safe. I would then set up my tripod and camera and start working. It takes ten seconds for the shutter to release, and in that time I needed to be in the right spot and strike the right pose. Often the atmosphere of the location would call for a certain pose.
 
During the shoots I would often get a lot of attention, and you really don’t want that. I could see people thinking: what is going on here? Often I would take the same shot a hundred times in order to build up the right level of concentration. Whenever the situation did not feel right, I needed to act quickly and could only take a few shots. I was working with an analogue camera so I didn’t know whether I’d got the shot right until I got home.
 
Did you need to overcome a sense of embarrassment in order to pose with curious strangers passing by?
 
Yes, absolutely. The Deep South trip was quite intense. Nevertheless, I never got into trouble. I’m quite good at judging situations and I avoid those that seem risky. It’s not my aim to be provocative; I’m not a shock artist. It was not my intention to confront passers-by and ask: “Do you know that transgenders exist?” That part comes once the work has been completed.
 
The police were my biggest worry. I left whenever I saw a police car. The problem is that I don’t have a masculine voice. Just like Griffin only darkened his skin, I only wore a fake beard and taped my breasts. Sometimes people got confused when I spoke. However, most people accepted me. Ultimately people just don’t look at each other very closely.
 
You are currently spending three months in Mexico where you are working on your new project. Do you feel recognized there as a ‘trans’?
 
It’s not always fun. In fact, it’s quite tough. Sometimes I feel isolated because there is no open ‘trans community’ here, which is quite confronting. I often need to remind myself: “It’s society that is wrong; there is nothing wrong with me.” I’ve become an expert in this, but some days I find it tiring.
 
Here in Mexico I met photographer Rogelio Pereda, one of the winners of Pride Photo Award in 2011. He makes portraits of transgenders here. So it definitely exists but it has no place on the streets and no place in society. People have no idea what I am. I think I have a big advantage; I’m quite an open person. The protagonist from Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) had the disadvantage of appearing quite aggressive. I don’t have this; people think I’m odd, but they’re not scared by me.
 
The theme of the 2013 Pride Photo Award is Extremely Normal. It reminded me of your photo Under Influence/Catherine Opie (2007), in which the word ‘normal’ is carved on your back in bloody letters. You wore a fake beard in the photo, but one on of your breasts is also visible.
 
The word ‘normal’ is very laden. Everyone has their own interpretation. Personally it doesn’t mean a lot to me; I don’t want to conform to a norm. The photo you refer to was first thought out as a concept. Only when the image was complete in my mind, I executed it. I asked someone to carve the letters in my back, which turned out to be very painful. I hadn’t considered that beforehand.
 
The photo is also a homage to Catherine Opie, who had a lesbian tableau carved on her back for a 1993 self-portrait: two women holding hands, a little house and a cloud. I’m a big fan of hers. I always interpreted her work as political, while she considers it to be personal above all else. With my photo I wanted to make a clear political statement. Norms are human-made and lead to exclusion by definition. No matter how far you extend their definitions, people will always be excluded. Sadly, society is built on norms.
 
To conclude this interview, is there something you would like to pass on to future participants of Pride Photo Award?
 
The great thing about Pride Photo Award is that it’s open to everyone. You don’t need to be a professional to participate. So participate. And always remain true to yourself. Do not conform to rules. Don’t refrain from participating if you are concerned that your work might not fit into one of the designated competition categories.

 
Niels van Maanen
is art historian and critic, Amsterdam

 

Solitary Fruit (c) Risk Haazekamp

Solitary Fruit (c) Risk Haazekamp

Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.

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