Let’s meet up with… Trea van Drunen!

In 2011 you became the first winner of a Pride Photo Award with your portrait of Leon, an 11-year-old transgender boy. What was that like?
It was a big surprise, because I hadn’t expected to win at all. I had just graduated from the Photo Academy in Amsterdam, so it was an amazing start. It felt very affirmative. My photograph of Leon was displayed throughout the city, and that was very special. I even received text messages from people I didn’t know – they must have looked me up on the internet. One person wrote to me that she had stopped and gotten off her bicycle to take a look at my photograph. She thought it was absolutely gorgeous. That kind of response is deeply moving.
I’m the kind of person who likes to stay on the other side of the camera, so it took me a while to get used to all the publicity I was receiving. It also felt a bit topsy-turvy to win a prize while having only just graduated. Then again, if you enter a competition that is the risk you take. (Laughs.)
Your prize-winning portrait of Leon is part of a larger series portraying Leon. How did that project come about?
For a long time I worked – and still work, actually – as a make-up artist. So I’m always dealing with transformations, albeit in a superficial kind of way. Because I began to feel artistically stifled at the company I worked for, I decided to attend the Photo Academy. For my final project I set out to find real-life transformations.
I pinned up an ad on the notice board at the Centre for Gender Dysphoria at the VU Medical Centre. It mentioned who I was and what I was looking for. That’s how I came into contact with Leon and his parents. We had a connection right away. When Leon was three years old he already felt uncomfortable in girls’ clothing. And that feeling only became stronger as he grew older. When Leon was eight, his parents decided to cut his hair short and to allow him to wear boys’ clothes during the summer holidays. Leon was overjoyed. When the family came back home and Leon had to go back to school, he had to do so as a girl. After all, Leon was still Lisanne to his classmates. It was a disaster. His parents soon decided to allow Leon to do what he needed to do, and that’s how they ended up at the VUmc.
Because it would be impossible for me to portray Leon’s complete physical and mental transformation in the course of three or four months, his story really did not suit the limited time frame in which I had to complete my final project. So I chose another topic for my final project, but at the same time I also decided to follow Leon’s journey for a period of ten years.
Leon was eleven years old when you took your first picture of him. He’s thirteen now. How is your series coming along?
Over the past two years I’ve photographed Leon six times. He’s changing rapidly. He’s no longer a little child. He mostly comes to the studio with his mother. Most of the time we just talk. Usually I only take photographs for half an hour. Leon is very much at ease in front of the camera. And he’s a dreamer. I often catch him daydreaming when I’m setting up the lighting and my reflector screens. I’ve finally managed to capture that on camera.
I also visit Leon at home every three months or so. Most of the time I bring my camera. So aside from the portraits I’m also doing documentary style photography: Leon at home, Leon at school, Leon playing sports. Leon’s personal development is very closely tied to his family situation and his social environment, so I want to capture this on camera as well. His family, his school, the church: everyone is very supportive. This is what makes, and will continue to make his story a success story.
What did Leon and his parents think of your participation in the Pride Photo Award contest?
I discussed it with them at length beforehand. They didn’t consider it a problem at all should my photographs end up being published. Leon was very proud when I won. Seeing as he’s not a very talkative boy, I asked him to keep little diaries. I’m very interested in what goes on in his mind and how he feels about things. I take photographs from quite close up, but I also like to know how Leon experiences life and how he feels about being photographed.
You were commissioned to photograph this year’s Pride Photo Award jury. How do you create a good portrait in a small amount of time?
I always research the people I photograph beforehand. I read about their work and try to form an image of how they come across in photographs. I always know beforehand what type of lighting I want to use, but I also like to let the occasion direct my actions. When people feel a little uncomfortable posing for the camera, I always say: “Look at me right through the camera. Bowl me over with a look.” That way I can give the person being portrayed a sense of being in control, which tends to make posing for the camera less scary.
Is there any advice you’d like to give to future entrants of Pride Photo Award?
Always look within yourself. Follow your curiosity. Allow your feelings to guide you. Be honest and open about your goals. That also goes for dealing with the people you portray: people won’t be fooled.
Niels van Maanen
art critic and historian, Amsterdam
Photo’s: Leon, 2011 and Leon, 2013 © Trea van Drunen

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


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