Chloe Meynier won the third prize in the ‘Gender’ category with her photo series Gendernormality. Chloe hails from the United States, but she grew up in France. After getting her undergraduate degree in Physical education, she graduated in Cognitive Psychology and obtained a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience. However, she quit the academic world and dove into photography. Her belief is that art, especially photography, is her way to actively contribute to society.
Your series portrays people who seem lonely and sad. Tell us more about your subjects.
Before photographing the subjects in this series, I meet with them and we talk for a while to get to know each other and become more comfortable with the next step: the photo session. This allows me to understand where they are coming from and their idea of gender. I want to create the best image that represents their story. Most of them had or still have a hard time being accepted for who they are and this is what I want to show with this work. I want the viewer to imagine what it would be like to feel uncomfortable in their own body and to be rejected for that simple reason. Every person I photographed had this terrible experience at least once in their life but it doesn’t mean that they are lonely or unhappy. I believe that the impact on the viewer is stronger when the facial expression is neutral or even sad. Unconsciously, one wonders why the person looks sad or lonely and often people have told me that they felt compassionate towards the person I photographed. Showing ‘happy’ images would hide the emotional reality they live with. This is the reality that interests me and that I want to portray. I remember a friend of mine who was always asking me, “Why are you portraying yourself as unhappy and sad?” She felt uncomfortable looking at my images because it was too real for her. When she looks at images, she wants to be taken to ‘dreamland’. But I’m not that kind of photographer.
In your work, you touch on sensitive topics like gender dysphoria, people who feel that the gender assigned to them at birth because of their physical characteristics is incorrect. What attracts you to this topic?
Growing up in a small town in the southwest of France didn’t expose me to the reality of the world. People were conforming to what society considered ‘normal’ and people had a tendency to judge a book by its cover. I realized that I was attracted to women when I was 16 but I waited until I moved to a bigger town to deal with it and talk about it. I’ve never really experienced rejection because of my sexual orientation but I’ve experienced being in the closet, hiding who I really am to others. When I moved to San Francisco I was fully able to express myself and started to meet people who identify outside of the male/female binary. Even if sexual orientation and gender identity are two different things that people often mix up, I believe the rejection is the same. It was not until I heard friends of mine visiting from France saying that being very masculine when you are a woman was weird and not normal, that I started to want to work on this topic. I started wanting to make a point and educate people about diversity so people whose identity doesn’t match conventional notions of gender can live a better life. This topic is important to me because of my own experience and it is part of my main interest: human rights and gender roles.
You made a radical career shift from neuroscience research to photography. What prompted that?
It’s a long story but in short, doing research was not my passion! After my Masters in Cognitive Neuroscience I got a grant to do my PhD. I was not passionate about it but thought, why not? I believed I could learn to love research. After 5 years of doing it in Marseille, France, I got a job at the University of California, Berkeley. I wanted to challenge myself by being far from my friends and family. I needed to figure myself out and going away was necessary for that. Meeting with different people in San Francisco pushed me to be true to myself and admit that research was not something I wanted to do any longer. As soon as I moved there I started to photograph and enjoyed it a lot. I began to rethink my life and career. I don’t regret anything, even though it was a hard decision to make and a difficult time period for me. This was also possible thanks to my very supportive parents.
You believe that as an artist you are actively contributing to society. How did you come to this belief?
Even though research wasn’t my passion, I had the satisfaction of helping people. Working with Parkinson’s patients was the most rewarding part of my research experience. When I started doing photography, I didn’t know what my style was or what I wanted to work on. I started to photograph abandoned landscapes and it helped me figure out myself. Though after a while I had the desire to do something deeper and help others. I think I had this desire because I was feeling better in my own skin. I now get a lot of satisfaction working on topics that are current social issues like gender identity, gender roles or violence against women. I am aware that my work will not change the world but it might help open people’s minds. My satisfaction is the same as when I was working with Parkinson’s patients. It’s great to hear people saying, ‘Thank you for doing this for us.’ It feels like I’ve accomplished something and it’s rewarding. I believe everyone is capable of helping others in their own way. It’s important to let people choose what they want to fight for. There are so many issues in the world; one cannot fight for all of them. Sexual and gender diversity is where my interest lies.
How is it for you now to be a Pride Photo Award winner? Does it confirm your ‘chosen’ mission?
It’s a real honor to be a Pride Photo Award winner. I’m excited that my work will be shown in Amsterdam for a month. Yes, it confirms my ‘chosen’ mission though I still think that it impacts only a certain category of people. Those who see the exhibition are probably already open-minded and aware of the issues. They choose to walk in and expose themselves to the work. There is a long way to go to make the world a better place for everyone, but I believe what you are doing is a good place to start. I’m also glad to see that many photographers, from all over the world, are working on the topic. It’s important to raise awareness so I’ll keep working on this series and try to find a way to use this work to educate people who would normally not expose themselves to it. My ‘mission’ is to create a comprehensive and diverse representation of our society and to call into question societal expectations about gender roles. So far, most of society is still averse to difference and diversity but I believe that within a decade it will be different.

Interview by Claudia Vendrik
Gendernormality - Chloe Meynier

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


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