Let’s meet up with … María José Virgilio

María José Virgilio, Puerto Rican photographer with a New York address, won the Second Prize in the category ‘Single Images’ in this year’s Pride Photo Award contest. Her touching diptych ‘Mother and Daughter (Make sure the front door is locked)’ made us want to peak into her life and discover what inspires her work as a photographer.
María José Virgilio - Mother and Daughter
How did you start as a photographer?
I have always wanted a camera. For my fifteenth birthday I asked for a DSLR. I was given a Nikon D40x. The first image I made with it was of my brother smiling on a couch across from me. People started telling me I had a good eye, and that motivated me to make more pictures. Yet, my dream was to become an actor, not a photographer.  
I graduated high school, and went to the University Of Puerto Rico to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Theatre. During that year, I became disenchanted with acting, perhaps because I was being assigned male roles, and that never felt right. A friend convinced me to apply to art school in New York.  
I was terrified of auditioning for a spot in a Theatre program in New York. So, I decided to put together a portfolio of my film photographs, which I had been casually taking that year, and sent it to three universities in New York. I told myself I would transfer to a Theatre school once I was in New York. When I got my acceptance letter from Parsons, I remember running three laps around my house. This was my chance to leave Puerto Rico for good.  
My first semester studying Photography was a total mess. It wasn’t until the second semester that I made an image I was truly proud of. I made a self-portrait, with a 10-second timer and a tripod, of me hanging out of a window of a house. In the image you can only see the backside of my legs on a bed, but on the other side of the window I had lost balance and almost fell down from a second floor. That was the moment I realized performance and photography were not as far from each other as I initially thought.
fig1 © María José Virgilio
fig1 © María José Virgilio
Your winning diptych shows you and your mother in a milestone moment in which she sees you as female for the first time. Could you tell me a bit more about how you came up with the idea for this photo?
For my thesis project I had made pictures of gay men, drag queens, gender nonconforming people, and trans women… I knew I wanted a portrait of myself, but making a self-portrait did not feel right. I wanted to be subjected the same way I was subjecting others. I was going to Puerto Rico for Winter Break. For some reason, I knew that I wanted my mother to do my make-up, and take my photograph. Then, I thought it would be interesting if both our faces were made up exactly the same way.
Nena © María José Virgilio
Nena © María José Virgilio
How did the photo shoot affect you and your mom, if in any way?
The photo shoot was intense. This was six months before I came out as trans. I told my mother “do my makeup”, instead of “I want to be a woman”, which would have sparked an argument instead of a photo shoot. We both knew we were doing something that was forbidden.
I had to make sure the doors were locked because my mother feared someone would walk in on us. The moment I saw myself in the mirror was truly a turning point in my life. I told my mother how beautiful I felt, and she told me I was crazy. Trans beauty is easily dismissed when you don’t want to see it.  
I remember feeling exhilarated. I was spinning around, really enjoying myself, which lightened the atmosphere. Because it was under the pretence of being an art project, it was easier to ask my mother to follow through with my idea. These images, though, are definitely the very beginning of a much longer process of being understood by her, of being accepted as female.
Could you tell me about the rest of your work? How does this series fit in it?
All of my work has dealt with identity, sometimes autobiographical and diaristic, other times separated from reality altogether; a fantasy.
Marx © María José Virgilio
Marx © María José Virgilio
Are there any current projects that you are working on?
Yes. Since coming out as trans, I have met an incredible amount of trans femmes. I am spending much of my time with these women, putting myself out there as a friend to the trans community. I have been shooting digital images for the first time in years.  
I am making an intentional choice of capturing my girlfriends in a positive light, in states of joy and elation. I think it is important to put images out there that portray us as people that do enjoy life, despite living against an incredible amount of difficulties. A trans person smiling is a sign of resilience, and of hope.  
I feel like I recently came out of a blue period, and am embarking on an orange one, focusing on happiness rather than melancholy. I am also documenting my transition, of course, but stripping it from the scientific and temporal aspects of it. No syringes, no timeline.
I am going to move back to my parent’s house in Puerto Rico for several months soon, which should set the stage for what my work is going to become. We will have to wait and see what happens. It is an exciting time. 

Interview: Ivana Babic

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


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