EXCLUSIVE: David LaChapelle Responds To Life Ball Poster Controversy

5.24.2014

By Julien Sauvalle

The Austrian extreme-right party is suing the organizers of Life Ball over David LaChapelle's poster depicting trans model Carmen Carrera naked

Pictured: David LaChapelle and his poster for the Life Ball 2014.

Last week, the unveiling of David LaChapelle's poster for the Life Ball received mixed reaction. While some commended the photographer's artwork for depicting trans model Carmen Carrera fully naked, with both male and female attributes, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), an extreme-right political group, has called the picture "pornographic" and launched a campaign to sue the organizers of the HIV/AIDS benefit. In an exclusive interview, LaChapelle talks to Out to address the controversy, and ask for more acceptance of transgender subjects in art.

Out: What exactly is happening in Austria?

David LaChapelle: The images that I shot of Carmen Carrera are in public, posted on the streets, on bus stops, train stations, and billboards around Vienna ahead of the Life Ball. The far-right party of Austria, FPO, is now suing Life Ball because they’re saying that the images are pornographic. It blew up into this huge thing that’s been covered in hundreds of news programs in Austria. Some people are still in favor of it, and some people are very against it. These people are tearing the posters, putting paint on them, they’re getting vandalized and pulled down.

O: Were you concerned that the poster would cause such an uproar?

DL: The images were looked at by the local government in Vienna, and everyone approved it. They said it was not pornography, it was art, and that’s why they were put up in the first place.

O: Why did you choose to portray Carmen Carrera fully naked?

DL: Life Ball approached me to do the images this year. I’ve always wanted to do that, so I was very excited. I wanted to photograph a woman in the nude, and capture a goddess that’s both male and female. I wanted someone who’s undergoing that transition, before the full operation, or who had decided to keep their penis. It’s a sensitive subject, but I wanted someone who was not going to be ashamed about that, whether she’s in transition, or she whether was going to continue living as a woman with male genitalia. I was really to get this idea of a beautiful being that possesses both male and female attributes.

O: How did Carmen become part of the project?

DL: We really thought about who would be the best person for this, so I called my friend Amanda Lepore, and asked her “Who do you think would be the best person for this?” She replied “Carmen Carrera, absolutely. Nobody else. She’s really the one.” I didn’t know Carmen very well, so I reached out to her.

O: Earlier this year, Carmen Carrera was invited on Katie Couric's show but she didn't want to talk about her genitalia. How did she react to the idea of posing nude?

DL: Talking to her was difficult. I had to be blunt, so it was a bit awkward. I didn’t want to use the wrong words, or sound crass. I first asked her “Do you still have your penis?” and I explained the reason for doing it, that it’s not salacious, not erotic, not presenting her as a freak in any way. I just told her “I want to photograph you as a goddess that’s both male and female.” We would use very little makeup, very natural hair, and, in a sense, a very pre-raphaelite lighting. It would just take the shame away, and take the secrecy, the eroticism out of it.

O: It's not the first time that a transgender person is the subject of an art piece. I'm thinking of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's sculpture of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite (pictured, below), on view at the Louvres in Paris. Why is this causing such a fuss today?

DL: We’ve seen photographs of transgender women before. In the 1980s, Peter Wilkins shot a series on trans women who had penises and breasts, but those were done in a rather horrific, scary way. We’re aware of centaurs and mermaids in the history of art. Those sculptures and paintings are beautiful, but the idea of a human being who is half-man and half-animal is a bit more horrific that someone whose body is both female and male, don't you think? You’re crossing species lines, and that doesn’t freak anybody out. But the idea of a woman having both sexes in one body, that somehow sets out alarm bells.

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