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?
An FPO activist spraying over the Life Ball posters (source: Heute.at)
O: Why are people so offended to see a transgender woman naked, then?
DL: I think that anything that someone does when it comes to transitioning is very serious. There is this misconception in the straight community that it’s almost some sort of fetish. Maybe some men fetishize these women who are transitioning, but the women themselves aren’t doing it for kicks. No one would have a sex change operation for some sort of erotic thrill. They’re simply trying to match the way they feel inside to the outside. A lot of people are ignorant about it, or think it’s a dirty, kinky thing. As a result of that, transgender people have been marginalized. A lot of trans people still have a hard time finding retail or office jobs, and there is still so much discrimination. A lot of trans people have to turn to prostitution because they can’t find any other means of making money. Men who consider themselves straight pay them to fulfill some sort of fetish, but you don’t see them proudly walking down the street with them. It’s their little secret.
O: What’s interesting about the poster is that a trans woman has never been shown naked in a mainstream environment before. In your earlier work, you shot Amanda Lepore in a similar situation, where she had a penis…
DL: And she was so angry at me for that! I did a diptych of her and her best friend at the time, because they kind of looked alike, and then I switched their organs. She was really mad at me when she saw the picture (laughs). We love each other, but she keeps saying “I hate that picture.” We’re all different in our degrees of sexuality. Amanda was someone who never masturbated, never looked at herself in a mirror as a child, and as an emancipated minor, she had a full transition to a woman at 17. She did that when she was just a kid, because she knew early on. But then, there are some people who are comfortable having a penis and living their life as a woman. People come in a lot of different packages, but it’s about acceptance and finding beauty in that, and not being threatened by people’s choices of how they want to live their lives, or what they want to do with their own body.
O: Why is it still such a taboo to show the male sex in art?
DL: You know, 80% of the nudes on view at the Met are female. I do a lot of nude figurative photography, and it’s not erotic. In a sense, we’re so desensitized, especially now with the Internet. Nude photography is immediately being linked to pornography. Back in the day, when Michelangelo sculpted David, it generified the male genitalia. In sculpture and painting, you can generify the penis and not make it the focal point. But in photography, it’s so specific that when you do a nude of man, it's always: “How big is it? Is it uncut? Does it have pubic hair?” It can be distracting, and that’s something I’ve always tried to be thoughtful with. How can I place it so that it doesn't become a focal point, or make children giggle, or distract from the rest of the image.
O: But somehow, it became the focal point of the Life Ball poster…
DL: The Life Ball really stands out for the whole spectrum of the LGBT community. They’re very inclusive, and they were really receptive to the idea, and excited about using Carmen. I’m not going to fight back. I mean, when you look at the bigger picture, in popular culture today there’s so much over-the-top violence. When you look at what TV shows and movies that are popular right now, there’s been a huge increase of very dark subjects that deal with ultraviolence, torture, really brutal stuff that would have never gotten aired a decade ago. And people are not saying anything about it. I think the majority is happy with the poster, but there’s this loud minority of people who are just fascist about the human body. The posters may get defaced, but they will just be replaced, and they will still be up for another month after the Life Ball.
O: You mentioned facism. Is it worrisome that such censorship is taking place in a country that has experienced similar episodes in the past?
DL: Vienna has a very dark history with the “degenerate art.” Art was decimated in Germany and Austria, taken out of the country, and they had to rebuild their culture. So this is a scary reminder of a very dark past. The Nazi party only gained power because there was so much chaos and unemployment in Germany at the time. Things like these start with propaganda, with people censoring art, or attacking one group of people and making them undesirable, calling them degenerate. But what’s so threatening about these people?
O: Did you hear back from Carmen since the whole controversy?
DL: I called her about a week ago, when the first press started coming out, and told her “Carmen, you’re causing a riot,” and we just laughed about it. My friends from Germany called and said “There’s psychiatrists on TV, and people bring their children saying that the kids were traumatized." It’s very funny. The psychiatrists say the kids aren’t traumatized, it’s the parents that are tripped out. One psychiatrist was in favor of the image, saying it’s not meant to be shocking. We kept it very natural, very different from what you’d expect from a Life Ball poster. It’s just meant to be beautiful.