NGO and Multinational Photographer Sasja van Vechgel Elevates her Subjects—Young Transgender Women in Indonesia
by Sean Black
Visually drawn in by the dynamic and bold compositions of her rich black and white images, crowds visited Sasja van Vechgel’s photos along the partition wall separating The Global Village and the Exhibition Hall at the 22nd International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2018) this past July. “Transcending Gender; An Intimate Encounter” showcased a selection of over twenty-nine intimate photographic works of art along with one video created between 2016 and 2018 about the lives of eight young transgender women; Aurel (twenty-three), Caca (twenty-four), Chelsi B (twenty), Rara (twenty-one), Corina (thirty-five), Sasha (twenty-six), Adil (sixteen), and Lena (thirty-three), all led by Mami, a transgender woman herself, who works for the NGO Yayasan Srikandi Sejati, as a field manager overseeing the group of waria, a derivative of the phrase wanita-pria, meaning “women-men.”
“Most have left their homes at a very young age due very often to abuse,” informs Sasja. The waria live together in a kos, which gives the vulnerable group safety as well as freedom to be themselves. Because of the deeply imbedded stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and other STIs, topics such as prevention, infection, substance abuse, addiction and violence aren’t generally openly talked about. Since a wave of negative media outings in 2016 in Indonesia more cases of abuse have been recorded. In some cases, the violence is random and indiscriminate. Some groups of men consider it fun to beat up transgenders or conduct drive-by shootings (Aurel).
Indonesia does not legally recognize nor support the gender identity and rights of transgender people, as the community suffers the lack of official identification, and thus the ability to access healthcare and education resulting in a scarcity of employment opportunities. Social exclusion, and economic vulnerability means that sex work is the most viable form of income for young transgenders. Not so foreign even in the wealthiest and seemingly advanced countries like the United States.
“Among transgender women there is a high risk of HIV transmission,” warns Sasja. “Several factors contribute to this; stigma and discrimination, leading to low self-esteem and disempowerment which can make it harder to insist on condom use.” Rumors from waria who advocate for the use of condoms report the socioeconomic reality that sex workers are tempted with the opportunity of earning up to three times more from clients requesting that condoms not be used. The accessibility and awareness of PrEP as protection against infection is advancing but not swiftly enough. According to PrEPMAP.org, a guide to PrEP in Asia and the Pacific, PrEP is not yet available locally in Indonesia; however, some clinics in Indonesia import PrEP from abroad at the request of their clients.
In 2016 in Indonesia, the overall HIV prevalence among waria was 24.4 percent, and was highest in Jakarta (34.0 percent) (http://aidsinfo.unaids.org]. Waria involved in van Vechgel’s project (three of whom live with AIDS) feel the reported data is inaccurate and that the “real figures” are much higher.
Additionally, transmission of HIV can stem from sharing contaminated needles used for hormone and silicone injections, some of the most common methods of gender enhancement. Although the practice of liquid silicone injection in certain parts of the face or body has decreased since the 1990s, it still occurs among Sasja’s subjects allowing themselves to be documented.
The naming and title for her series bears witness to the strength of her visual family overcoming the grim realities in Jakarta, which drives her sitters to be mentally stronger, diligent in avoiding pitfalls, and innovative while sometimes having to suffer and endure unfathomable aspects of life that are many times beyond limits. Her project “Transcending Gender” grapples delicately with the boundaries of human perseverance. “It is about remarkably strong people, regardless of their gender,” lovingly attests van Vechgel.
Born in 1975 and an adolescent during the peak of the epidemic, van Vechgel’s Dutch homeland has faced the challenges of HIV/AIDS since it first appeared as a public health threat in the 1980s. By embracing scientific evidence and working with populations that other countries marginalized and stigmatized, Amsterdam is recognized as a “Fast Track City” that has committed to accelerating action to ensure that the world can reach the ambitious target of ending AIDS by 2030.
A&U had the good fortune to learn more about Sasja’s alluring work as the in-person conversation at the conference continued later over email.
Sean Black: Can you define “being human”?
Sasja van Vechgel: Being human to me means we all have the [same] right to be [exist], whatever gender, sexual preference, color, religion, education, background or minority we originate from. All human beings deserve the right to ‘own’ one’s own life and identity; not to be forced to deny or repress their feelings and identity.
Besides geography, what “brought” you to your work focusing on human rights and healthcare?
I studied Human Geography, which created the fundamentals for a greater understanding of people and where and how they live. From early childhood I was already “fed” photography in my home. I remember the thrill and excitement of shooting my first roll of film on a swan sitting on her eggs, trying to get as close as possible. The film totally failed; all of the photos were out of focus, which was so disappointing. But it also gave me motivation to become better in photography; how do you shoot something as you imagine it should be?
Additionally, having lived in various countries around the equator and with a passion for healthcare and listening to people’s stories, photography became a tool to dive into situations where rights and care were left behind. I have always believed that if we stay close to our passion, we can give most energy with the best results.
How about HIV/AIDS specifically?
Inevitably in Africa where I lived for ten years, one is confronted with HIV/AIDS. At some point, I documented the work done by an organization working on HIVprevention in the highlands of Tanzania. Thirty percent of fifteen villages visited had [been hard hit by] AIDS, and most of the middle-aged population had already passed away; mostly grandparents and children remained. When I was there, many grandparents started to contract the virus as well. The reason being that many AIDS patients also had Kaposi sarcoma, with open wounds on their feet. Nobody had any footwear/sandals, and so in the small mud huts the virus was spread from wound to wound through the soles of people’s feet. To me this could have been so easily prevented if everybody would have been able to wear sandals…I will never forget! This [for me] triggers my “human rights button.”
As it relates to the transgender community, since Indonesia does not legally recognize nor support the gender identity and rights of transgenders, they often lack official identification, access to healthcare and education, and thus have less employment opportunities. Social exclusion and economic vulnerability mean that sex work is the most viable form of income for young transgenders.
It’s sad that because of stigma and lack of opportunities they have no other choice than to earn their living through sex work. If the level of tolerance and acceptance could be elevated, and the waria could have other jobs than sex work, this would also protect them against the virus.
As one of the waria said: ‘We are very loyal condom users, but once in a while, if a client offers three times more money to have sex without a condom, we are compelled to take that opportunity, and we all recall such times, sometimes once a weekly.’
Are there testimonials that you could share that rewards the work you do?
Difficult question! I think that, in general, by giving people trust and thus creating mutual respect this motivates people to talk, share their experiences, and gives them the confidence that they can speak up and that something might be done about their situation, it’s worth everything.
Sometimes for NGO assignments, when there is relatively little time for an interview, however nonetheless, when I feel this connection, when there is momentarily no stigma, no threat and people feel free enough to share their stories; that feels very special. It also makes me feel very responsible, which is why I do advocate and talk at length, elaborately, about these encounters to make the people in positions of power and authority [change-makers] feel a part of these stories.
I enjoy your aim to “integrate both magical and subjective elements”? Could you elaborate on this sentiment and aim?
I mean that in documentary photography the photos are always quite illustrative, factual, and thus do not leave much room for imagination. In my self-assigned projects, I have the freedom to explore a little beyond that and tend to tell a story with a more artsy flair. It still addresses the same issues, but because of the suggestive ambience of the photos that may be perceived in a more freely way. It gives the viewer a little more “feel” to the subject.
The second meaning of the magical is the ways of local treatment that interest me enormously. Many people I have interviewed visit a local healer to address their problems, for example, one waria had tiny golden pins inserted in her body to protect her from evil.
One of the strongest elements of your work to me is the intimacy and your seeming invisibility while creating the photograph. How do you gain this level of trust in marginalized communities in which you are an outsider?
You mention exactly the words that are important: intimacy and outsider.
In these kinds of projects, I do indeed spend a lot of time gaining trust first. In Indonesia I speak the language good enough for example to act on my own, to blend in and gain trust. In this case it might have been to my advantage that I am a woman myself and thus could level with them about many issues. Perhaps another thing which is important is that I love listening to their stories and their motivations which I think gives them a feeling of true respect. In the end I guess I become enough of an insider to become invisible.
How do you feel about the term “outsider” as a cis woman wanting to elicit human compassion or at least awareness of the trans community?
I approach and treat everybody as being the same. This means I don’t see myself as an outsider/cis woman, nor exclude others. I would have approached and enlisted any other minority group in the same way. If I would have documented this group as if they were spectacles, then yes, that would have been very discriminatory, but I didn’t. On the contrary, I approach them inclusively, just showing them from a humanitarian perspective, as normal people in an abnormal situation.
The title of the photo series also refers to this: “Transcending Gender; An Intimate Encounter” is a verb, as if there is a fluidity in gender, which is transcending. The second part about “An Intimate Encounter” which refers to the intimacy of the photos: Yes, they are intimate, because it was like that and I choose to portray those moments.
Of course, photography has a certain focus—it is my reflection and filter, my admiration of reality and my judgments. The question is: How will it be perceived? And then there is the layer of art applied on top which again can be perceived in different ways. But that is also the whole point of Art.
Do you think trans and cis women share a similar universally feminine bond?
Yes, I think there is the same universal feminine touch to trans and cis women; most have an internal desire to care, like real care of themselves and others, and to have children, and to make a nest—a place to call home.
In general on the spectrum in between men and women, [I believe] there are men with a more feminine touch and women with a more masculine touch. In this fluidity of genders, the feminine bond that exists, I think, is the same. I’m not an expert of course!
I saw a number of our transgender community at IAS 2018. How did they receive your exhibition in Amsterdam?
In general, the photo series was received positively. Many people asked how I reached this level of intimacy, most were quite unaware of the situation in Jakarta (many comparing it to the relative freedom transgenders have in Thailand), and some even cried as they recognized their own story. So, I guess overall it was quite positive!
Who have been your greatest artistic and humanitarian influences? I am thinking of the late Mary Ellen Mark in particular and her work in India.
Yes of course Mary Ellen Mark! Her series about caged women and the Circus are my favorite images of hers. But also, for a long time, I have been inspired by Gideon Mendel who did a lot of HIV/AIDS related documentaries during the early eighties and later climate related portraits. I’m a big fan of Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits and Stephan Vanfleteren’s black and whites. Many more like Peter Beard, Pieter Hugo, Anton Corbijn; different styles but all very inspiring.
What projects will you be working on in 2019 and beyond?
Apart from assignments for NGOs (coming up again the Leprosy Foundation and Disabled Children of Liliane Fund) I have been assigned to portray refugees in Denmark for the UNHCR. This is a controversial and increasingly important topic here in Denmark.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers?
Thank you for the attention for minority groups such as these young transgender people depicted in this photo essay in A&U.
Photographer’s note: A special acknowledgement should be given to the Indonesian NGO Yayasan Srikandi Sejati (funded by Linkages Indonesia and UNAIDS). This organization monitors about 3000 transgenders in their program focusing solely on HIV/AIDS prevention and granted the photographer permission to follow their activities and transgenders resulting in this exhibition.
Sasja van Vechgel’s work has been exhibited internationally, most recently at the Global Art Gallery in Vanlose, Copenhagen, Denmark from November 2018 through April 2019. She received Honorable Mention in the prestigious 12th Annual Julia Margaret Cameron Awards for her professional contributions to Human Rights for her series. Funding support for this work was provided by Amsterdam Fonds voor de Kunst and by the Municipality of Amsterdam, host city of AIDS 2018.
For more information log on to www.sasjavanvechgel.com. Link to the series: http://sasjavanvechgel.com/index.php/transcending-gender/. Instagram @sasjavanvechgel.
Sean Black photographed Evvie McKinney for the April issue.