Teasing the boundary between male and female | LIMINAL

New photography book lifts the lid on Malta’s transgender community.

A labour of love over the past few years, Gilbert Calleja's photographic expose of the Maltese transgender community - LIMINAL - will be launched on July 10 at the Birgu Local Council.

Designed and published by Ede Books, Calleja's 'documentary' journey into the lives of transgender people in Malta aims to steer clear of sensationalism, presenting its subjects in their domestic and social environments with a clear-eyed, objective approach, one that's informed by Calleja's earlier work. 

"I've been working with Maltese subcultures and people at the margins of society since I started photography. My previous work documenting people in local 'hwienet tat-te', or the work of Patri Zaren (who visits the homebound, sick and ailing in Valletta as part of his pastoral work)... all of these long-term projects have helped me develop not only as a photographer but also as a person," Calleja says.

To this end, Calleja made an active effort not to highlight the "sexual nature" of the subjects or "present dramatic, fancy" aspects of them. Rather, Calleja sought to "look at these people as human beings - full stop. My job was to document and present a fair and honest view. It's easy to fall for clichés and stereotypes and lose sight of reality, but exaggerating or fabricating images is not my thing".

As can perhaps be expected from the subculture in question, there's far more to it than meets the eye, and Calleja discovered that being 'authentic' is a uniquely complicated concept in this particular scenario.

"At first, I didn't want my subjects to pose but in hindsight I realise that this was somewhat irrelevant. There is an element of gender-performance which is natural to transgender people and I think this comes out very clearly in the images presented in this book."

The process of 'immersion' into the very specific subculture Calleja chose to prime his lens also required some effort on his part. Understand that stepping out of one's comfort zone would be a must when undertaking a project of this kind, Calleja compares the process of establishing a workable rapport with his subjects as being akin to a bona fide human relationship.

"As in all relationships, it is useless acting up to please or impress your subjects, so my first real challenge was with myself - to put myself at ease with these 'strangers' in this 'foreign country'.

"However, one does not earn someone's trust by simply being oneself - it was something which took a lot of time, endless meetings, negotiations, innumerable phone calls, perseverance and trying to be present for any social activities where trans people gathered, starting from gay parties to visiting a particular bar on Friday evenings..."

Becoming embedded in the lives of his subjects also entailed learning about just how cautious the transgender community tends to be. Though Calleja hastens to add that even calling it a 'community' would be reaching - "such a thing doesn't really exist, it's very much every individual on his or her own" - and so it was hardly surprising that different transgender people negotiated their identities in different ways.

"There are a number of cases where a middle-aged individual still lives with their parents, who don't know that their son turns into a beautiful woman during the weekend. Recently I had to go to someone's house and was specifically told to only to show up after 9pm. I was welcomed by a man in his 40s and told to follow him quietly upstairs because his aging parents were sleeping downstairs. It turned out that this man was the same person I knew as a woman, and that she led a kind of double life..."

Liminal will be launched tonight at the Birgu Local Council, Auberge de France, Hilda Tabone Street. The book forms part of the MILKSHAKE project, and is supported by the Malta Arts Fund.