Mediamatic's exhibition Kiki on Steroids! presents Kael T Block's project XX Boys, a collection of photographs of transboys. Rooted in his own experience as a transboy or 'FtM' (Female to Male), the series is a personal exploration of masculinity, gender binaries and gender fluidity. The photos are often close-up, in-your-face portraits, that directly confront the viewer. An important aspect of the project is its presence on the internet, where the trans community comes together and XX Boys can communicate with each other and participate.
We talk to Kael about his personal investment in XX Boys, the project's growth and what it already has achieved.
Can you tell a little bit about how your project XX Boys started and developed? Is it still growing today?
Kael: When I started my transition in 2003 I was really looking for visual documentation about the transition, and I wished there was a project, or a website, with pictures and testimonies of other transboys to help me through my questioning, and fears. I started taking self portraits, and to connect with other FtMs on communitarian websites like Friendster and MySpace, forums, only they were on the other side of the ocean! I started traveling, opened a blog, and connected with more and more FtMs online, friends of friends, friend of models, and it snow balled. I've traveled a lot in the United States, in Canada, and I started to travel a bit more in Europe to balance it.
I took a year and half to work on a website project, with personal profiles for the models, pictures, videos, writing, links and promotion of FtMs artists and projects. FtMs can register online to pose for the project but can also send their pictures and artwork for the photo contest or the zine, people can support and participate to the project a lot of different ways. The new website should open in a couple of months.
XX Boys is grounded in your personal experiences as a transboy. Was it a difficult decision or a big step for you to engage in a project on such a personal level?
Kael: Actually to start this project, for me, was a question of surviving. Transitioning when you're alienated is so hard. You try to explain yourself, you fight to be recognized as a boy, you fight against people thinking you're crazy, you fight against people's pity, you fight against being trapped in a gender box, the pink one or the blue one. I wanted something positive, sexy, engaged, showing diversity, giving choices and strength, connecting FtMs, and with a bit of a "fuck you" attitude to be out there. I can't say it was a big decision because I started it before I realized what I was doing, but it's a big thing, a big part of my life, because it is really a link to my personal transition and identity.
For a person in the process of transition from female to male or vice versa, there is often the desire to be recognized by the outside world as the gender they would like to be. The ability to be accepted or regarded as a member of the sex or gender with which a person wants to identify, is referred to as 'passing'. The urgency of this visual recognition could be a part of the XX Boys project for some of the boys involved.
Do you think someone’s choice to participate in the XX Boys project has anything to do with this issue of passing?
Kael: Models participate in the project to celebrate the experience they live, their body, their identity, and because they are committed to every other FtMs. All FtMs are supportive of one another, we all have had a big FtM brother or brothers to help us, supporting us, giving us advices, we've all been that big FtM brother to a younger FtM starting his transition. The issue of passing comes after that. But maybe today participating in the project has something to do with a rite of celebration. At all stages of the transition.
Although many of the boys in the photographs possess a very masculine look, sometimes traces of their past can be discerned - either literally through scars or through an ambiguity in their appearance. But many of them prefer taking on rather masculine poses.
Do you feel the project is about emphasizing the masculinity of the boys or are you also open to keeping a certain ambiguity in the photo?
Kael: The picture of Ezra is a good example: we started by taking pictures in a bar with other guys. He came out really masculine on the picture, I was happy with everyone's picture and his was good too, but I felt it wasn't him. It was a good image, a great pose, but it wasn't him. I called him to reschedule a photo shoot, and the picture we took is the one where he's wearing a pink shirt, with this very flamboyant attitude, and a certain degree of ambiguity.
I try to work with my instinct, I talk with the model, I’m open to anything, any settings, any locations. The model can really participate to his shot. Ryan I shot in Seattle, told me he wasn't recognizing himself in trendy poses or space and he wanted his picture to show a certain sweetness, we took a really sweet portrait, very simple. Ellias in Stockholm told me he would like to have his picture taken by a lake at 6 in the morning because he loved the light at this hour, we met up and took a walk in the forest, and a swim in the lake.
The project is about attitude, it emphasizes what there is to emphasize.
The photographs are quite ‘fashionable’ in style because of a certain way of lighting and the often bright colors. One might imagine coming across one of the photos in a fashion magazine. Is it a conscious choice of yours to present the boys in such a context?
Kael: You read those picture as fashion pictures because they have a lot of attitude and you see « Beauty » when you see them. Fashion is interested in beauty but it’s empty, it establishes rules of beauty, bodies, it’s empty pride and vain narcissism. I try to capture true beauty in these portraits, the one that comes from within, from being authentic, a wild one, a deserved one, the one you fought for, so yeah you can be proud of yourself, I use the same language as in fashion but I don’t aim the same goals.
You mention on your website that XX Boys is not only an artistic project, but also a political project. You want to 'document the diversity of the trans FtM community and to give this community a sexy and positive representation'. XX Boys has now been exhibited in many places in Europe and the US. Do you feel that the project has succeeded in its goals?
Kael: The pictures have been shown in LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) and queer festivals and spaces, it has been shown in art galleries, in museums, in universities, and in public spaces (the most recent is the Parisian subway) and is permanently accessible online. The style makes it really accessible to everyone, the pictures mix different codes, that come from fashion, from pop culture, so it gathers a really large and diverse public, and gets a really positive feedback from people interested in gender to people interested in photography.
One part of the project was the creation of an XX Boys blog, where photographed boys can write their own statement. How do you value the importance of the trans internet community?
Kael: It’s capital. Trans connect through the website, get information and support, exchange, are part of this giant international network, that is why I didn’t want to make a book first, I wanted the heart of XX Boys to be a website, and to organize everything around.
Do you also work on other projects that are unrelated to the trans community?
Kael: My work is always really tight to gender, gender expression, identity, body and sex/uality. Most recently I started a serie called Stache with women wearing a mustache, I have been working a lot on building butch visibility in Paris too. I work with Femmes and burlesque performers also, with queer artists and rock bands, and with bio straight men too, which is also new and fun!
And I do freelance work for Tetu Magazine in Paris.
For more information on Kael T Block and his XX Boys project, visit the following websites:
Kael T Block's personal website
The current XX Boys blog, with photographs and statements of the XX Boys
Kael's MySpace, with photos of other projects by Kael
Coming soon: XX Boys website project