Heroine Lola Flash offers us new ways of seeing
March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility, an occasion dedicated to raising awareness of the discrimination faced by the transgender community while celebrating their achievements and contributions to society. In recent times, actor Elliot Page came out as transgender, hoping to use his privileged position to increase the visibility of the transgender community. At the same time, a new survey shows that more transgender people are hiding their identities to feel safer at work. Members of the LGBTQIA community continue to advocate for greater respect and acceptance.
Some of the incredible work created by our photographic Heroines involves collaboration with under-represented communities. One such Heroine is Lola Flash, who uses photography to challenge stereotypical representations of gender, sexuality, and race. Lola was an active member of ACT UP, a grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic in New York City. She was featured in the 1989 poster ‘Kissing Doesn’t Kill’. Typically producing portraiture using a 4 x 5 film camera, Lola’s art and activism is aimed at improving representation and preserving the histories of LGBTQIA+ and communities of colour worldwide.
Lola’s Surmise series is an account of how queer people are perceived and how visualisations of gender affect society. The word ‘surmise’ means ‘to assume something is true without evidence to support it’. Lola says, of her series it ‘features images of people who are gender fluid, gay people who look straight, and vice versa’. With this series, Lola reminds us of the misunderstandings and misrepresentation that can occur due to discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and the external assumptions which are made about it. The sitters in this series are looking straight ahead, their gazes unwavering and defiant. The photographs are taken against a white background with the sitters providing an element of colour through their clothes, accessories, or body art. Lola has also included children in this series, a rare but important addition to the conversation; as it is considered that children can recognise their gender and sexual identity from as young as four years of age.
The series [Sur]passing maintains the concept of looking, perceptions, and identity through the prism of race. Starting with a portrait of Contemporary Heroine Carrie Mae Weems, the sitters in this series have been photographed against an urban skyline. Like the portraits in Surmise they look straight ahead, exuding power and confidence via their poses. Through this series, Lola examines the impact of skin pigmentation on Black identity. Lola references British art historian Kobena Mercer’s term ‘pigmentocracy’, a form of discrimination that dates back to Plantation societies in which the division of labour was dictated by racial hierarchy (1854 photography). ‘Surpass’ means ‘to be better than’; with this series, Lola represents ‘a fresh pride and strength; where ambiguity and blurred borders…advances a plethora of complex and positive imagery of black people.’
Lola’s Legend series is also relevant to discussions about embracing personal identity. Comprising portraits of public figures who identify as queer – some of whom are also people of colour – the series emphasises the importance of taking pride in one’s identity. Lola calls these figures ‘trendsetters’ who fought for self-expression and refused to be restricted by social expectations; in doing so, these men and women made it possible for other queer and gender non-conforming individuals to be comfortable in their own skin. In Lola’s words, ‘they made it possible for the LGBTQ+ community to not only survive but to live a life of love.’
Lola’s aim is to make people ‘see’ beauty in her images, rather than ‘look’ at the person’s gender or race and make assumptions as a result. Lola admits that it took almost forty years for her to be seen. However, despite the success that she has now achieved, her mission to create space for the representation of the queer Black community is ongoing.
all images © Lola Flash