Strength under pressure

By Marisol Dorantes

Istanbul transgender community on display at MSU photo exhibit

Stepping into a photo gallery at the Michigan State University Museum, a playful woman on a rooftop greets you. This is Filiz, a transgender in Istanbul.

The joy radiating from her in the photo eases the audience into a collection of portraits that explores the lives of individuals, which at times are the very opposite of Filiz’s demeanor.

Photographer Mary Robert brings the personal lives of transgender people in Istanbul, Turkey, into the public light through her “East Meets West: The Transgender Community of Istanbul” exhibit at the MSU Museum. Robert delivers a guest lecture at 1 p.m. Saturday, at the MSU Union, in partnership with the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference in Lansing (see page 14).

It’s not a stretch to say that Robert, the dean of learning, teaching and curriculum development at Richmond University, London, also doubles as her photo subjects’ confidant. Most captions that accompany her work add context to the photos in the subject’s own words, a powerful reflection of the trust they have in Robert.

“Two months ago when you photographed me, I was just starting to change. Now that the hormones are doing their job, I’m feeling more comfortable — and even more sexy,” says Ebru, in the portrait “Ebru with crinkly hair.”

The intimate disclosure of these women is captured throughout the collection. The photos range from formal portraits to candid moments, but in all of them the subjects are in their element. Robert captures their vibrant personalities and emotions. From Filiz and Ebru to Irem, a transgender whose femininity is not pronounced, the exhibition is filled with diversity.

There are reportedly 2,000 to 3,000 transexuals at different stages of transition from male to female in Istanbul, a city of 13.5 million people. The exhibit is meant to show strength in a place where transexuals face pressures from the Turkish culture around them.

Jim Lawton, an MSU art professor and curator for East Meets West, saw Robert’s work at an exhibition where they were both presenting.

“I look for cutting edge art that addresses cultural diversity and globalization. ... Mary Robert’s work fits right into that,” Lawton said.

Robert will visit MSU to share the experiences and interactions she shared with the women.

“It will be more of a storytelling rather than a lecture about her work,” Lawton said. The 15 photos at the MSU Museum are just a portion of Robert’s entire project. Both Lawton and Robert hand-picked the images that would best represent the theme but that also fit the space in the museum. The utmost attention was paid to every detail of the gallery.

“There are no frames around the photographs,” Lawton said. “It was very important to Mary that there be no hard edges, no barriers between the pictures and the viewer.”

“East Meets West: The Transgender Community of Istanbul”
Through April 14
MSU Museum, 409 E. Circle Dr., East Lansing

Photographer Mary Robert guest lecture
Feb. 9
1 p.m.
MSU Union Ballroom
49 Abbot Road
East Lansing