Marc Aziz Ressang is a Dutch photographer and filmmaker based around Asia. His work is characterized by a thoughtful curiosity of people’s surroundings. In a world where social views are becoming more singularised by the Western perspective of identity, Ressang challenges the worldview and works to encapsulate societal differences by bringing them into intense focus through his photography.
And this thoughtful curiosity is nowhere more purely exemplified than in his series Transcendent, a portrait series exploring the cultural phenomenon of the fifth gender and gender diversity in Indonesia and Myanmar.
In South Sulawesi, Indonesia, the Bissu are the fifth gender within their society. Instead of identifying as cisgender men, women, trans-men or trans-women, they see themselves as gender-transcendent. For hundreds of years, they have occupied the traditional role of shaman or priest. Stemming from pre-Islamic times, the Bissu still play an essential part in community rituals and ceremonies.
Nat Kadaw are the spirit mediums in Myanmar. Stemming from pre-Buddhist times, they continue to be popular with the Buddhist population. Although traditionally a role carried on from mother to daughter, it is now also a respectable role in society for the gay and trans community.
In Transcendent, Marc does not frame his subjects as gender anomalies to be studied, rather the people he pictures are beyond gender – they stand self-assured, confidently avoiding any titles, that we the viewer, may feel necessary to place upon them.
What first brought you to photography?
What most attracted me to photography was that it provided an excuse for me to go explore. The camera became my preferred tool to capture what was happening around me, and a way to connect with people outside of my comfort zone
Photography has become an essential tool for the queer community as a means of self-representation and exploration. Why do you think this is?
In my opinion, photography holds a certain quality in balancing authorship and interpretation. While other forms of visual tools can end up being too explanatory or too open-ended, photography can pose the right questions and deliver a message in a single image.
For identity-based communities this means presentation to the outside world, and exploration of identity within their own group and the within the greater picture
“While other forms of visual tools can end up being too explanatory or too open-ended, photography can pose the right questions and deliver a message in a single image.”
Your series Transcendent explores the cultural phenomenon of the fifth gender. Could you speak to your endeavour to represent people who are beyond gender, beyond representation?
With this project my main interest was in exploring a wide range of gender identity with roots in traditional cultures. While a lot of representation within the queer space comes from a western perspective on gender and society, other parts of the world have a different approach to identity politics and integration within daily life.
Your series Transcendent not only unpacks how gender is a construction but also how moving beyond gender can bring some closer to their divinity. Can you speak about the connection between gender and religion that you experienced in these places?
These communities hold true power within their society. Moving within an exclusive physical space and possessing a certain knowledge has allowed them to establish themselves as mediums between the physical world and the divine. These concepts are difficult to describe from an objective point of view but their sway is very apparent during ritual ceremonies.
“…establish themselves as mediums between the physical world and the divine…”
Can you speak about your use of repetition and portraiture – what do you hope to achieve by photographing your subjects in a similar way?
This format made the most sense for me to present the communities I worked with. Having a standard display format for the audience to spot the similarities between all of us and the unique qualities that the characters each have by themselves. Being able to present each one in their own environment lends itself to understanding the space they occupy.
Who is a big inspiration of yours?
I’m a big fan of thoughtful slow documentary work – the ones that raise more questions than provides answers and keeps me curious about the world around me. This is anything from big picture art like Andreas Gursky to the intimate photos of Tim Hetherington.
See Transcendent in Queertography at Paddington Reservoir Gardens (17 Feb-5 Mar), as part of Sydney WorldPride Pride Amplified.
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