Stunning Portraits Of Chedino & Her Family

Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
German photographer Julia Gunther moved to Cape Town, South Africa, in 2008 to do a job she had never done before — in a place where she had never lived. She embraced the challenge head-on.

"…I fell in love with Africa and its people. Everywhere around me, there were incredible stories that I wanted to document: rough and painful stories, but that were also beautiful," Gunther told Refinery29. "Documentary photography gives me the chance to dive into people's lives, to explore these lives and find things that have not been told before, at least not how I want to tell them."

Some of the lives Gunther felt had not been fully explored were those of African women. Dissatisfied with the way an entire continent of women were "overlooked, dismissed, or downright ignored," Gunther decided to launch her own photo series, Proud Women of Africa.

"Women in Africa often form an invisible framework on which societies are built. They work hard, and form the core of their families," Gunther said. "That is what Proud Women of Africa is about for me. Giving a voice to those who deserve to be heard. All of the women in my pictures have suffered in some way: They’ve been ostracized by society, are desperately poor, or have experienced terrible injustice. But they are all still proud. Proud of who they are, of their lives, and the love they represent. There is a truth to the way they live; a purer form of pride and strength."

It was while working on "Rainbow Girls," a project focusing on lesbian women in South African townships, that Gunther met Chedino, a trans woman living in Cape Town.

"Chedino invited me to come along one night during her 'Divas in Cabaret' performance, and I knew that I would have to return to document her story on its own," Gunther remembered. "We've become sisters over the years, in every sense of the word. We’ve laughed together, danced together, cried together. Almost from the beginning, we had a strong connection. I think that is because we are very much alike."

Ahead, Chedino and her family share story their stories with Refinery29.

Photo caption: Chedino performs as Divas in Cabaret, in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2012.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
"My name is Chedino, and I was born on July 2, 1983 in Mowbray, Cape Town, South Africa. Life as a trans woman in South Africa has its ups and downs. I believe that you as an individual create your own happiness, but just like we will never get rid of racism, we trans women will never ever be free of discrimination.

"Growing up was 10 times worse for me than for the so-called normal boys because I had to play the role of two people every single day. I've always known I was different, because I never showed any interests in anything a boy was supposed to do according to society. Unfortunately for me, I could only actively become the real me after I graduated. I wanted an education, so I studied entrepreneurship and small-business management. But even in college I had to play the role of a boy. After my studies, I had to look deep within myself and decide where I truly fit in. That was the difficult part, because society didn’t see me as a straight woman, although I looked and acted that way. I knew for a fact that I was not gay.

"In South Africa, if you don’t have the money to pay for your sex-reassignment surgery, you’re put on a waiting list. I’ve been on that list for 15 years now. If everything works out, I should get the first operation (out of three) by the summer of 2016. The waiting list is now even longer. Nowadays, you have to wait 20 to 25 years for your sex-reassignment surgery if you can’t pay for it. The definition of patience to me means having to put your life on hold and fight for what you want nonstop, even if it seems you are getting nowhere. That’s why I definitely think transgender people are the most patient people in the world."
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
"Family means the world to me. Almost all of my family supported me from the beginning. Even the few that had their issues with me being the person I am changed over the years. I see my friends as family, too. They are a wonderful variety of people who all have different beliefs, values, and mindsets, but I can always count on their support and they can count on me," said Chedino.

"May 23, 2015 was me and my boyfriend Keagan’s first anniversary. We met through a mutual friend of ours. God, I was immediately in love. The fact that I haven’t had my sex change yet doesn't affect our relationship at all, because he fell in love with me as a person and not with my gender. Right now, we are trying to find the right place for us to move in together. This is our first priority, and as soon as we get a place, we will start planning our wedding."
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Gunther said Chedino and her boyfriend have faced serious discrimination and violence:

"Chedino and her boyfriend are often attacked when they go out, and Chedino's transsexualism is just as dangerous for him as it is for her. They have been beaten, stoned, and even shot at in the past. Chedino blames herself for getting him into such trouble and has tried to commit suicide on several occasions through her young life.

"Incredibly, she considers herself lucky, as attacks on her are nothing compared to what other girls have suffered. She has friends that can't leave the house on weekends, afraid of being hunted down with sticks, stones, knives, and occasional gunshots. Yet Chedino continues to try and make a life for herself," Gunther said.

Chedino watches TV at home with her family.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Chedino works as a hairdresser in Woodstock, but she also cuts the hair of her friends at home.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Alanzo is one of Chedino's oldest friends and works as a chief nurse at a local hospital.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Said Chedino, "Divas in Cabaret is my baby. Beauty pageants like Miss Temptation and club performances like Divas in Cabaret make a difference in our community. These activities give us a chance to show people that there is more to us than just makeup and beautiful clothing. It's a platform where we get to be ourselves, with no faking or pretending.

"We get to teach the audience that style, posture, and grace are our unspoken elements. For most of us, it's the way we walk, the way we talk, and the manner we present ourselves. I sing a variety of songs but mostly Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Jennifer Hudson, Gloria Gaynor, and Donna Summer because these are all strong women that went through hell and back, but yet somehow always managed to hold their heads up high. All these women had a dream and went full steam ahead to make that dream a reality."
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Chedino and her friend Alicia get ready for their performance during Miss Temptation, an annual pageant for drag queens. Alicia is a contestant, and Chedino performs during the intermission.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Gunther said it has always been fascinated with photography but did not pursue it full-time until she moved to Africa.

"I always liked the idea of being able to tell stories through images — a true story, something that matters to me and, hopefully, also to others," she said.

Miss Temptation pageant contestant No. 10 gets ready to compete.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Alicia waits in line to enter the beachwear competition at the Miss Temptation beauty pageant.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Said Gunther, "Like many women around the world, the women I have photographed have faced all sorts of challenges. Discrimination due to their gender or sexual orientation — at work, at home, in schools. A lot suffer from abuse, both physical and sexual. They are forced to live along rigid traditional lines, which hold them back and keep them from following their dreams…

"'The Rainbow Girls,' lesbian women who I photographed living in South African townships — as well as Chedino — suffered tremendous hardships due to their sexual orientation or gender reassignment."

Victoria watches as Chedino and Alicia perform as Divas in Cabaret at a club.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Gunther explains why she chooses to portray African women the way she does.

"We are so used to seeing starving children, or victims of war, or the 'rape' of nature, that we think that's all Africa is. The media gets the most out of its coverage if it talks about victims, about suffering. I wanted to portray these women the way they want themselves to be seen — an image which the mainstream media is often only marginally interested in," Gunther told Refinery29.

Miss Temptation contestant No. 9, Rihanna, waits to go onstage.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Chedino's friend Alicia at the Miss Temptation beauty pageant. Alicia made it to the final top five but didn't win.
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Photo: Courtesy of Julia Gunther.
Gunther shared her advice for young women who also want to use images to raise awareness and make a difference.

"Know what you are passionate about and then go photograph it. Don’t worry about whether what you find important is also important for others. If it truly matters to you, it will shine through in your photographs. Don’t be afraid to try things. It’s far more rewarding to look at a picture you've taken than wondering about the picture you'd like to take," she said.

Miss Temptation participants parade in front of the pageant audience.
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