"Taking a photo every day is, for me, a way of showing up for myself. It’s part of a larger process of accountability and self-care," says 27-year-old photographer Laurence Philomène. As a non-binary transgender person, since early 2019 Philomène has been documenting the daily process of their transition on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) for a project entitled Puberty.
Radiant and rainbow-hued, Philomène’s pictures document the artist’s life at home. Through a mix of self-portraits and scenes of domesticity they explore the subtleties of physical change alongside the more mundane moments of daily life. "It’s about the passage of time," they say, "both in my body and in my immediate surroundings." In the pictures, we see Philomène taking baths and having naps, scrolling on their phone, doing washing, having breakfast and stealing the odd moment to sit and soak up the sunlight streaming through their windows. They are touching, quiet pictures showing the realities of the artist’s day-to-day life. This was a conscious choice: beyond the occasional picture relating directly to the medical side of transitioning, Philomène wanted this work to normalise trans experiences. "I think a lot of the time, people assume we're really different – like we live this completely marginalised existence," they say. "But really, at the end of the day we're all human. Life is mundane a lot of the time, and it’s mundane for everyone."
Philomène started their medical transition in April 2018 but it wasn’t until the following January that the idea to pursue the project was fully formed. Because the series is so wrapped up in personal experience, it took time to get to. "Six months before I started the project, I knew that I wanted to document the process but I wasn't quite sure how. At the time it was just toying with different ideas but by the time January came about, a lot of elements seemed to fall into place. I had just had a break-up, I was burned out from working nonstop, I had upped my dosage of testosterone to a full dose (because before that I was on a lower dose to get used to it) and I needed a pause, so I took some time off. I was in this place where I was spending a lot of time at home alone and wanting to really reconnect with taking care of myself." Philomène challenged themselves to take pictures every day and after a month or so, started sharing them on a finsta (a fake Instagram account). The response from friends and followers was so positive that it became clear that a project was emerging. "After that, I just went with the flow and kept going."
Philomène was born in Montreal and became interested in photography at a young age. Growing up, they spent hours online after school, connecting with other young artists across the globe and sharing pictures. "I started taking self-portraits and pictures of my friends when I was a teen, and putting them online in a similar manner to what I'm doing now," they say. "I look back at that time very fondly because I feel like it was a different time on the internet – one very much pre the culture of commercialising your web presence. It was just about sharing art for the sake of it and it was really wholesome." Once the early popularity of sites like Flickr died out, Philomène started sharing on Tumblr and, later, social networking sites like Instagram. They gained a huge following and kept posting right up until the period of time just before they began transitioning. "For a while in between then and now I stopped posting self-portraits because it felt really overwhelming to share my life in that way. And then when I first started my transition, I didn't talk about it online at all either. I felt so scared of sharing that vulnerability."
Lit by a mix of natural light during the day and a kaleidoscope of different bulbs at night, colour is a hugely important part of the world Philomène conjures. "It is just so effective in conveying a mood or an emotion, which is what I often want to do with those images, but beyond that, colour just makes me happy and so I surround myself with it." Philomène goes through phases where certain colours become favourites. "Right now I’m really into neon pink," they say warmly, and we can see that influence in pictures of bedrooms and bathrooms illuminated with a gorgeous fuchsia cast, and in self-portraits shot through with pops of magenta. Elsewhere, orange and sky blue, sunny yellow and lime green recur too.
Accompanying Philomène’s pictures are handwritten notes which read like little slices of insight into the artist’s inner feelings, complementing the narrative arc of the series. "I remember on the day of that first dose I thought, I died a little today, that’s how people will see this," says one note; "If anything I just sink more into who I am a bit everyday," reads another. Uniting these words is the idea of time passing slowly in Philomène’s world, with changes happening subtly and in tiny increments. "That’s because a lot of trans representation is about the very act of transitioning, and there’s this popular sense that it is a very fast thing," explains Philomène. "I’m thinking specifically about celebrity examples, like Caitlyn Jenner, where it seems like all of a sudden they just look different, as if it happened overnight. But that’s not the reality for most of us – it’s a long process, and I really wanted to slow down and explore that. When you’re actually going through puberty as a teen, it doesn’t happen overnight, does it? It’s like a five-year process, so I decided to document mine over a long period of time too." The photos reflect this slowness, with views from the artist’s window at different times of day and snaps of blossom on trees depicting the changing seasons.
The act of self-documentation has been monumental for Philomène’s growth in both a personal and a creative sense. "It’s powerful for people from marginalised communities to be reclaiming our stories and I think photography specifically is such a great tool for that," Philomène says. "Making this work," they add, "has allowed me to create the kind of life I want and I think that’s such a powerful thing that everyone can do. Regardless of whether you’re trans or not, it’s about seeing the beauty in the everyday of your life and finding those moments."
The photobook of Puberty is due to be published later this summer. For Philomène, making the book was an opportunity to take a step back and get some perspective on the pictures but it is in no way the end of the project. The diaristic, autobiographical strand of their work continues. "I’m seeing this book as chapter one within a larger story," they say. "I always take photos thinking about not just what they mean in the moment but what they'll mean 10, 15 or even 200 years from now. My initial goal with this work was really to create an archive for my future self and for future generations – something that could be a historical and educational tool – but at the same time, it’s also my way of creating a connection with other people and inviting people into my life. Obviously every trans person’s life is different but I think that just in general in our society, there's a lot of fear regarding otherness. And that often leads to violence, especially for trans people and gender nonconforming people of colour. A lot of my work looks at destroying that sense of fear and fostering a sense of community. I want us to be able to relate to one another more." Making this work is fun and fulfilling in the moment, Philomène says, but it’s also about leaving a tangible trace of their existence – a visual legacy, in other words, a way to show they were here. "And in that sense," Philomène concludes, "I can’t think of a better use of my time."