German and French soldiers in captivity of war, the secret twentieth-century American cross-dressing society, the glamorous Parisian cabaret dancers who disobeyed gender boundaries – these are the people you met in Sebastian Lifshitz’s photo collection though you had many in common, they lived at different times In a hostile society they tried to express themselves.
Sebastian Lifshitz has been collecting photos of crossdressers and drag quinces for 25 years. Collecting photos The French filmmaker and activist started in his teens, he wanted to understand how queer people lived in the past. In the lost, doomed photos he found the history of queer people and showed the new generation of queers where the struggle for sexual freedom began and what they had to convey to people living in a time when queerness meant the loss of life.
Why did you start collecting these photos?
Sebastian Lifshitz: As a teenager, I often went to antique markets where I came across lost photographs whose fate no one cared about. Since I was studying art and I loved photography, I was very excited to make such discoveries. So I started buying them and I accumulated a lot. These photos had no value for the seller, I was buying them at a very low price.
The anonymity behind the photos is awesome
Sebastian Lifshitz: These photos were not meant to hit the walls, at that time the public was very hostile towards queer people, so these photos were dangerous. Can you imagine these photos falling into the hands of someone who has bad intentions? This one person would definitely ruin the lives of these people. So I was amazed when I found these photos and bought them.
Queer culture is very popular in the media today and people think it is something new that has no past and no history. Which is very wrong. These people have always existed and my photos also tell the story of crossdressers and drag queend, I want to show people with these photos that this daring behavior has a past and it existed a long time ago.
These photos are comprehensive – they tell a very long history of crossdressers and drag queens at different times and places.
How did you connect these photos to different sections of history?
Sebastian Lifshitz: The photos are mostly from America and Europe. And, often, I found them one by one. I did not have any information about these photos, but over the years I have been doing research, which has resulted in very interesting links between the photos. For example, there was a connection between the Prisoners’ Camp, the Mock Wedding, and the Cabaret. I also bought photos of the Washington community together and soon realized that they were one group. They were a secret group who often met secretly and arranged parties where they wore what they did and felt safe. America was very strict with cross-dressers and LGBT + people before the war, so can you imagine what risks they had to take ?!
There are too many cross-dressers in these photos, so these photos are not just about cross-dressing, these photos are about identities, these are games that people play, this is our past politics and sometimes in these photos you will meet very personal. I do not want to have one particular feeling when looking at photos of a person interested in photography and queer culture. These photos are much more than just fun people and tailoring people of the opposite sex.
What prompted you to display these photos?
Sebastian Lifshitz: Collecting has no value if you do not share it with others. I tried to create stories, great stories in different parts and it was a very enjoyable process for me. These people in these photos to me are pre-punks, marginalized and rebellious people who had the courage and even managed to express themselves in a hostile environment. Because I love these photos, people believe that the past is more conservative, tougher and more correct, but that is not the case. The rebellious spirit has always existed and it can be seen in these photos as well – a celebration of the rebellious lifestyle.
Some of the photos are very old and I am fascinated by the liberal actions that were taking place in the nineteenth century. Why do you think it took so long to accept gender diversity?
Sebastian Lifshitz: A lot of people have hated crossdressers for years, and it still do. Even gay people do not have an acceptance of crossdressers, after the war, the gay community wanted to create a different image of gay men and it fit the macho elements … the label of the sexiest man. The gay community did not want to associate them with cross-dressers. It was considered a shame.
Very interesting is the series of photos of “Drag Soldiers”, which shows cross-dressing soldiers living in military camps in France and Germany after the First and Second World Wars. Why do you think people use gender identity for liberation?
Sebastian Lifshitz: There were only men in the military camps, so in the camp theater, men needed to adjust to women’s clothing to embody a female character. There was no other choice. That was the only solution. The most ridiculous fact is that some men were very popular for wearing women’s clothes in the camp and at the same time, these soldiers did not try to exaggerate gender representations, their roles and costumes were very realistic, which is very surprising considering the circumstances which are very difficult and It was repressive.
In your photos you will find one of the most legendary crossdresser, Bambi and the story of how a little boy turned into a queer woman.
Sebastian Lifshitz: Bambi is a very precious person to me. When I met her, I knew nothing about her, I only knew her name. One day she told me her story and we went together to Bambi’s hometown, Algeria. What fascinates her most about Bambi’s story is her ability to rewrite her own story.
Tell us more about Bambi.
Sebastian Lifshitz: Bambi was born in 1935 in a small, closed village in Algeria. At that time it was impossible to talk about sex, identity and similar topics. Can you imagine what life could have been like at that time, in a village for a 6-year-old boy who thought she was a little girl? Bambi’s mother allowed her young child to dress as the boy wanted, her hair was long, but at the age of 6, when it came time to go to school, her mother said, “Okay, now we have to cut our hair and stop dressing, it’s over, forget it.” At the time she realized she was biologically a boy – she always thought she was a girl.
For many, many years she had to live as a little boy, but deep down in her heart she felt like she was a girl. One day, when Bambi was 15 years old, French cabaret dancers visited the city and while watching their performance, Bambi realized that you might have a dignified life and not lose your identity. It was a kind of rebirth, after which she quickly traveled to Paris and joined the cross-dressing community. Although French society at the time was still hostile to crossdressers, it did not interest her, Bambi was not going to make a deal with the homophobic community.
What happened to Bambi after that?
Sebastian Lifshitz: At the age of 30, Bambi realized he could no longer continue dancing in the cabaret. So she decided to continue her studies, get a diploma and become a French teacher in a strange French city. She wanted be an anonymous woman. Anonymity was very important to her. She wanted to be an ordinary woman in everyday life. Now she is an elegant tall woman.
It is very inspiring to hear Bambi’s story about how she went to the cabaret and how she decided to make his life perfect. What should the new generation, who are in search of their own identity, focus on when studying history?
Sebastian Lifshitz: Society is more complex and tangled than it seems at first glance. There are traditional, ready-made models that have to be adapted, if you want to be a woman, you definitely have to look like a woman, if you want to be a man, it was necessary to look like a man, the division between the sexes is still very strong. Take a look at the little kids toys, it’s amazing how the toy forces the little one to adapt to the already existing models. For me it’s very painful, I do not like and I do not agree, because as I said above, people are more complex. The range of identities is so diverse and massive, people need to express themselves the way they want it to be and how they feel internally, unfortunately, often does not match the way we see them.
Translation:: Zura Abashidze