In Daphne Chan’s portraits of Sasha Velour, the artist and drag queen is dressed in stylishly demure clothes that seem at odds with her shaved head and boldly painted-on eyebrows. There is a dissonance as well between the unremarkable public spaces where the images are set—a park bench, a brownstone stoop, a glass-fronted cafe—and the candid enactment of pain, isolation and strength that Velour performs. The series, “What I’ve Learned about Death as a Drag Queen,” was published this spring in VYM: The Drag Magazine, where Velour is creative director. Working through grief after her mother’s death was one of the inspirations for the series—many of Velour’s outfits contain items that belonged to her mother. “Miss Velour’s mother passed from cancer last summer and she honors her mother’s memory by incorporating her clothes in her performance,” Chan tells PDN by email—the teal suit was hers, along with some of the accessories and jewelry. Writes Velour in the piece, “I learned that it can be empowering to wear your mother’s dress. Or power suit. At first I was worried that it was a little Norman Bates Psycho, but then I just embraced it and now I’m a murderer.”
Chan met Velour at a performance at The LGBT Community Center in New York, and photographed her for “Transparency: The Gender Identity Project,” an ongoing series. In a recent interview Chan described the teenage experience that shaped her interest in the performance of gender. “When I was 13 years old, my mother took me to see a lip-synching transexual in a seedy bar in downtown Bangkok,” she told No More Potlucks. “After the performance, members of the audience were invited backstage to squeeze her breasts as they posed for photos.” Chan was fascinated by the encounter, which she describes as her first brush with the “outright subversion of social conventions.” The experience led her to a college thesis on gender dysphoria, and later a law degree, which she hoped to use to help fight violence and discrimination in the LGBT and genderqueer community. In 2001, she turned to photography and art full time.
Chan’s other projects have explored the struggle to fit physical or social expectations, but the images here look more like a kind of catharsis for the grief of loss. In the process of loosing her mother, Velour writes, “I have learned that you must be honest about your pain – because you can, and must – think of it as something beautiful and yours.” She continues, “I learned that I have not lost the relationship, it’s just moved inside. It exists inside my mind, among memories and fantasies – and that space in there is just as important as the one out here.”
Picture Story: Breaking Free of a Gender Box (For PDN subscribers; Log in required)