Following Interview was made by, Friðrika Benónýsdóttir, writer; which has been writing about literature and culture in Icelandic media for decades. She is one of the literature critics for the hugely popular TV show Kiljan on national television and has only just resigned from her job as cultural editor of Icelands biggest newspaper, Fréttablaðið. Friðrika is also a published writer of three books; a biography, a book of poetry and a novel.
The icelandic photographer Gísli Hjálmar Svendsen has spent the last two years, on and off, in Thailand where he follows a group of ladyboys and photograhs them in their daily lives. He means to publish the photos in a book and thereby diminish the prejudices that the kathoey experience in modern society.
“It´s so sad,“ Gísli says about the circumstances of ladyboys in Thailand in the last few decades or so. “In buddishm transgender people and feminine gays, the kathoey, have a special place and were considered almost holy. That tradition lived for hundreds of years but in the last decades, as Thai society tries to become more westernized they are experiencing huge difficulties. They have become outcasts instead of sacred beings. I know that my photos are not going to change that, but I do hope that they will make people understand a little what it means to be a ladyboy in Thailand.“
Gísli‘s quest started two years ago, almost by accident. He went to a workshop for photographers in Thailand where everyone had to choose a subject from Thai society to make a series of photos to describe the lives of the inhabitants. Originally he wanted to make photoseries of the huge difference between the rich and the poor in Bangkok, but that was considered by his teachers to be too huge subject for him to be able to do it properly. “Somewhere down my list was this idea about photographing the ladyboys and as the other idea did not work I settled on that. I had no idea what I was getting myself into,“ he says laughing.
In order to gain access to the group of ladyboys Gísli contacted one of them, Nancy, who eventually became his friend and got a photoserie of her own. Since they met she has been diagnosed with a severe disease and has not long to live, which has promted Gísli to take her story out of the ladyboy‘s equation and make a seperate photoserie about her. “She is one of the most remarkable persons I‘ve ever met,“ he says. “She grew up on a farm, as many of the ladyboys did, and took it upon her self to go to the city to work as a sex worker to provide for her family. Her brother did not agree to this and does not speak to their parents any longer, which of course causes great sadness to their mother. It´s not talked about within the family but I could sense that her mother does not like the profession Nancy is working in, but it‘s the only way for her to get enough money to keep the family going, so it‘s a hush hush subject.“
Having gotten friendly with Nancy Gísli gained access into the inner circle of the ladyboys and has been spending a lot of time with them these two years, aren‘t they suspicious of his motives? “They were in the beginning,“ he admits. “I am very similar to their average customer; white, western, middle aged man, so many thought I had some ulterior motives. But now I‘m just their weird friend who likes to hang out with them taking photographs. I think they hardly notice me anymore.“