four days in the life of trans tumblr star rashida
Photographer Elizabeth De Le Piedra discusses documenting her muse Rashida for her first New York solo show.
Tonight, Chicago-based photographer Elizabeth De La Piedra opens her first solo exhibition in New York, Rashida. You may know Elizabeth better by her Instagram handle, @ElizabethSmart (through which she documents her adorable baby Lex and husband Josh Young, one half of DJ duo Flosstradamus), but Elizabeth has been in the photography game shooting musical acts including Young Thug for some time. "I like to maintain a balance of both studio (for full control) and documentary because I've always been in love with shooting the human experience," she says.
For her inaugural show in New York, Elizabeth decided to focus on Rashida, a transgender woman of color, whom Elizabeth has followed online for years. "Her body of work, which is distributed throughout her online blogs, informs the cultural zeitgeist by generating and sourcing imagery centering around women of color and popular culture," says Elizabeth. "I wanted to highlight a space for Rashida, [who, through her] online presence has very much had an effect on my IRL experiences and consistently inspired me." The result is a show of 25 documentary-style photos that were taken at Rashida's home in Northern California over the course of a month. i-D sat down with Elizabeth just before her show to discuss her process and what it means for a cisgender photographer to document the life of a transgender woman.
You were born in Peru and grew up in Australia. What brought you to Chicago?
I wanted to work for photographers that impacted me and at the time I was in a long-distance relationship with my now husband who is from Chicago. (We met in a club/on the Internet.) After finishing my last year of university in Australia, it seemed like the right time to take myself to the USA and develop my career path as well as my relationship.
When did you start taking photos?
When I was 12. Initially my passion was drawing and painting but my scale was off, so I would use photos for reference.
What have been the most pivotal moments in your career so far?
The period after university I spent interning was really important for my creative and professional growth. By working for different photographers like Ryan McGinley and Chris Buck, and agencies like Magnum Photos, I was able to absorb from a spectrum of resources which helped me figure out how I wanted to contribute.
Where did the idea to photograph Rashida come from? How did you two meet?
Rashida has been a muse of mine from the Internet for years. She runs a couple of blogs, like Fuck Rashida, and sources a lot of imagery that I find nourishing to my aesthetic and identity. Her online presence captivated me and inspired the muse concept for the shoot. The project also provided a space sensitive to her needs where she could convey her creative prowess. The photographs are a way I can express my appreciation.
What was the process of documenting her life like? What did you learn from the experience?
We spent four days together — pretty much all day and night. From the beginning I felt like I had stepped into a familiar place and was hanging out with an old friend. The relationship between photographer and subject is ultimately a collaboration but every shoot dynamic is different. To be immersed and feel emotionally connected to your subject is very different from being a fly on the wall in a Young Thug studio session for example. This project really developed my concept of collaboration and that learning experience was extremely valuable.
What do you hope to achieve with the series?
I'd like every photo series to be a set of images that provides an authentic and intimate narrative. I want them to be honest for viewers and respectful to the subject. The more narratives we can get into the world — the more representation — the more understanding there will be.
What else are you shooting at the moment?
Currently I have a joint project in production that will come out by the end of the year. It's a collaborative study of the human form and language. In the past I have gravitated towards two genres of photography: documentary and fashion. Rashida gave me the opportunity to blur the boundaries between the two.
It seems like mainstream culture has come a very long way this year in terms of openness towards the transgender community. Does that feel true to your experience?
As someone who consumes mainstream culture as part of my creative practice I've definitely noticed the rise in representation. However mainstream media-informing culture is not consistently inclusive of many different narratives both within and outside of the trans community.
Can you tell me more about what you learned about Rashida's experience?
As a cisgender woman my experience is very different to Rashida's, so I would never dream of speaking for her — and she is vocal on her own social media platforms. I can say that from my short time with Rashida and her friends, they were able to discuss with me the emotional stress of societal pressures, safety, and varying forms of aggression through their personal experience navigating the world. I hope my work directs more questions about personal narrative to the people who are actually living that experience, so they have more opportunities to tell their story in their own words.
"Rashida" is on show at 151 Gallery in New York until October 28.
Text Paige Silveria
Photography Elizabeth De La Piedra