The summer of 2018. I sit with Caroline Vincart at the café of the Photo Museum of Antwerp (FOMU) in Belgium. Caroline is a curator at the museum. She’s showing me some photos from the museum’s collection, which are vaguely dated to the 1990s. I’m looking at self-portraits of a cross-dresser, as I must call the model and photographer, as the photos cannot show me how they identified. I’m following the example of Juliet Jacques. In her essay ‘Everything is Permitted,’ published in Dazed and Confused magazine in 2019, Juliet describes some teenage friends of Sophie Podolski, a poet and visual artist who lived in Brussels, Belgium, as ‘people wearing nothing at all’ and ‘cross-dressers.’ This, Juliet writes, is because the 1970s footage of those friends filming one another, which she is looking at, can’t show her how they identified. I’m being shown these photos because I’m a transvestite, and I’m known in the Brussels contemporary art scene for transvesting with my friends in our public readings and pictures. Back in spring, Caroline and I were chatting in the lesbian bar Mothers & Daughters in Brussels when she first told me of these photos, and I expressed my interest in coming to the museum to look at them. But today in Antwerp Caroline can’t provide much more information about the photos she’s showing me. She says other staff members of the museum don’t know either. I ask who the model is.
‘No record,’ she says. ‘Only a name and surname.’
‘How did you get those names?’
‘We don’t know.’
I choose to call the model Antwerpen, which is the way Antwerp is written in Dutch, the city’s official language. This is because I’m certain that the photos are here today, and because I won’t use the names that the museum attached to them without Antwerpen’s consent. In some photos Antwerpen sits on a small cabinet or stands on their leg. They wear a red T-shirt with a white stripe, or a coat, or a straw hat or dresses, which are red, or blue, or green, or yellow, or pink, or white, or chequered or violet, which are loose or tightened around Antwerpen’s waist with belts. I am also being shown other photos by Antwerpen, which are portraits of tuxedo cats, ducks and tabby cats, which have striped fur. And there are photos of a Belgian-looking city, landscapes and waterscapes, too.
‘Where were these photos taken?’
‘Probably in Ghent. The landscapes are from Ghent, we think.’
‘How did they get into the collection of the museum?’
‘The museum’s former director, Christoph Ruys, found them in a flea market and donated them.’
I google the names that the museum attached to Antwerpen’s photos. This search leads me to a transphobic and ableist article about these photos published in 2010 in the Dutch edition of Vice magazine, but Caroline is unaware of it and there seems to be no record of this article in the museum’s collection. She knows that the photos were shown at the museum once in 2015 in an exhibition titled ‘Photography Inc. From Luxury Product to Mass Medium.’ Caroline also tells me that she recently shared a selection of six of Antwerpen’s photos with the Antwerp Queer Arts Festival. They were gathering material from FOMU’s collection to publish during a takeover of the museum’s Instagram account. The caption of the Instagram post repeats some of the information that Caroline just gave me. It says, ‘Christoph Ruys found these diapositives in 2009 on [sic] a Flemish flea market. The man in the pictures is [Antwerpen] from Ghent.’
Caroline and I finish lunch. I tell her that my main concern is the lack of information on how the museum acquired Antwerpen’s photos for its collection, and later exhibited and published them. We agree to stay in contact, and I leave Antwerp to go back home to Brussels.
* * *
I return to the museum in the summer of 2019. It’s taken a year to be called back—this time I’m in Antwerp to search for information for the writing of this story, which FOMU has commissioned. I meet with a member of the museum’s staff to expand on the little information on Antwerpen’s photos that Caroline gave me last year. How did Christoph get the photos? Well, probably the flea market story, but not sure. This is the information circulating at the museum. And the article in Vice? The staff member vaguely remembers sending the photos.
I email Jill Mathieu, the author of the text in Vice. My message contains this question: ‘Your text is very short but it includes the phrase “Een Belgische transseksuele seriemoordenaar uit de seventies dus, verder niks bijzonders” [A Belgian transsexual serial killer from the seventies… so nothing special]. How did you know this information about [Antwerpen]? I mean their being “Belgian,” “transsexual,” a “serial killer” and “from the seventies”?’
Jill replies: ‘I honestly don’t remember much. The line about him being a killer is a joke, not actual information :) … I think Kasper [Jill’s colleague at Vice at the time] somehow got word of the fact that FOMU had come upon these pictures and we decided to write about them because they were so eerie, this guy making portraits in dresses.’
That’s fucked up.
Also in 2010, Vice Canada published an article online about Antwerpen: ‘[H]e killed his mother himself. … [W]hen he died, his family found stacks and stacks of pinafores and dresses in the house, all neatly wrapped in plastic and a huge series of photographs of him wearing these dresses, usually in the same spot and with a similar pose.’
I can’t tell what’s made up by the journalists or by the museum.
That’s not the point.
The point is: The Making Up. The point is: Why the Hell Are You Narrating Psycho To Us?
What are you saying to us?
I say Antwerpen’s crime is to deceive. They deceive you. This is a term I’m borrowing from Susana Vargas Cervantes. In her 2014 essay and book Mujercitos, Susana looks at photos of mujercitos (effeminate men) who are transvesting and posing as a performative act of taking control of their images when photographed for the Mexican true-crime magazine Alarma (between 1963 and 1986). During those years, the tabloid published hundreds of stories about mujercitos being murdered, arrested in clubs and held at police stations. In most of them, mujercitos are posing provocatively and unapologetically for the camera. Susana writes, ‘It is never clear from the photographs and written stories in Alarma why the mujercitos have been detained, or if they are in a police station. But what seems to be clear is their criminalization for “deceiving.” … Thus, Lorena is described as “a real female who awakens the admiration of whoever sees her walking by, so elegant and gracious.” But Alejandro Saucedo (Lorena’s given name at birth) is described as a “pervert” and a “degenerate” in the written text. Queta is a happy modern woman, but Enrique Martínez is described with “disgust.” Claudia is “glamorous,” whereas David is an “invert,” participating in an “orgy.” What is criminalized is the mujercitos’ failure of masculinity, which makes of them an abject, feminized (and desired) other.’
I ask the staff member about the ‘Photography Inc.’ exhibition and they share the catalogue with me. Curated by Tamara Berghmans, the show was concerned with how photographic technologies have affected the practice of photography over time, and vice versa. It presented parts of the museum’s collections of photos, photographic equipment and books. When reading the catalogue, I notice an effort to divide the act of taking photos in two: amateur and professional.
In the same catalogue I see some of Antwerpen’s photos described as a ‘Photo album with self-portraits and cats, 1992–1995.’ They’re printed within the chapter ‘You Press The Button, You Do The Rest: The True Democratization of Photography.’ Antwerpen isn’t mentioned at all in the essay in that same chapter, or elsewhere in the catalogue. Antwerpen’s photos are presented as generic examples of amateur photography in the company of a ‘Portrait of two girls, ca. 1925,’ the ‘Passport photographs of a man, ca. 1950’ and a ‘[F]amily album with family and holiday snapshots, 1930–1972,’ all three from anonymous authors.
What are they showing us?
One eight-page unauthorized catalogue of gender performance?
A twenty-page issue of Obscuur photo magazine is missing from the library of the museum. The same staff member finds it in another library and sends me a scan. It’s a black and white monograph on Antwerpen’s photos, which Christoph edited prior to directing the museum. I decide to speak with Christoph.
* * *
Caroline has arranged a meeting with Christoph in a hotel lobby in Ghent. The room is furnished with green and brown sofas and armchairs. There are tourist city guides and other leisure publications spread over our coffee table. In this condensed edit of our interview I start by asking Christoph how he got Antwerpen’s photos.
A. Well, a member of my family sorted out some kind of administrative problem that [Antwerpen] had—not as a favor, but because that was part of the job of the family member of mine—and [Antwerpen] was very grateful. One day, [Antwerpen] died and the priest of the parish of the Port of Ghent found a note in his home instructing to leave all his belongings to the family member of mine. These included a house by the Port of Ghent and everything in it contained. The house had three levels. Downstairs there were jazz records and tapes, and recording material. The rest of the floors seemed unused. The top floor looked like an old repair shop of pianos and other musical instruments. [Antwerpen] lived downstairs amongst, I think, 20 cats, the recording material, jazz records, and piles, hundreds and hundreds of skirts that he made himself. The house was sold and I got the photos because I was studying photography. And that’s how the story went.
Q. When did this happen?
A. I think it had to be 1993 or 1994.
Q. So you got these pictures and kept them private for a while?
A. Yes. Although at the time I was publishing a magazine titled Obscuur, and there was probably a short article published there…
Q. Yes, a selection of [Antwerpen]’s photos, 56 in total, was published in a monographic issue of Obscuur in 1999 under the title ‘Over de herhaling, als tegenbeeld’ [About Repetition as Counter Image]. What led you to publish an issue on [Antwerpen]’s photos?
A. Well, vernacular photography was a very, very big issue at the end of the 1990s. And I thought that we had the most interesting collection, because it was so weird.
Q. What was so weird?
A. Well, it was weird because we didn’t find any information from [Antwerpen] explaining why he made this collection of photos. And also the repetitiveness of the images interested me, as indicated in the title ‘About Repetition as Counter Image.’ There was repetition in most of the collections we saw at the time, but this is different in the way [Antwerpen] looks at the camera. I’ll tell you that there was once a project to print the whole series of [Antwerpen]’s photos in the form of a book. I remember that there was a suggestion to title it Small History of Photography, because this series contains a lot of key topics in the history of photography: the self-portrait for example, or the still life, or, again, repetition.
Q. Apart from their amateurism and repetitiveness, cross-dressing appears to me as a relevant theme in the photos. Was that ever apparent to you?
A. I didn’t consider it as a specific theme at that moment.
Q. But in the photos, you see that [Antwerpen] is cross-dressing…
Q. But that was never…
A. No. Because at the end of the ’90s—it’s important to think about this in that context—when we, the editorial team of Obscuur, thought about cross-dressing and that kind of thing, we thought about extravagance. Not about this very sober style. We knew the work of Nan Goldin, so it’s not that we didn’t know the theme, but we didn’t connect it with [Antwerpen]’s photos.
Q. You were the director of the Photo Museum of Antwerp from 2003 to 2009. It’d seem that the photos were not shown or published within that period.
A. No. But in 2008 I had the project to make an exhibition of Louis Paul Boon’s collection of images Fenomenale Feminateek. He’s a Belgian writer who’d been collecting photos of women from magazines and all other types of sources. I wanted to show this collection in the museum for its relevance in the practice of amateur archiving. And I had the idea to combine it with a small exhibition of [Antwerpen]’s photos, not because of what they depict but to present another example of amateur gathering and classification of images. But the project never occurred because the board of the museum was at the time composed of politicians who saw Louis Paul’s images as immoral, especially those of very young women. I never intended to show photos of underage women though. There was a commotion all over the press. I left the museum at that time because of this kind of political interference, which had never happened before.
Q. Gender appears central to both exhibition projects, but you never wanted to make that connection?
A. No, the connection was collecting and archiving.
Q. Was it during the exhibition project process that you decided to donate [Antwerpen]’s photos to the museum?
A. Yes, the librarian at the time, Luc Salu, was very fond of them and included them in the library’s catalogue.
Q. Was there at the time any policy in the museum concerning the copyright of found photos?
A. Yes, there was. But we didn’t talk it through because at the time there was no urge or need to do it. Luc always said that in a way they belonged to me. The author was dead and we’d never met any family member, so we didn’t go any further than that.
Q. It seems surprising that there is no information attached to [Antwerpen]’s photos in the museum. Did you donate them as is, without any other documents?
A. Yes, in a box.
Q. Did you ever think about leaving a document explaining the story that you just told me about how the photos got to you?
A. Yes, if they’d been exhibited, eventually then I would’ve done it. It would’ve been nice to write about them or ask someone to do it. That was the bigger plan.
Q. So this story was known orally between the museum’s staff and then it was lost?
A. It has its own logic. I think in a way people working there now are more eager to know this kind of thing. At the time it was all about art photography, and there was a huge discussion on whether we had to show all kinds of photography or not. I thought we had to. We worked with the money of taxpayers, so my opinion was that all kinds of photography had to be shown. Also, amateur photography is closely related to the origins of photography, more than the artistic format.
Q. Did the museum have a section of LGBTQIA+ photography?
A. Well, we had a lot of the information but not specifically from that point of view. We also bought a lot of books by gay and lesbian photographers because we thought that their work was good. That was the first reason, more than their personal sexual orientation.
Q. You never thought that the museum had to document a history of LGBTQIA+ activism and lives?
A. No. But if you’d asked for the famous photographers of that time, there were certainly books in the library. This is because the mission of the museum was to acquire collections from Belgian photographers, and newspaper collections, like the one of the Gazet van Antwerpen and others.
Q. And you never looked at [Antwerpen]’s photos as queer photography? Your co-editors, the team of the museum… they never said these photos were queer documents?
A. No. But also I have to admit that at the end of the 1990s queer wasn’t like it is now. It wasn’t an issue. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not part of my culture, it wasn’t part of the culture of anyone involved in Obscuur, and it wasn’t a part of the culture we worked in at that time either.
* * *
That time? What time? Straight time?
For ten years, those behind Obscuur magazine and the Photo Museum of Antwerp have shown Antwerpen’s photos as exemplary documents of amateur photography and self-portraiture.
Antwerpen was never around.
Nobody asked them.
Nobody spoke about cross-dressing.
They were too busy making fun of it.
‘you think Oscar Wilde was funny / well Darling I think he was busy / distracting straight people / so they would not kill him’
CAConrad wrote this in 2018 in the poem ‘Glitter In My Wounds.’
Thanks for the poems.
I can’t know how Antwerpen identified.
I’ve chosen not to show their photos here.
I can’t know what they wanted to do with them.
It could be that Antwerpen wasn’t part of a queer community—this isn’t certain.
But we are.
In Lille, France, Sœur Dide, a member of the international order and activist group The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, once told me, ‘Après avoir souffert d’une agression, nous les transpédéguoines pouvons faire plein de choses avec nos sentiments, l’activisme et l’expression artistique en sont deux bons exemples’ (After being attacked, us transfagdykes can do many things with our feelings; activism and artistic expression are two good examples).
Us transfagdykes can do a lot of things with our feelings.
We can tell stories in museums of photography.
Readers and audiences have insistently been told to look at Antwerpen alone, erasing the linage of a ‘whole motley crew of artists, actors, writers, and drag queens and other sexual deviants [who] worked on one another’s projects and generally found mutual inspiration in a shared countercultural milieu. And they inhabited and helped make a world beyond their aesthetic endeavors, a world that devised innumerable means of resisting the forces of conformity and repression with radical hilarity, perverse pleasure, defiant solidarity—a truly queer world.’
This is a quote from Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘Getting the Warhol We Deserve,’ that appeared in Social Text in 1999.
I can’t know if Antwerpen felt close to a queer linage but I know that it’s irresponsible to look at their photos outside of a history of cross-dressing culture and politics.
The choice is between cross-dressing politics and non-cross-dressing politics.
There isn’t culture full stop and then cross-dressing culture.
The first-ever cross-dresser made everyone else a line-dresser.
This is about looking at Antwerpen’s photos long after that day when the first-ever cross-dresser…
Antwerpen’s photos have been used to delete gender and sexual dissidence and queer activism and art.
People… they’ve been used to delete people.
When first posted as queer photos on Instagram, they were to carry the burden of years of straight false framing.
They were said to have been found in a flea market!
It makes no sense.
In 2011 Paul B. Preciado wrote ‘The Ocaña We Deserve: Campceptualism, Sexual Insubordination, and Performative Politics’ in the exhibition catalogue Ocaña 1973-1983: acciones, actuaciones, activismo.
Ocaña was an Andalusian, anarchist, artist and transvestite who lived in Barcelona, Catalonia.
Ocaña was notorious for making artistic and activist performance work during Spain’s political regime shift—from a fascist dictatorship to a parliamentary monarchy—in the 1970s and 1980s.
In Barcelona, Ocaña lived in two different apartments in Plaça Reial.
Antwerpen’s photos have been used to delete Ocaña.
Paul writes, ‘Ocaña’s performative feminization, which met with mistrust both in the left and amongst homosexual movements, was not only a satirical reference to bourgeois and national Catholic female models (wife, mother, virgin) but also the exaltation of marginal figures such as mad women, tomboys, spinsters, widows, invalids, southern women, sinful saints, orphan girls, hunchbacks, outcasts, whores, dykes… Ocaña’s performance embodied all these subordinate biopolitical figures. By theatralizing them, he did not represent them (in the political or even metaphysical sense of the word); rather, he brought them to life, embodied them, produced them, activated them as somatic fictions and at the same time affirmed them as not only ghosts in history (invisible bodies with no discourse or agency of their own) but also as lines of flight through which life evades biopolitical control.’
Do you believe in ghosts?
They’re just like living people, only a bit transparent.
This is Jacinta’s idea. Jacinta is a character in the latest Almodóvar film.
My friend Marnie Slater is a living person.
This morning I told her about Jacinta.
Marnie told me how Chris Kraus said in a public talk that the question of genre is not important to her, but that literary tradition is incredibly important.
We got it.
The dismissal of considering Antwerpen’s photos along the tradition of cross-dressing erases the countercultural agency of yesterday and today’s cross-dressers.
Antwerpen’s photos have been used to delete gender and sexual dissidence, queer people, living, and queer activism and art.
I can’t know how Antwerpen identified.
Ask before taking a picture.
Thanks to Caroline Vincart and Elviera Velghe, the current director of the Photo Museum of Antwerp, for making the writing of this story possible. Thanks to Bat Sheva Ross and Marnie Slater for reading early drafts of this text.