Photographing
the closet

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Photo Essay By Jeanie Choi
I grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and then moved to New York City to study Photography at Parsons the New School for Design, where I earned my BFA in 2012. I am an artist working with photography, video, and works on paper. I often source magazines and videos to create multimedia works with. I enjoy shooting with film and looking for old equipment to create with. There is nothing more exciting to me than the thrill of looking through freshly developed negatives and scanning them until the final reveal. My work has been published in Capricious Magazine (2012), Musée Magazine (2011), Field Trip Magazine (2011), American Photo Magazine (2010), among others. I currently live and work in Los Angeles.
Photographing The Closet

“Photographing the Closet” is made up of selected excerpts from a body of work entitled “Are You Here for the Sake of Togetherness?” in which I photographed my closeted relationship with a woman for 3 years. This project became an ongoing inquiry into my identity through my family and our relationships with one another, in a piece entitled “Silence Makes Us All Liars."

“I think the complicated thing about identity is that people just always want to identify you. To make themselves more comfortable. I don’t want to be defined by others.”

Every day was a secret, but a well-thought-out, defined secret. Did we keep our relationship status private to protect ourselves or to protect others from judgment or embarrassment or shame? Most of the time it didn’t matter. She didn’t want to be out, and that was that. But I wanted to be like Thea Syper. She had photographed her partner, Edith Windsor, for more than 40 years. Yes, I mean that United States v. Windsor—the Supreme Court case that won marriage equality for LGBT couples in 2013—Edith Windsor. I craved to commemorate the outlines of our life well spent together, to distinguish our companionship apart from that of others, to show a window into our extremely private love affair. The pull of being public was intoxicating me. But we couldn’t be.

“The one you sent at 10:19. My eye keeps going toward the earring, which I feel is so indicative of me. So yeaaaaa. Like people know me for that earring.”

As a photographer, I use film to document my life. The permanency of the image burned into film becomes an archive of my everyday moments. In between my position behind the camera and in front of the lens, I create an interspace in which my self exists. My life gains meaning as I simultaneously document and am documented, regardless of whether my body is in the photograph. I can process the moments of my life from a distance, as if I’m sitting in a comfy auditorium recliner watching a play about myself.

My frustration with our privacy became this body of work, depicting my partner behind the camera in ways that are both intimate and anonymous. It was the public documentation and decree that I wanted, that I needed, but in her disguise. It was in the minutia that I had to focus because hiding her face was easy. Even the most seemingly insignificant became significant to her. She was particularly concerned about people recognizing the texture of her brown wavy hair or her jewelry. I had to hide any imprint of identity that the viewer could interpret and identify.

My photographs became my reality—the only public sphere in which I could act out the true nature of my identity. She was anonymous both in my work and in my life—people could not identify the color of her nails, the shape of her thumb, the contents of her calendar, the look of her keychain. We were together in this space of anonymity I created, and we were safe. But we were also contrived, restricted, and repressed. The dichotomy existed in my photographs and in our lives. I still feared that a viewer would identify her, and she would break up with me. The images were soft and loving but also removed and cold. Eventually my camera grew too limiting. I visually recorded this woman in every way possible until I ran out of poses and objects that could veil her.

I began recording her voice, but it was too seeped in identity to publish. I needed to conceal it, camouflage it into anonymity. I created audiographs of the recordings, transforming them into a new visual representation of her: an imprint of noise, sterile and incorporeal.

I began collecting and documenting her hair. She treated her hair as if it were her nametag or her ID number: Anyone who saw her hair would be able to identify her immediately. The strand, plucked from her head, is intrinsically linked to her most biologic identity. But alone, pulled straight, unnamed and unnumbered, it becomes obscure refuse of something that once was her.

At some point, I’m not exactly sure when, she changed her mind. I no longer had to hide her characteristic hands. I know we weren’t breaking out of the closet together, but we were taking a step closer to the door. The grip of anxiety and fear that had held us both at the throat began to loosen. Eventually she would approve me to photograph her whole body and face, but that wouldn’t come for a good while.

These photographs became a means for me to process her shame and her paranoia that the truth would be revealed. My own shame was reflected in hers, my inability to be out brought to light by hers. Through this work, I finally saw my own place in the closet and just how deep we both were in it.

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