"THE ONLY THING THEY DEMANDED WAS TO HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE THEMSELVES, not to be forced to deny or repress their feelings, to have the right to live their own lives, to be responsible, to be at ease with themselves." wrote Christer Strömholm of his friends, "les amies" of Paris' Place Blanche. In a world of night and neon light, Strömholm photographed these friends, transvestite prostitutes, with an old Leica, a few films and whatever light was available. The pictures reveal that Strömholm photographed them with tenderness too. He cared for these "night-birds" and evidently had their trust.
The year was 1959, six years before the term "transgender" would be coined by Psychiatrist John F. Oliven. The scene was Place Blanche, where the Moulin Rouge stands. It was different back then; "the Paris of Montmarte that had not yet been painted with the gloss of Amelie." explained Christian Caujolle, who wrote the foreword for Strömholm's book on the subject. Place Blanche was where boys from Normandy, North Africa and the south of France fled to escape their often hostile homes, to live as women in the wee small hours when police control was less frequent. Earning 60 francs daily at cabarets, which covered no more than food and board, working as prostitutes allowed them to save the money they would need for their gender transformation. Unfortunately, few realized their aspiration.
Strömholm's subjects exhibit glamor and sometimes humor in the photographs, in spite of the alienated lives they led. "My friends and I lived together in a world apart. A world of shadows and loneliness, anxiety, hopelessness and alienation." In his book Les Amies de Place Blanche, Strömholm tells of adopting these women's routine, of early afternoon breakfasts and carrying out the days at night. He may not have shared their experience of mismatched gender identity, but his poignant chronicle of their time on Place Blanche presents something that the rest of us can emulate: non-discriminating friendship.
It's quite simple. Friendship overlooks gender, as it does age, social class, religion or ethnicity. When stripped of surface biases, what we are drawn to when we are drawn to befriend people normally have little to do with their gender, age or religion, and more to do with their humor, flair, kindness, intelligence or strength. If there are things we struggle to understand, it's worth acknowledging that we don't always fully understand our friends anyway. Why do they say what they say? Why do they do what they do?
Strömholm's photographs reveal the beauty of camaraderie. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from his example, to offer friendship in place of rejection, and in spite of things we have yet to understand. If we valued people's hearts and minds more than their material parts, less of us would need to live in a world apart.
Les Amies de Place Blanche by Christer Strömholm, images from stromholm.com