New photographs by Sonja Rieger.
(...) Dazzling is a portrait project that documents an amateur transit circuit. Transit is a self-described term used to define the men/women who are involved in various levels of gender transformation at the pageant. The subjects are primarily African American and the Pageant is held in a rented building converted into a temporary bar in the town of Fairfield, Alabama, a previously white steel town outside of Birmingham, Alabama, whose population is now 90.23% African American.
In 2007 I met Daryl who is well over six feet tall, Daryl works in a nursing home and wears floral scrubs, hair extensions, make-up and a purse that hides the extreme curve of his scoliosis—most likely untreated as a child. Daryl runs the Platinum Pageant at night, a transit contest that starts the pageant season in late December. It is a successful business venture where he earns respect for his ability to manage and operate the Pageant successfully. The Pageant has a system of families, each participant, has a mother and a father and each shares a family name, like Foxx, Chanel, La Shay, Onnasus and St. James. The new participants eventually become mothers or fathers to other transits. The family they have in the system is often more than they have at home.
The contestants set up in a dressing room and often take hours to get ready. A contestant will have four to six changes of clothes. They are flanked by dressers and sit completely still for hours as they are made-up, coifed and dressed. The “system” as it is called provides an environment, and support system for young men who may not have another place in the rigid society of the south.
I have a bond with Daryl because he works on the unit my mother has lived in since her debilitating stroke. The first day that I spent at the nursing home, I noticed that the staff was black and the residents were predominantly white. Ridin Dirty and Crank that Soulja Boy blared from a boom box in the sunlit dining room, played by the staff and not totally heard by the somewhat oblivious residents. It was ironic to me that this elderly population of a racially torn city lived the end of their lives so closely dependent on and inadvertently intermingled with the black population and culture that they had shared such a history with. Daryl legally changed his name to Daranesha D’nae Starr. Our relationship is an unlikely one; it is the collision of two worlds.
The photographs started as a favor to Daryl. The images are a way for me to illuminate the beauty and the vulnerability of these black men who are wrestling with their sexual identity. I am fascinated by the transformations that occur, it is not just sexual identity but at times a transformation into a complete persona and a totally developed character. Often times the identities are bigger and brighter than the fragile male persona that is evident when they are not dressed, which I have also photographed. When the men are dressed, they become silent and voiceless. They don’t speak because their male voices break the spell of who they are trying to be. It is also a population that is under educated and they are able to supplement their eight dollar an hour day jobs with tips from their performances. (...)
Sonja Rieger, April 2010