|Erica Juin 1991, Paris. Photograph by Bettina Rheims|
Bettina Rheims's best photograph: trans sex worker Erica
‘Erica was a trans prostitute who worked in the Bois de Boulogne. The girls hid in the bushes and called themselves spies’
Interview by Jessica Labhart
Thursday 3 December 2015 08.00 GMT
he was very feminine, very tall, wearing a mink coat. She looked like a superwoman, a Helmut Newton icon or something. I said: “You look beautiful, but I’m casting androgynous people and you’re much too feminine for my series.”
She stayed in my studio and stared at me without talking and after a few seconds I was embarrassed. “Do you understand what I said?” She said: “Yes, but you’re the one that doesn’t understand who I am.” I said: “You’re not androgynous,” and she said: “No. But I’m not a woman.”
That was my first encounter with transgender people. Remember, at the end of the 80s, it was something very hidden. If you were a transsexual, there was no way you would find a job, no way you could have your identity recognised – there was no proper life for you. Often, the only way to make money for yourself was through prostitution.
So when I decided to do a series of transgender portraits I had to go to the Bois de Boulogne, where some trans women worked at night, hidden in the bushes. I met Erica there one evening and asked her to come to the studio to shoot – all my shoots from that series were done by night. I can’t remember which camera I used or what we talked about – but I’ve always loved the result.
I started photography in my teens, but drifted into acting and modelling. I was always in and out of things – I didn’t much like myself. I was looking for something to make me want to get out of bed in the morning. But my then partner gave me a camera – with this square lens you had to hold on your stomach and look down on to focus – and when I looked through that little square, I knew I was home.
I always wanted to photograph women. I wanted to see their bodies, which was a strange idea in the 1970s. I think I may have opened a door, in a way, to help tackle women’s sexuality a while before everyone else. I took one of the first pictures of Kate Moss, when she was 15 and I was working on androgyny. She wasn’t even a model, just a little girl with a backpack doing a casting at a London agency. I said: “I want this girl.”
When I started working with transsexuals there was really no future for them besides being prosecuted. My series was called Les Espionnes (the Spies) because that is what the girls used to call each other. Most of them died before the book was published – it was a hard life for a transsexual prostitute at the end of the 80s. A lot of them were hurt horribly in the Bois de Boulogne, and there was the Aids crisis.
Everyone wondered why these people were going through hell to change sex – some were really slaughtered by surgeons. I allowed these people to show themselves at their best, to look good in photographs, to be seen with an eye that didn’t judge them. I just took them for what they were — incredibly brave people trying to make a life for themselves.
Three years ago I photographed transgender individuals again, in Gender Studies,to try and figure out what has changed in the last 20 years. Listening to people’s stories, hearing how they’re treated in the street and on the subway, there’s still a lot of fear. But the fact that the law is beginning to recognise transgender people – that they are allowed to have a neutral sign on their passports – shows attitudes have changed. I’m proud to have contributed to that.
Born: Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris.
Studied: My mentor was Helmut Newton. I would take my photos to him every Thursday. He said: “You can do this.”
Influences: Helmut Newton, Diane Arbus.
High point: “After just a year of taking photographs I did my first solo exhibition at the Centre du Pompidou.”
Low point: “The night before a shoot, I’m sometimes convinced it’s not going to work.”
Top tip: “Stick to what you do, always.”