When Elliot Page was ready for his closeup, he wanted photographer Wynne Neilly behind the lens
Neilly's career investigating queer and trans identity through his art has been building to this for a decade
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
When Elliot Page knew he was set to become the first transgender man on the cover of TIME magazine, he had a special request: that the cover be shot by fellow Canadian trans artist Wynne Neilly.
"I don't want to say that this opportunity came out of the blue, because I have truly been working toward this as my goal for a very long time," Neilly says. "But it definitely came to me when I was least expecting it. I had gotten an email from the senior photo editor at Time wondering if I was taking on work right now, and frankly I thought the email was fake at first. I was so confused and curious to know what this was all about."
After a video meeting with Time, Neilly was informed that the assignment was for the cover and editorial content for Page's first appearance in a publication since announcing his trans identity to the world. Page wanted the photographer to be trans as well and ended up coming across Neilly's work.
"He was really drawn to it, so he requested that I participate in this shoot," Neilly says.
Neilly says his goal with the photographs was to portray Page in "the most honest, confident and authentic way."
"This was an incredibly vulnerable and sensitive moment for Elliot," he says. "His story is, in a lot of ways, my story. I was truly honoured to be able to help tell his story and that he trusted me completely to protect his integrity in these images."
"The one positive thing that COVID-19 contributed to this was that I was able to work very intimately with him on this shoot since we were keeping bodies to the absolute minimum. That's the way I like to capture portraits, and I am sure that if we were not in the middle of a pandemic, the room would have been full of many more people and the energy we cultivated in the images may not have been as successful. I'm just really grateful that all of this happened when it did."
Neilly says the "flood" of comments and feedback from the cover has been "nothing but positive."
"I am sure there are miserable, hateful people out there speaking their mind and opinions about it but I don't look for that and I don't pay much attention to it," he says. "It's not worth my time or my energy. I am incredibly proud of these photos and I am so proud of Elliot, and I think that anyone who reads his story and has taken in the images can feel that too."
The cover comes almost a decade into Neilly's already impressive career, which he says has largely been "an investigation into engaging with the queer and trans identity, both on an individual level and relationally within the community." Over the years, his works have been included at exhibitions at The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives; Gallery TPW; International Center of Photography (New York); Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles); The Annenberg Space for Photography (Los Angeles); and Sørlandet Art Museum (Norway).
"I have always had an interest in photography and in the arts but didn't really have a purpose or direction figured out in my work until about second year university when I started exploring portraiture," he says. "It was in the Image Arts program at Ryerson where I really bloomed into my personal photographic style. At the time that I really started to explore my gender and sexuality, I became really interested in doing so through photographing other people whose identities felt closely related to how I was feeling."
These portrait sessions became ways for Neilly to ask questions to understand how people found themselves.
"This really helped me feel validated in my own experiences and allowed me to live my truest life. That was about 10 years ago now and I have never stopped using portraiture to learn more about myself and my community. The queer and trans community is something that is ever evolving and shifting; my photographic practice is a reflection of that."
As we as an LGBTQ community dig ourselves out of this pandemic, Neilly feels that it is very important that we "all start to check ourselves."
"[We need to] help to uplift and elevate the voices and talents that are often ignored," he says. "There are so many important stories that are not being told and it's because capitalist, mainstream, heteronormative society does not make it easy or safe for people to do so without the potential threat of silencing, violence and/or death. The racism, transphobia and misogyny is so deeply rooted that it is going to take a very long time to move into a new type of society and culture that celebrates and honours everyone's experience and life."
Neilly would really like to see the scales tip and "for self-expression to not automatically ignite fear and shame."
"Our world will never be perfect, but it would be really nice to see more respect established as a foundation in the way we connect with one another."
Find out more about Neilly's work here.