The Body Electric: Assume Nothing--Gender, Photography, and the Artist Rebecca Swan

In Assume Nothing, Rebecca Swan uses the art of photography to explore gender identity in ways that are challenging, poignant, and beautiful. Her work on the body has been shown all over the world, and the images from this series are collected in a book of the same name. Rebecca's work was recently the subject of a documentary by Kristy MacDonald, also entitled "Assume Nothing" (2009).

Rebecca's work struck me for its celebratory quality as much as its honest reflection of the reality of gender. She graciously agreed to an email interview for this blog, and I wasn't surprised to find that we share a perspective on the relationship between creativity and spirituality, as well as the importance of a free and authentic expression of the human experience. Rebecca's work is compelling and important: an archival of beauty and meaning.

Keep an eye out for the film, and visit Rebecca's site to learn more.


"Ema" from Assume Nothing by Rebecca Swan


On your website you note that you're interested in photography for its ability to "free time, to reveal something that could otherwise go noticed." In what ways is photography an optimal medium to explore gender diversity and other aspects of the body?

Photography for me has the ability to capture something unexpected. When I'm photographing someone, I do prepare on a conceptual and technical level (often in collaboration with who I'm working with) but there is always the spontaneous emotional level that kicks in during a shoot. That's the rush for me, it's like a live performance. When the moment occurs in the shoot when someone reveals something I couldn't have predicted, I get a physical whoosh through my body and I know that's the shot I'll use.

For me, the photographic process lends itself to producing work about gender diversity--as it enables that emotional layer to be caught--but also in the presentation of images. That they are photographic lends a reading of "this is real." Though we know photographs can be manipulated, it is because the Assume Nothing images are often direct to camera and straight forward in presentation that they are seen as telling some sort of truth.

In the Assume Nothing series your subjects are fluid in their expressions of gender. Some of them appear nude. What is the relationship between transgressing the gender binary and the ways transgressive bodies are perceived around desire?

The people who participated in Assume Nothing have a wide diversity of gender identities, fluid being just one of them. I did want to pose questions and open up dialogue about desire and bodies that transgress the gender binary.

I think for people who are outside the community, their primary questions are "but if you don't fit into this box or that box, who are you going to be attracted to and who's going to be attracted to you?" I posed those questions in two different ways. First, I included couples who spoke of their relationship--or who they're attracted to--and that challenged any assumptions around how gender identity informs sexuality. I also photographed people in ways that would be challenging for the viewers, creating responses like "that person has breasts and a cock and I find them really attractive, what does that mean about my sexuality?" The underlying intention of the work always came back the the title Assume Nothing.

How did you find your subjects? As someone who identifies under the "trans" umbrella but who lives in a liminal space around gender, I often find  it difficult to identify a community of like-minded folks, as we all tend to be extremely independent of definition. Did you find that the philosophies of the people you photographed around their genders varied as dramatically as their expressions of it? How did that impact the work?

Many of the people in Assume Nothing are friends, or have become friends. Once I started talking about what I was doing people would say "Oh do you know about ..... ?" So it snowballed really. Yes, I welcomed diversity of identity, culture, sexuality, age, experience and philosophies. I sought it out. The only editorial stance I took was that I didn't include any material where someone was putting down or being judgemental about a gender identity different from their own.

In what ways do gender and language intersect?

I think currently words are restrictive to accurately describe the nuances, complexities, layers of gender identity. I think new words will develop over time to fill the current gaps.

 Do you see a correlation between creativity and transgressing the gender binary? In what ways does expression inform spirituality? Gender?

"Assume Nothing"--the film--is about exactly that, creativity and transgressive gender identities. I think being outside the norm in any way, creates the potential for people to be more self aware; to think about themselves in relation to others and to society's views about that. I think creativity is a very positive way to express ideas and awareness; to effectively communicate what there is to be said.

For me, creative expression and spirituality are one and the same. I wouldn't produce the work I do without a spiritual practice, and my spirituality wouldn't flow as it does if I weren't creative.

For you, what is the relationship between gender and spirituality?

I believe that as souls we're androgynous.

When I see combinations of genders in one person I respond to it on a spiritual level. I believe we are born into bodies that in some way define our experiences in this lifetime. I believe that our higher selves choose all the circumstances that we live out, in order to learn the lessons that our souls need to learn.

by Thomas Page McBee
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2 Comments Have Been Posted

I don't consider myself trans

but I do consider myself androgynous, at least in appearance. And this interview hit on a lot of points that I wholeheartedly agree with, like people's 'uncomfortableness' with and confusion about sexuality and attraction in regards to trans or intersexed people. We are so stuck into binary thinking when it comes to gender, and we learn from the media that different is bad. 'Other' is bad. Also, I fully agree that living outside those binaries creates more awareness for the individual, and perhaps for the rest of the world as well. In seeing that 'other', people are forced to realize there is an other and have to think about what that means. So many people, my husband included, are so uncomfortable with the idea of trans people because they are taught there are 2 sexes/genders and that's it. Anything else is a freak. Having them more visible and unashamed in the public sphere forces us all to realize gender and sex are a continuum, and that we are all on it somewhere, probably more in the middle than we realize. I also believe deep down we are all androgynous. Society tells us what aspects of ourselves are appropriate and what to bring forward to be acceptable and 'safe'. Great interview/article. I'd like to share this kind of thing with my hubby, but I don't think he'd understand.

Hi. I like your blog. well

Hi. I like your blog. well done!

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