Louisville photographer Ross Gordon travels the world to find his favorite subjects — vanishing or changing cultures. He’s documented traditional circumcision rituals in Kenya that are fading as the practice falls out of fashion and the last bastions of cowboy culture in South America.
His latest project brought him to Cuba, where a slow-but-steady cultural shift has taken root under Raul Castro’s presidency, as the country begins to enact economic and social reforms.
“I like to visit less-gentrified places,” he says. “Cuba is obviously off the beaten track, and there’s an appeal in that we’re not even supposed to be traveling there as Americans.”
Gordon traveled to Cuba for a month with fellow Louisville artist Carlos Gamez de Francisco, whose family lives in Holguin, a city of about 250,000 people. Gordon didn’t set out to photograph Holguin’s transgender women, transsexuals and drag performers, known as transformistas, but a night on the town with his friend’s mother opened his eyes.
“She wanted to take me to a club. The closer we got to the club and the more I saw the crowd walking towards the club, I realized it was a gay club and going to be a drag show,” he says. “You know, it’s eye candy for a photographer, men dressed as women in the streets of Cuba. But it turned out to be more than that.”
Gaining the trust of his subjects came easily, he says, as it often does for him.
“That’s always the issue in photography, whether it’s cowboys in South America or drag queens,” says Gordon. “I think a nice smile goes a long way. If you show interest in people, talk to them, and explain what you’re doing, I haven’t met with much resistance.”
The large-scale photos Gordon will show in “Transformistas,” his new exhibit at The Green Building Gallery, are only the beginning of what he hopes will be a more in-depth series built on the work he began in his brief time in Holguin. He plans to return in February.
A photographer who thrives on those liminal moments when boundaries and expectations are shifting is in the right place and time to document Cuba’s transformista community. Not only do individuals transform themselves from civilians into glitzy performers or glamorous scenesters by night, but Cuba’s social and legal attitudes toward its LGBT community have come a long way just in the last five years. State-funded sex reassignment surgeries are now sanctioned, and the president’s daughter, Mariela Castro, is one of the country’s most outspoken advocates for LGBT rights and issues.
“This is a changing of the guard of sorts,” says Gordon. “It might have been progressing for the last ten or fifteen years, but it’s really starting to show itself [in public] now.”
“Transformistas” opens Friday at The Green Building Gallery with a reception, 5-9 p.m. The show will be open through February 7, 2014.