Luca Desienna (b. 1973, Italy) defines himself as a polyhydric artist and writer who is currently based in Berlin, Germany. He is also the founder and Chief Editor of Gomma and Gomma Books. However, the main reason why we approached Desienna is for his 2018 book ‘My Dearest Javanese Concubine’. It documents the life of a 48-year-old transgender woman called Tira whose face and body were disfigured by numerous plastic surgeries. She lived together with Dayang – an outcast boy with no family nor home. They shared 6 square metres, a sort of squat on a busy junction in Jogyakarta, Indonesia. During the course of two years (between 2010 and 2012), Desienna shared this space with the couple and became part of their life which he reveals to us through his lens.
Together with Desienna, we talk about the complex reality behind his book alongside empathic aspects of the medium.
Could you please share with our readers how did your project come about?
I was shooting a commission in Jogiakarta, trying to document the local LGBTQ+ community and their relation/involvement with the Muslim religion. There I stumbled upon Tira and Dayang and I was totally overwhelmed by their love relationship. I was moved, touched, and also disturbed initially. Shortly after the meeting, I realized that my uneasiness was mainly due to my conditioning and education. All those ideas and fixations about beauty and normality that society imprints on all of us, I recognized them and let the photography process dismantle them. I allow them to surface, to be questioned, and ultimately to be disassembled: their love did this.
Since you spent some time with Tira and Dayang, you really immersed yourself in their world and they let you in…What has this experience brought to you and how then would you place yourself in this project?
When all that conditioning (that I briefly explained above) did evaporate, something happened: an understating arose and with that a friendship which built a safe place (both for them and for me). Then came the photographs.
Since the first days, I felt that if I was to tell their story it would have to be honest, open, and playful: I and them would have to enjoy the process. And in order to allow that to happen, I had to drop myself totally in the moment and in the place, right there and there. This meant forgetting my plans, my way back to Europe, my girlfriend, friends, family, commitments, and all that. I switched off the smartphone and bought a local analogue sim-card phone (so as to keep the contacts with Tira and my local assistant) and let myself be taken into the story.
When a process like that unravels you can easily lose yourself. The anchors are gone and the creativity and visions take over. At some point, near the end of the process, I realized I needed a break, I needed some distance. So, I went away and came back shortly afterward: it became somehow addictive.
Intimacy plays a vital role in your story. What were your choices to accentuate this effect?
I didn’t feel it was possible to tell this story without showing the intimacy. Sex is a fundamental element of any love relationship however I didn’t pursue the ‘shocking’ elements (because I had many more shots, very raw and vivid shots, that could easily be used, but misinterpreted). So, I focused on an intimacy that surfaced with tenderness all along.
Tira passed away in 2012 as a result of her fight with HIV, leaving Dayang to his fate. Have you heard about Dayang after? I am curious as in the images they appear inseparable…
I did have information about him after the death, but I’d rather not disclose it…
When I went through your book, it was a strong emotional experience for me. In particular, two images pierced me. The one where Tira and Dayang sit on a bus and are observed by a child. It is actually the only photograph in the book where the couple seems to be outside of “their world”, and you can immediately sense the discomfort in Tira’s expression and posture – facing the myriad of looks of unacceptance. Then the last photograph is where Tira is kissing Dayang. You can feel the intensity of their love while knowing the sad ending… I see ‘My Dearest Javanese Concubine’ as a publication soaked in punctum and memento mori. When composing the publication, did these concepts come to your mind or would you say that they rather emerged on their own?
Thanks for sharing your feelings and appreciation, for those two pictures. I followed them a lot also outside.
I have to say that I was impressed since the beginning about Jogiakarta’s openness towards LGBTQ+ people and their connection with the Muslim religion, but for as much openness there was a couple like Tira and Dayang did not go unnoticed, so there were the stares, the awes and the awkwardness, but I never felt any danger nor strong discrimination.
However, my perception was that they felt truly safe only in three places: their dwelling, the crossroad where they work and the Catholic church where Tira used to go (Dayang was Muslim, so he never entered the Church but he was always accompanying her). They somehow created three safe bubbles for them, and when they had to go outside of those bubbles, for instance taking public transport, or going into public places, they didn’t like it much.
The kiss picture is very moving and you really feel that there is no wall between the observer and them, one can really feel their love. And their magic.
My intention from the beginning was, to be honest with the reality of the situation, and their reality was somehow dramatic (the poverty, the illness, the struggles), but at the same time, there was a joy and a unique lightness of being: I had to show that too. (Thankfully, this was kept from the start right to the end).
By exposing Tira and Dayang’s relationship and their daily life in a humanizing way, you ignite empathy in your viewers, stripping them off judgment. Especially when we talk about the display of nonconventional relationships, do you consider empathic viewing as a crucial aspect of image culture nowadays?
I think an artist’s duty is to strip the surface in order to reach love.
Overall, those layers of conditioning, over the judgements and the rules. Beyond the right and the wrong; and the endless furrow of concepts and morals and etiquettes. All that remains is Love.
What are you preoccupied with at the moment?
I just bought a new photographic kit, and after ten years of inactivity I am starting shooting again. My new main focuses will be my own life (I am doing a story called Me and Laura), and I will be working extensively on climate change issues.