As a photographer and activist of gender nonconformists, I have always tried to present my collaborators in the daylight of everyday life. Most of my photographs have been made in the United States, but in 2012, I started on a project in Cuba that became a book, “TransCuba”, published in 2017. Shortly after that, Professor Eli Coleman introduced me to thespirit medium culture in Burma and Thailand. He researches cultures where sex and gender variance are an intrinsic part of that culture.
The mediums in Burma and Thailand are respected and needed. When possessed, they are conduits between the earth and the spirit world. The spirits communicate advice and predictions to those who ask for their help.
When I took my first few trips to Burma and Thailand, I was in a continuous state of bewilderment, fascination and awe. I loved being with the mediums, in their daily activities and when they participated in ceremonies, festivals, rituals, and historic traditions.
As Professor Eli Coleman wrote in the introduction to our book, “Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand”,
his research became very important to him…”because it illustrated how a society could create space for gender nonconforming males and mitigate the general stigma that society imposes on them”.
The old traditions are not disappearing. To quote Professor Coleman again, “While both Burma and Thailand are profoundly Buddhist cultures, spirit worship is extremely common, and in many ways, the two belief systems live in harmony. The belief in spirits goes back many centuries prior to the widespread belief in Buddhism. In both countries, spirit mediums continue to perform the ancient, animist traditions and rituals that pre-date Buddhism.”
Although spirit medium traditions remain intact, the conveniences brought by western technology are seen everywhere. Motorcycles and cell phones connect people, even those living in small villages.. While sitting in a large, intricately decorated tent, watching spirit mediums perform an ancient story of a spirit who was a drunkard during his life on earth, I hear motorcycles roar by. Nobody seems to care, not even the small children who sit still, watching calmly while the actions of the spirit mediums grow wilder.