An interview with Joshua Gordon

In a collaboration between photographer Joshua Gordon, Aries and Havana Club, comes Butterfly – a photography book delving into the queer subculture of Havana, Cuba. The project, produced over the period of a month, initially sought to document the drag scene within Havana, yet as the photographer immersed himself further into the scene, Gordon found himself drawn to the individual subjects portrayed within the book, bearing images that are as poetic and transformative as their eponymous butterfly.


Myles Francis Browne – How did this collaboration between yourself, Havana Club and Aries come about?

Joshua Gordon – Aries told me that they’d been speaking to Havana Club about doing some sort of collaboration in Cuba, and they’d thought of asking me to get involved after seeing my film Krahang.

MFB – What were your motivations and intentions in documenting and representing the trans and queer communities in Havana?

JG – When I was asked to do a project in Cuba, I immediately wanted to do it on Cuban drag queen’s, as I’ve been researching them for quite a while and I think they’re incredible. Cuban drag is timeless and old school, which I much prefer to modern drag. Also, the venues are very classic art deco spaces which I love. The inclusion of trans women just came through casting. Cuba’s LGBTQ scene is small. On drag nights you see trans women and gay men; in gay bars it’s the same; the scene is small and everyone’s together. Initially, the book and film were meant to be all about drag until I met the twins, and decided to make it mostly about them.

MFB – The title of the book, Butterfly, seems to point to this idea of transformation. What made you decide on this title and what is its significance for you?

JG – Butterfly is about transformation but also about the classic symbol of the butterfly: a lot of sex workers and trans women we met had butterfly tattoo’s, and 80% of the women who drew themselves, drew a tattoo of a butterfly for themselves in the questionnaires I handed out. Everywhere I went in Cuba I saw butterflies, it made sense.

MFB – Watching the accompanying film, it struck me hearing Shayra say she was no longer a butterfly, but a vampire. Did she mention what provoked this change?

JG – Shayra was referring to her change from an innocent, sweet country girl to a sex worker in the city. The vampire reference was because she’s always out at night, looking for clients.

MFB – More shocking is seeing in her questionnaire that she sees herself dead in a coffin in ten years’ time.

JG – Shayra has a dark sense of humour. When she spoke about her sexual fantasies to me, they were to be raped by a man with a glass eye. She spoke about death sometimes. Isabella was the polar opposite, even their political views were completely different and they lived apart. Many times, identical twins are inseparable but they had their own lives.

MFB – Cuba was, for a time, a challenging place for queer bodies and people to exist. What did you learn about their lived experiences in a country that has a past of prejudice and persecution? How is the present reality for these people?

JG – It has gotten better but they still face hardship, the trans women I spoke to love Cuba but many don’t feel accepted by Cuban society, which is why a lot of them want to leave.

MFB – These groups of people are so often marginalised by society and sometimes even, lamentably, by the queer community itself. How do you engage with these people as subjects from a place of neutrality, that does not exoticise nor fetishise them?

JG – I felt like this project was less about the girls from my perspective, and more about the girls from their own perspective. Everything I did with Shayra and Isabella we planned together, every interview question we spoke about together and every location, outfit, idea we discussed before. We spoke a lot about what I wanted to do and what they wanted to do so it became a collaborative effort, I wanted to make a project that they were proud of, that represented them authentically, which I think I did. In terms of fetishisation, I don’t think any of my work fetishes anyone as it’s less about trans women or prostitution, or whoever I’m shooting, and more about my relationship with my subject. No matter what their race, gender or profession I treat everyone with the same respect.

MFB – Looking at the book and watching the film, I am left wanting to know how they all are now. Where Rodrigo is performing, how Jessica’s work is, if Shayra is still writing poetry.

JG – All of the girls are good. I speak to them sometimes but not every day. This is the last message Shayra sent me: “Thanks for the book. I look at it and cry. You are a great man, women like us are in the dark… thank you for giving us LIGHT… I will not forget you.”

Myles Francis is an arts journalist & writer, originally from London, now based in Lisbon. He has worked with such publications as Nicotine, TANK, Vogue Portugal, and now currently writes at Umbigo magazine.

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