Lorenzo Triburgo is creating some of the most enagaging photography coming out of Portland. He is best known for his series Transportraits, portraits of post-transition transgendered individuals, pictured in front of backdrops (that Triburgo himself painted). This is a little strange given that Triburgo doesn’t really like the portrait genre, nor has he any formal painting training. But in the execution of an idea, Triburgo will go the extra mile.
Currently, Triburgo is working on a body of work about correctional officers in Oregon, but I didn’t really want to wait until its completion before we sat down and chatted — there’s too much to talk about! Here we talk about identities, gender, teaching, selfies, jails, rural police budgets, how to make portraits respectfully, and Bob Ross.
EYE ON PDX
Scroll down for the Q&A. Enjoy!
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Transportraits is an old project now, but it was the first body of your work I came across. It was well received. In it, I noticed exciting novel facets. Can you tell us about it?
Lorenzo Triburgo (LT): It is a few years old now and it did get seen relatively widely, but for me, the best thing to come out of letters and messages from trans-guys all over the country — and some internationally too — just say thanks. I did not expect that. I’ve done the thing that I wanted to do; I put positive representations out there.
PP: You showed me one of those correspondences, and I’d like to share it with the readers.
LT: Mostly, the guys are happy to share their lives and thoughts.
PP: Here it is:
I’m generally a person of few words. I certainly am not one to write letters. However, I felt that in this case, I needed to express appreciation to you, Mr. Triburgo.
I have identified as transgender for as long as I have known that such a word existed. For years, I lived in fear of myself and of losing my family to my particular “problem”. I have a husband who has always supported me and my gender identity and encouraged me to take the steps towards transitioning but it wasn’t until seeing your portfolio (via HuffPost) that I actually was inspired to do so.
The men you photographed were so themselves and so proud looking that I realized that I could no longer hide in the shadows of my own self-loathing and let myself be crippled by what my intolerant family thought. I saw the future in those photos and it gave me the strength to take the necessary steps to begin my journey.
So, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your portraits and your vision. They were the final push I needed to live my life.
PP: “I saw the future in those photos…” Wow!
LT: Gives me chills. Just really, really happy about that.
PP: Transportraits is finished now?
LT: Yes. Well, actually, I just had a man who is 65 and just transitioned. He asked, “Are you still shooting because I really want to be a part of this?” I wasn’t / am not really still shooting but heck, why not?
PP: He’s 65! You had to.
LT: Exactly. He’s in Washington State and doesn’t have a community of trans guys really to hang out with. He met some people online who were in Washington but not really close. We all got together and had a luncheon at his house and these guys came from 4 hours away just to hang out. Looking at my photos, there’s such a ragtag criss-cross of people — a Seattleite who transitioned in the 1970s, so and he was 70-years-old; guys in their mid-40s from rural Washington, and Dane (pictured below) who has just now transitioned at 65.
Dane and his husband have been married 40 years. His husband is in his eighties and he said, “Dane will do what he wants and that’s cool with me. My friends told me, ‘Oh man, everyone’s gonna think you’re gay,’ and I thought, well, so be it.” It is incredible! So and I did shoot those guys and I am going to add them into the project.
Dane and husband.
PP: Did you have your backdrops with you?!
LT: Yes. I took them up.
PP: You painted all those backdrops?
LT: I used Bob Ross’s instruction book. Just sheets of plywood. I accidentally got better at painting as Transportraits project went on.
PP: Why the backdrops?
LT: I started the project doing my own transition. Right before that time, I had a phase in which I thought I would never photograph people again.
But Transportraits was about gender identity and masculinity. I knew I didn’t want to create a documentary type project or a really a personal narrative, I wanted it to be more about my ideas on gender and the ideas I was wrestling with during my own transition.
I considered fabricated nature as the backdrop, basically to suggest nature as a construct. I experimented with projections and scans and collage but concluded painting made the most sense. And if it was about masculinity, then I figured using an American icon such as Bob Ross would help keep it about American masculinity.
PP: You’ve recently started teaching at Oregon State University. Your courses are about gender. Can you give us a primer on gender representation in photography?
LT: Photography has had this misconception attached to it throughout its history of presenting a truth, and I think that can be used to both uphold normative ideas of gender. It can also be played with to undermine those ideas. Photography is like a mirror so — in terms of identity based work — I feel like its the perfect medium because it’s a way of representing oneself and the way we construct identities.
PP: Which practitioners’ work inspires you?
LT: In the late 90s, when I was at college, Claude Cahun was just resurfacing in curricula. All of a sudden, learning about Cahun had such a huge impact on my work and my life. Surrealist photographers in the 1920s were thinking about identity and multiple selves and using photography to look at — and deconstruct — the self as one unit, and one unified self. Excitement ever since. Man Ray too, of course. One of my favorite books is Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. It’s accompaniment to Jennifer Blessing’s exhibition about gender performance in photography from its invention through until the 90s.
PP: And since the 1990s?
LT: Well, identity-based work really went out of vogue.
LT: I don’t think people really wanted to talk about it. But I think identity as a photography subject is really important.
LT: Let’s talk about politics in art. I think of the 90s as a time of resurgence for women in music, in the visual arts, and identity-based politics, right? We were coming off of — and still are — creating work around peer culture in the AIDS crisis. And there was Riot Grrrl, a third wave feminist presence and I think there was a backlash against that.
As identity-based work became commercially less viable it didn’t have the focus it would need in the art world. What do you think?
PP: In both Britain and in America, under Clinton and the Democrats, Blair and New Labour (before Blair went into an illegal war with Bush), the 1990s were a time of peace, a time of economic growth, a time of optimism in many ways. Now we’re all cynics and in reality or perception, under the kosh of wider state controls. Our governments didn’t listen when we refused post 9/11 policies that have torn the world apart.
We are looking inward trying to figure out our place. A lot of identity politics are self made, about the self, but specifically about the anxieties of self. There were no iPhones in the 1990s. We’re in the age of directed advertising. Everything is slick — even, the same — including our own individual forms of production
LT: But this play might lead us to new discoveries? Perhaps identity politics are just getting amplified, again? To me, it’s really interesting now! It’s out-of-control, you know!? The selfie is here.
LT: The selfie is just so interesting. Photography has imbedded itself in this immediate way in how we present ourselves.
PP: Selfies have been dismissed, by many, as the narcissism of the generation of millennials. They’re not just that; there’s more but I don’t yet know what selfies ‘do.’
I have to presume that there’s nothing inherently bad or damaging about being able to represent the self more readily. But, I am not seeing people use selfies in a way that has the same impact as artists’ self-portraits of the past did. Think of Nan Goldin’s portrait of her black eye after domestic abuse.
People are using the selfie to promote; a selfies is akin to brand identify. We’re like infants just working out what we are doing. I want to see something more “real.”
LT: It could go another way where it just gets less and less real. People might put up more and more facade, but if it goes that way then we’ll there’s a potential for us to lose that “reality” and that gravity.
Still, with the selfie, we are revisiting the very immediate past … immediately. How are we relating to ourselves differently? Who are we when we are in a state of constant reflection of our selves? As that speeds up, it will be interesting as the self and the reflection of the self happen simultaneously.
PP: And what that mean for portrait photographers. What does a portrait provide a population in which everyone has a camera in their pocket? Can you imagine doing a portrait series in like 2020?
LT: In my studio practice, my subjects are there, knowingly, as representations of my ideas.
PP: So, in some ways, you’re portraits maintain a distance?
LT: It would be different if I went to these people’s houses and was photographing them there.
PP: What photographic works dealing with gender and identity has impressed you?
LT: Cass Bird for the way she’s interested in various genders; Lyle Ashton Harris was a great influence on me when I was younger — I love the staged elements of it, and that he was fabulous and aggressive at the same time.
Nikki S. Lee for her during the 90s for which she dressed as various identities and immersed herself in different subcultures. Perhaps a bit problematic work but fascinating all the same. Carrie Mae Weems, of course. Adrain Chesser, for the way he shares such intimate moments.
As I’m American and I’m of this [younger] generation, I can’t get away from Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston — their work is part of the patriarchy, right but I can’t help it. I am super influenced by their use of color and humor they employed and underlies their social commentary.
LT: Eight years ago, before I did Transportraits I wanted to do something working with prison system. I drafted letters. The warden at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) was interested, but I was talking about doing a portraits of the prisoners and their family, but he told me there is actually something of a photo program at OSP that is prisoner-run. It wouldn’t really help to replicate that project. I thought about my proposal some more. While I’m waiting to get prison access and a project brief, I created Transportraits.
PP: A very successful project.
LT: It took over! But now Transportraits is complete, it’s time to re-address this prison issue.
PP: How are you doing that?
LT: Again I put out some letters and a couple of facilities [jails] responded — in Clackamas County and Josephine County.
PP: Both in Oregon.
LT: I’ve coordinated some meeting and toured the facilities. In Josephine County in particular, I had some eye-opening conversations about their funding crisis and the additional stress that is put on their staff and the officers consequently.
My partner works in industrial psychology and conversations she and I had were about current psychological research on law enforcement officers, particularly correctional officers, and the stress and the PTSD they suffer. I realized that these serious workplace health concerns often go overlooked by society.
PP: In photography certainly.
LT: At the same time that I was thinking about that I was also thinking about privacy issues for prisoners.
PP: They relate?
LT: Absolutely, inasmuch they dictate who and what I am comfortable photographing. Within photography there are issues with privacy … and with power relationships between photographer and subject. Who controls what is seen? Who makes that call? Who’s point of view is being shown?
I felt like photographing prisoners would become problematic. My thinking was solidified during my first tour of a jail — seeing the complete lack of privacy for a prisoner was astounding. Twice every hour, an officer goes down the tier and looks in everyone’s windows to check upon them. To see them being watched in that direct way had an impact on me.
PP: You couldn’t be another person staring down, separated?
LT: It was a danger.
PP: And so instead?
LT: The stresses on officers, and how those stresses are overlooked, hasn’t really been discussed in popular press or art/photography projects. In-depth. In a way that deals specifically with the officers.
PP: I can only think of two or three photographers who have imaged staff sympathetically. Fiona Tan’s Correction is probably the best example, but even that wasn’t solely officers.
PP: How do you introduce yourself and the work? Are correctional officers open to it?
LT: I talk about the negative stereotypes of officers that are portrayed in popular media. Likewise, the assumption among many that police forces are corrupt. I suggest that my project is potentially something to boost morale. They agree. They’re enthusiastic particularly in Josephine County where they’ve had their budget go to the ballot and be rejected. The taxpayers in Josephine County don’t want to fund the Sheriff’s deputies in or out of the jail.
PP: It’s been national news.
LT: People know they’re not going to get arrested for petty crime because there’s not enough staff at the jail to even process you. The Sheriff is interested in bringing that to light.
There’s another part to it. These officers have the most contact with the prisoners, right? My presumption is that the better they feel about their work and their position — the more they feel valued and respected — in the same ways anyone else would, then positive benefits develop. Consequently, we’d see more respectful interactions between deputies and prisoners in their custody.
It’s still early stages, this is “industrial organizational psychology-light” because I haven’t done near enough research.
PP: How does this fit in with your personal feelings about criminal justice and incarceration in America?
LT: I am challenging myself to approach this and to be open. What is a correctional officer? What makes them? Why are they here in our society to begin with? What are the ways in which these they’re contributing? What are the ways in which maybe they are not? Are there ways in which they try to help prisoner? I’m not interested in taking sides or forcibly portraying correctional officers as either victims or heroes.
PP: You want to get beyond the badge and uniform it sounds like?
LT: It’s about looking at the system as a whole. Officers are part of a system. Right now, I don’t personally know the answer to those questions and so I must ask. I’ll be using audio as part of the project. Officers and their attitudes are an integral piece of the criminal justice puzzle; they’re the people who, at the end of the day, are locking the doors.
Essentially, how do correctional officers uphold the system and in what ways does the system screw them over?
PP: I’ve always said jails and prisons are toxic spaces and they negatively effect everyone in them, staff included. An honest investigation of jails’ and prisons’ labour-force is long overdue. Best of luck and keep us posted. Thanks, Lorenzo.
LT: Thank you, Pete.
Lorenzo Triburgo’s photographs have been exhibited internationally. He holds Bachelor of Arts from New York University in Photography and Gender Studies and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts in New York. He has work in the permanent collection at the Portland Art Museum. He is recipient of Aaron Siskind Grant and most recently a project grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to complete his forthcoming project working with correctional officers.