Istanbul's transgender Queens

Spanish photographer Monica Lek documents the life of Istanbul's most daring drag queen

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Istanbul's Transgender Queens
Monica Lek

The Islamic city of Istanbul is home to strong traditional values and a community of young people that want to speak out. The life of flamboyont drag queen Lou Lou is documented by emerging photographer and filmmaker Monica Lek, taking us into the dark and extravagent night clubs the city would rather ignore. Mediterranean-born Lek spends most of her time in New York working as a photo assistant and editor on various projects. As we await her film documentary: Lou Lou, Dazed talks to her about the the project and the hidden LGBT community of Istanbul.

DD: Why did you choose to photograph a member of the Drag Queen community?

Monica Lek: I actually didn't choose it. Life brought me to meet Lou Lou, I didn't choose it consciously, I still wonder what the hell brought me to this scenario, the only Drag Queen in Istanbul. To help you situate, it was last summer in July, when I came back to my hometown from NYC and I was so ready to shot my first documentary.

This feeling wouldn't allow me to sleep – smoking endless cigarettes as if the smoke would project my future and vanish my past. At night, standing up in front of a huge map of the world, magic happened. My eyes were pointing like a laser to Istanbul, where my partner in crime, Melih lives. Remembering a past conversation with him where he told me about this person, one of the only Drag Queen living in Istanbul. That just sounded so exotic to me. Instantly, I called him, just saying, "Hey, I'm coming let's do a documentary on this person". I wanted to perform my own visions, documenting is merely a self-exploring issue, using the subject as your own mirror. A one-way ticket to the unknown, yet so clear. 

DD: What is it about Istanbul you find so intriguing?

Monica Lek: I found not knowing the city myself so exciting. Afterwards, having spent time in the city I would define it as having an effervescent chaos, I have never seen so many people screaming from all different cultural values.

It's a bridge that connects Europe with The East, it's taking part in both sides yet doesn't belong to either really. There's a flow of mystic energy in the air, especially in their music, melancholic yet so sensual. One of the things that intrigued me the most is the Ottoman Empire, the golden age of Turkey, where almost all men were gay, experimenting inside the Turkish baths, I found it amazing. Now it's not even accepted to kiss on the street. Are we going backwards? Its seems the city is a closet, you have to hide to be yourself, the world is a huge closet.

DD: How do you feel about the contrast between your images and the religious values of the city?

Monica Lek: I feel great! But here's the thing, you can see in my images all those extravagant customs, make-up and masks. It's precisely the extreme religion that creates those. One of my gay friends here in Istanbul told me that he is obliged to dress this way. If he can't talk to his family because of his illusionary boundaries with religion, then he has to respond instead of remaining rotten inside, and this rebellion, shows a lot specifically in drag queens. They lost their own nature, the super-ego has to act, showing off in an extravagant way, to hide their own nature. Yes, there is a huge contrast, but its all the same trip, devotion for something that gives you faith which allows you to bear the journey through life.

“When I randomly asked people on the street, no one had ever heard the term "drag queen". It's a very small subculture over there.”

DD: The Drag Queen you photographed can be seen wearing many extravagant outfits, what do you feel these represent?

Monica Lek: As I've said, his clothes represents his frustrated emotions, it's his own revolution, he always wants to become someone else. Normally drag queens want to become someone else that doesn't exist but the ignorance plays its role. In his journey to become someone else he almost becomes the authentic one, its a paradox. 

DD: The giant goat's horn headpiece is a pretty strong image, what's the story behind that?

Monica Lek: Yeah, that has an interesting story. It's all about Kurban Bayram/the feast of the sacrifice, which I also documented. According to Islam, a massacre of the animals is happening. Before, it was a ritualistic tradition where the man of the family decapitates a goat while singing, and you give the meat to the poor people – this has been banned, but how can you deny religion to these men? So instead, they now go more hardcore. This year, they were doing it in clandestine places, not respecting any ritual anymore, just killing goats or cows all at the same time. I shot pictures and videos that day, I think I was the only woman there with all the men salivating for meat and blood, heads flying, torturing the animals. Fathers let their 5-year-old sons see everything, to pose with the goats and see them dying. Lou Lou then called me to say he was getting ready for a show so I flew to his house and he was making his own costume. "Goat resurrection" I guess would be the best way to describe it, with a mixture of pure sarcasm and the defense of animal rights at its max. The show was astonishing, a small gay club, he was on the stage inside a placenta and he was dancing obscenely re-enacting the resurrection of the goat, it felt very emotional.

Istanbul's Transgender Queens
Goat killing in Istanbul Monica Lek

DD: Why put the spotlight on this part of Istanbul to the world?

Monica Lek: First of all, because it was unknown to me, and also the citizens of Istanbul, when I randomly asked people on the street, no one had ever heard the term "drag queen". It's a very small subculture over there. Religion, ideology and traditions is just so strong in Turkey. Interesting fact; 10 years ago, 30 people showed up in the gay pride parade, last year more than 30.000 peeople showed up.

DD: An accompanying film to the photo series is soon to be released, what will the film touch upon that the photos don't?

Monoca Lek: It will show the longstanding reputation of Istanbul as a bridge between East and West and it's sharp contrast when examining prevailing cultural attitudes towards LGBT culture, identity and lifestyle which are considered taboo. It's a subculture that has been marginalized by a largely conservative Muslim society. The film follows the day to day life of Lou Lou, as he dreams up and creates his owns costumes for himself with the help of his grandfather. The cultural and social shift acts as a dynamic backdrop for Lou Lou's character, whose life and story provides a unique window for an emerging generation of Turkish youth.

DD: What has been the response to your images?

Monica Lek: Curiosity.

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