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Marvel Harris, MARVEL (2021)
Marvel Harris, image from MARVEL (MACK, 2021)Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Marvel Harris’s portraits capture the anguish and joy of gender transition

The award-winning Dutch photographer navigates autism, eating disorders, and identity with a series of unflinchingly honest self-portraits, using the camera when other communication fails

“I don’t like small talk,” says Marvel Harris. As with his compelling self-portraits, the 26-year-old Dutch photographer forgoes the drawn out and overfamiliar dialogue that shrouds topics close to him – from mental health to gender identity – to get to the heart of things with his unflinchingly artistic precision. Turning his camera on himself became a way to understand his own eating disorder, gender, autism, and depression. “I know from other people who are autistic that they find it hard to tell in words what’s really going on or to connect with others. My camera has always felt like some sort of friend to me.”

Winner of the MACK First Book Award 2021, MARVEL presents a collection of incredibly intimate self-portraits taken over a five-year period. This extraordinary debut invites you to accompany the photographer through a perilous passage in his young life, as he documents the highs and lows of his gender transition, his struggles with autism, his battle with an eating disorder, depression, and intrusive suicidal thoughts. While capturing private moments of despair with an unflinching honesty reminiscent of Bas Jan Ader’s poignant and enigmatic I’m Too Sad To Tell You (1970-71), MARVEL is also a hugely life-affirming story of self-acceptance, bravery, and love. 

“I think this book is mostly about a person who struggles to communicate what’s going on in their mind,” Harris tells Dazed. “It’s about the wish to recognise the person you see in the mirror as yourself and how it feels to grow up as an autistic, non-binary, transgender person who tried to fit in by mimicking social interactions and behaviours, but who is finally discovering themselves.” 

For Harris, the practice of taking self-portraits became a natural-feeling and non-intrusive way he could explore his own feelings and identity whilst also articulating his complex interior world to people around him – something his autism made extraordinarily difficult to verbalise in words. “My camera allowed me to be myself fully, and because I was only with my camera in a room, I couldn’t copy behaviour from other people. I just had to be like, ‘Okay, who am I?’ It’s also about feeling more comfortable in your own skin and choosing for yourself.” 

Above, take a look through a selection of images from MARVEL. Below, Marvel Harris selects two self-portraits, chosen as incredibly defining and important moments from his turbulent journey to selfhood, and talks us through each image in his own words. 

Marvel Harris: It was August 2017, and I was 22. I studied at the University of Applied Photography, but I was really struggling with my mental health and hoped that a gap year out would work for my benefit. I was also struggling with suicidal thoughts.

For me, 2017 was really the beginning of this journey where I realised that I was struggling with my gender identity. I was in therapy for my eating disorder and depression, but I didn't know that what I was struggling with was described as gender dysphoria. I talked about my sexuality in conversation with my therapist but I was always like, ‘That’s not really what I’m trying to say... I don’t know what it is, but it’s not sexuality.’ I just didn't know how to explain it.

That year, I decided to take a break from studying to fully focus on my mental health. And that’s when a friend of mine explained to me that I’m not struggling with my sexuality but my gender identity instead. And I was like, ‘What’s gender?’ I'd never heard of the word before, we hardly used it. So then I Googled ‘gender identity’ and I came across various stories of people talking about transitioning.

I’d been struggling with my gender identity for years, but I never knew how to verbalise my struggle. So that’s when I started to document this journey of myself and, primarily, for myself because I was already taking self-portraits in 2014. Because self-portraiture for me has always been about expressing something or capturing something that I found difficult to talk about in words. And so I didn’t really intend to start developing this project, it somehow just went this way. 

“Self-portraiture for me has always been about expressing something or capturing something that I found difficult to talk about in words” – Marvel Harris

I think it’s a part of being autistic. I know from other people who are autistic that they find it hard to tell in words what’s really going on or to connect with others. And my camera has always felt like some sort of friend to me. So the moments that you will maybe talk to a close friend, at those times, I grabbed my camera because I needed someone to listen to be there. But also someone who doesn’t judge and a camera doesn’t judge. That was something that I really needed at that time, and sometimes I still do. 

In this picture, I’m with my mum, and we had just arrived at our hotel room in Germany. I remember being there feeling overwhelmed. At that moment, I felt suicidal and I didn’t know what to say or what to do. While we were unpacking our luggage to bring into the hotel room, the only thing I could say to my mum was that I really needed my camera, so that’s the first thing I got out of my bag from the trunk of the car. I brought my camera into the hotel room, and then I sat on the bed, and my mum watched me take self-portraits because she didn’t have any other place to go. I just couldn’t talk at that moment; I found it really difficult to verbalise what was going on in my mind. And then I said to my mum, ‘It’s weird that you’re just standing there, maybe you could sit next to me? Are you comfortable with me including you in my journey of self-portraiture?’ And she didn’t mind at all and sat next to me. The whole moment just went like that. 

It was really after capturing those emotions with my camera that I got to some sort of calmness, and then I could tell her that I felt overwhelmed, desperate about the future, and about my suicidal thoughts. When I feel overstimulated and then grab my camera, I can just focus and feel more zen; it really helps me to ground. After taking those self-portraits, I could speak again. It was like I first needed to connect with myself, and I connect best in silence and with my camera. And after that, I could speak in words about what was really going on. So that’s the story behind that image. 

For me, because my camera’s remote control feels so natural to hold – like how you write with a pen – I didn’t think about the camera anymore. So it’s really that moment and just me being with my mum. I still feel her warmth and support around me when I think about this moment.

Marvel Harris: For me, taking self-portraits was something that I only did in my own home or places where I felt most comfortable. What I remember about being there in a hospital room after my top surgery was that there were other people there, it was outside of my own house, so it felt less safe. But I also thought, ‘This moment is so important for me and my journey, and I really want to capture it, so I do have to get out of my comfort zone.’ I thought I‘d just set up my tripod and my camera and maybe ask other people in this room if they are okay with me taking pictures or not, and they said, ‘Yes, of course.’ They were excited! 

I was with my mum and two other patients. But it was kind of strange because normally when you have this type of surgery, you are accompanied by patients who have also gone through the same operation. But they didn’t have enough space, so they put me in a different room with different kinds of patients with various needs. So I also was like, ‘Okay, well, I’m a transgender person, and I hope you respect that.’ I was scared, but the atmosphere in that room felt really warm. One patient started crying when she saw my happy face. She was like, ‘Oh, I’m so incredibly happy for you, and I wish you the very best of luck!’ 

I had a binder going around my chest, and when the nurse took it off, I was just like, ‘Whoa, it’s so flat!’ I was just so extremely happy. Also, it was like, ‘Is this really me?’ That smile on my face was genuine. My cheeks were hurting because I was smiling so much.

That moment the binder was removed, somehow it felt unbelievable. Like, how could this be true? Is this really me? But it all felt so right. Everyone who asked me, ‘Won’t you regret this?’ or told me, ‘You’re so young, are you 100 per cent sure?’ I felt like, well, I proved right now that I’m 100 per cent sure, and I didn't felt any regrets. 

“My camera listened to me as no one else could” – Marvel Harris

But I do want to say that there are also transgender people who have had this surgery and didn’t feel extremely happy at that moment. And I think that’s also because it’s a big change and your body does feel different. And there are also moments of confusion, like, ‘Why does it hurt?’ Or, ‘Why am I not happy?’ But you're recovering from a very big surgery, so, logically, you’re tired. There’s also the pressure of thinking, ‘I have to be happy; I have to feel happy.’ 

One of my best friends who also had this surgery felt very depressed after it. But I explained to him, ‘Give yourself the time to get used to your new body and comfortable in your own skin.’ I think giving yourself time is very important during this whole process. 

My mum has always been very supportive, and that’s why I wanted her to be part of this journey. In general, I find support crucial, and I would like to show other people how necessary it is to receive support. It can be from your parents, your mother, friends or chosen family, but I believe it’s something you can’t do on your own.  

I struggled with a lot of mental health problems in the past. When I was 22, I received my autism diagnosis, which was very late. Growing up, my mum was always like, ‘Marvel’s obsessive focus on food and health serves as a coping mechanism for something much more complex, but I don’t know what it is, and I want to help, Marvel, but I don’t know how.’ When I finally understood for myself that I was struggling with being autistic and gender dysphoria, it somehow sort of clicked. And when I finally received the right help, I grew as a person during this process and slowly felt more comfortable in my own skin. Seeing how my mum responded to that, seeing her smile again... Because she was always worried about me, but when I was doing better, she was feeling better because, as a mum, I think you just want your child to be happy. And that’s why I wanted to include her and, yeah, I’m really thankful for her heartwarming support.

“Throughout my journey, I learned to be a lot kinder to myself” – Marvel Harris

To have somebody around is sometimes the only thing you need. Even without talking, that's enough. My camera listened to me as no one else could. In the beginning, my mum was right away wanting to come up with a solution. And then I explained, I think, through self-portraiture, that what my camera gives me is the feeling that you can be there without straightaway having an answer to the problem. And then she was able to become what my camera was to me – a good listener. 

I worked with the graphic designer Sybren Kuiper. We spoke to each other and straightaway found that connection because he doesn't like small talk, I get anxious from small talk, so there was like a click right away. I felt trust and shared all my personal work with him. And he started to share how he thought the story could be told in a book. And that was the first time that I got an example of how it would become this real thing that you can hold in your hands, and I was like, ‘Whoa, it’s so strange to see the images from beginning to the end; to really see my story.’ That’s like one of the first times that I recognised I had really been through a lot. 

Throughout my journey, I learned to be a lot kinder to myself. And also that to grow as a person you sometimes have to jump in with blind faith because life doesn’t come with any guarantees. And for me, because I'm autistic, that's something I find hard to accept; that you don’t have control over everything. That’s just not how life works. But, seeing this book – going through it and seeing the portraits collected as a story – I recognise my own strengths. And also, I don't often use the word ‘courageous’ but, yeah, I think I’ve got courage.

 MARVEL by Marvel Harris is published by MACK and is available now. You can also catch artwork from MARVEL on display at London's Webber Gallery until September 3 2021.