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Julia Gunther’s Chedino and Family
Chedino, Elsies River, Cape Town South Africa, 2012Photography Julia Gunther

Capturing the life of a trans woman in South Africa

Among the adversity she faces as a trans person, Chedino is a powerful and positive example of the importance of living life honestly

The complexity of LGBTI issues around the world is a pendulum. It feels that while there are triumphs within the community – such as basic human rights, safety and respect – there are always set backs. However, with every setback there's a determination that gets stronger, a sense of awareness that gets louder and a dialogue that is slowly but surely building the foundations for a community that is, more often than not, overlooked.

Julia Gunther's series "Chedino and Family" lifts the lid on the life of a trans person in South Africa. The winner of the Documentary Category at "The Last Picture Show", which was presented by The New York Photo Festival, it also picked up acclaim at the Moscow International Photo Award last month. "Chedino and Family" follows protagonist 32-year-old Chedino and details the struggle that she's faced since realising she is trans.

“Growing up was 10 times worse for me than for the so called ‘normal boys’ because I had to play the role of two people every single day” – Chedino

A highly sensitive topic no matter your location, Gunther goes into the heart of the country's trans, gay and drag scene, in the suburbs of Cape Town. Although there is clearly adversity beneath the surface of the shots, the photographer highlights the beauty of living your life honestly, no matter what struggles you may face. “With ‘Chedino and Family’ I want to highlight the proud lives of transgenders in the suburbs of South African cities", she writes in the series’ press release. "Not only does Chedino refuse to hide her true self, but she also encourages others in her community to do the same." Gunther is referring to the cast of characters who highlight the importance of family – whether blood or adopted. She adds: "She (Chedino) tries to educate and open minds, so that one day, she and others like her will be able to live openly and without fear.”

The series is narrated by Chedino, where she talks candidly about a 15-year wait for her gender reassignment series. Admirably hopeful, she notes that – like her, for those who can’t afford the surgery – the wait can often be up to 25-years long. A journey that has been faced head on with the support of her family and, more recently, her boyfriend Keagan, with whom she plans to move in with and, eventually, marry.

Tackling the stigma through her art, dance troup Divas in Cabaret is Chedino's "baby", she describes the importance of their performances as imperative to bringing awareness that "there is more to us" than great make-up and stunning costumes. Her favourite songs to sing? Club favourites like Whitney Houston, Diana Ross and Donna Summers.

The fifth instalment of Gunther's project Proud Women of Africa – a collection of short visual stories that delve into the lives of the women living in Africa. “Women in Africa often form the framework on which their societies are built," she writes. "Yet so often they are overlooked, dismissed or downright ignored. Despite this they live with an incredible strength, a pride which I find fascinating. No matter what life throws at them, they remain proud of who they are.”

Below, we share some of Chedino's story – who, following the publication of the series, received the LGBTI Price Award for her Service and Achievement within the LGBTI community in South Africa.

“My name is Chedino and I was born on the 2nd July 1983 in Mowbray, Cape Town, South Africa. Life as a transwoman in South Africa has it’s ups and downs. I believe that you as an individual create your own happiness but just like we will never get rid of racism, us transwoman will never ever be free of discrimination.

Growing up was 10 times worse for me than for the so called ‘normal boys’ because I had to play the role of two people every single day. I’ve always known I was different because I never showed any interests in anything a boy was suppose to do - according to society. Unfortunately for me I could only actively become the real me after I graduated. I wanted an education so I studied entrepreneurship and small business management but even in college I had to play the role of a boy.

“The definition of patience to me means having to put your life on hold and fight for what you want non stop even if it seems you are getting nowhere” – Chedino

After my studies I had to look deep within myself and decide where I truly fit in. That was the difficult part because society didn’t see me as a straight woman although I looked and acted that way. I knew for a fact that I was not gay.

If you don’t have the money to pay for the sex reassignment surgery you’re put on a waiting list. I’ve been on that list for 15 years now. If everything works out I should get the first operation (out of three) by summer 2016. The waiting list is now even longer. Nowadays you have to wait 20-25 years for your sex reassignment surgery if you can’t pay for it.

The definition of patience to me means having to put your life on hold and fight for what you want non stop even if it seems you are getting nowhere. That’s why I definitely think transgender people are the most patient people in the world.”