China. A very big country featuring 56 minorities and one Party line. A very traditional society which offers little to no room for, or at least frowns upon, those who do not toe the line.
Think those women who have long bid Adieu to the prime age of 27 and still remain single (the so-called “leftover women”). Think our plain high-school Jane who doesn’t show up at her mandatory extracurricular math, English and piano lessons (and that’s just Monday) and instead opts to sneakily get out of her tracksuit uniform and chill out on a hutong rooftop. Think homosexuals in general (seen “Shock The Gay Away”, anyone?). Or think drag queens – or any man/woman who feels more comfortable dressed as the opposite sex, for that matter.
Chinese culture sports some of the most androgynous art forms you’ll find in the overall global cultural history.
I’ve personally always considered these “judgmental” calls made in Chinese society to be quite ironic, especially given that some of the nation’s most prided and historical art forms, think Beijing opera (jingju), are among the most androgynous (avant-la-lettre) you can spot in global cultural history. In the particular case of opera, it is custom for male actors to take on the female leads. And they must train, mastering the elaborate makeup, words and staple opera “mannerisms” for years on end, in order to just be allowed to get up on that stage.
Tom Selmon follows and captures their voyage and outlook — both on life as in its most literal sense — on camera.
Either way, it’s usually these social “quirks” (I think using the term “outcasts” would be overly dramatic) who are the most appealing or interesting to us outsiders. Sexuality in China is a confusing and very much “alive” concept in a rapidly changing scenario that has only been conceived some three decades ago. People, especially those born after 1990, are seeking and developing their individualities, a topic which can raise questions in terms of their own gender and sexuality.
Their journeys may at times be controversial or confusing yet always beautiful and outstanding. (You may take the latter literally.) Enter Brit Tom Selmon, documentary photographer. Selmon has chosen to swim the sometimes stormy waters of the current change in thinking about gender and sexuality among China’s 20-somethings. He follows and captures their voyage and outlook (both on life as in its most literal sense) on camera.
Keep reading for my full interview with the man himself as published in Format Magazine!
Photographer Tom Selmon explains his fascination with China’s drag and queer culture.
Sexuality and gender fluidity in China are very much “alive” concepts set within the country’s rapidly changing social landscape. British Beijing-based documentary photographer Tom Selmon is one artist keeping a close eye, literally, on China’s evolving relationship with non-binary identification. Selmon follows alternative youth culture and has created an impressive body of work that explores street fashion, drag culture and the cultural context of modern-day Beijing. Selmon spoke to us about his move from London to Beijing and his fascination with the “individual beauty” of drag queens:
It may sound silly, but I just thought photography would be something I’d be rather good at. I’ve always wanted to create things, even when I was younger, and photography allows you to create something instantly. I was previously based in London—shooting fashion, among other things. Aside from editorial undertakings, I was attempting to expand my focus and shoot different scenes in London, such as the drag and LGBT. I am gay myself and therefore the ‘bond’ or affiliation was already there.
One friend of mine, already living in Beijing, told me about everything going on there, the changes in society and I thought I’d check it out. I discovered after arriving in Beijing, that the photographic possibilities were absolutely fantastic. So I stayed. Opposed to traditional Chinese societal norms, the generation born post-1990 are far more open, and open-minded, about the concepts of gender, sex and sexuality. Which, in turn, is great for me as a photographer who aims to document all sorts of people. For me, these Chinese post-90s certainly stand out from the massive Chinese crowds.
I am a photographer of people. I like to document people from all walks and scenes of life. I do especially adore male beauty, the definitions of the male. That’s probably also why I think drag queens often look striking.
When makeup touches male bone structure, I think it’s magical. I like extreme beauty as well as soft, natural beauty. It’s less of a fascination with drag, but definitely a real fascination with men. I simply enjoy focusing on unique faces and people. Bringing out, again, their individual beauty.
Some type of gender or sexual revolution, as I’ve called it before, is taking place across the streets of Beijing. The city and its people have some kind of ‘flow’ going for them. Both gender and sexual borders are being crossed and are, in fact, slowly fading.
They are putting themselves out there. They dare to bare themselves. Which is exactly that what makes them very so attractive to my lens. It’s a kind of innate beauty for me. One that also shows in the face.
Tom Selmon’s online portfolio
Original text and interview by Elsbeth van Paridon for Temper Magazine.
Editing by Format Magazine.