25 March 2021
25 March 2021 - Written by Lucia De Stefani
In his series Against Domestication, Shia Conlon uses his camera to revisit traumatic childhood memories, articulate new gender identities, and examine how societal and familial power structures oppress transgender bodies.
There was a moment, maybe just the span of a few seconds, when two people appeared to cling to each other, but accuracy was unclear to the eyes of an onlooking child. When Shia Conlon walked in on his parents in their family home in Ireland, he witnessed what might have been a marital quarrel. For an instant, though, what appeared to him were two figures caught in a dance.
One of the photos that composes Against Domestication, Shia’s latest work on identity and the transgender body, reenacts these early memories: a woman faltering beneath the weight of her body, or concerns, finding a man’s arm for support; the two bound together in an intimate struggle. Can traumatic memories be revisited to sow the seeds of a more fortunate aftermath?
As the title of Conlon’s work suggests, Against Domestication considers the trans body as living outside the domestication of societal and familial conventions, while also exploring the trans experience more privately as an outsider to family dynamics. The work develops around the ideas of gender and the body, and the ways in which Shia, as a transgender person, could look beyond the physicality of the body.
A tension soon surfaces, between a “childlike gaze and what's really happening: I wasn't so seen as a child,” Conlon says. “What would it have meant or what would it have changed to feel like I had been seen?” This reflective contemplation on childhood, rooted in an instinct for exploration, informs every frame of Conlon’s work, yet it opens a vast array of interpretations. If traumatic experiences have manifested in the past, can they be overwritten? “Couldn't you just go there, recreate it, and then put a new experience on top of the traumatic experience?” he wonders.
As Conlon revisits these ancient sites of trauma in non-linear ways, the role of witness takes center stage. And it’s through photography that a more positive outcome can override the negative. “[You could be] a future self for your past selves,” he says.
Photography then becomes a lingua franca for people who suffered painful ordeals, a form of expression now available to them as a way to reconcile with their true selves. Putting himself directly in the picture, as director and actor, employing a constant tension of push and pull between the elements composing the images, Conlon bends and invites new layers of meanings to recast the events of the past. “I put myself in this memory to recreate it in a way where I have more agency. I'm in the image, I'm controlling it, I'm taking ownership over my narrative.”
Born and raised in Catholic Ireland, in a small, working-class Irish town of 5,000 people, steeped in traditional values with limited opportunities for exposure to a more diverse and open-minded world, Conlon sought refuge in his own imagination, shielding himself from the religious “specter” that would otherwise infiltrate the mundane. “If you are non-normative, you stand out here,” he says of his hometown. Tight-knit friendships and, later, art forms provided a safe space and an escape from the oppressive atmosphere that was lacking both entertainment and amusement, though it nevertheless sparked profound soul-searching and even inspiration.
Seeking new possibilities, after the Erasmus, he returned to Sweden to complete his Master of Art in Helsinki, where he now resides. The two places have informed and shaped his identity as an artist, leading to phases of intense productivity and deep self-expression, as well as a more mature and controlled method. “I was thinking so much about how I'm viewed and how I view myself. I was thinking all the time about the gaze of other people on me and my own internal gaze. I was trying to produce a way of being seen in the world.” In all his photos, this push and pull is at play: a person, Conlon himself, in bright white attire, lays face-up on a cold surface, while two fingers from off-camera enter his mouth. Is it a welcome act, opening him to the unknown, or a form of coercion forced upon him? There are no definitive answers.
In a black-and-white image, the actor - Conlon again - is holding his own tongue with a clamp, as if to suggest that such self-silencing is considered a prerequisite for acceptance. And if some images might seem coded, as the project grows, it carries more agency.
“The power structures that have a hold over us - the state, the church, the family, gender, sexuality, class - these are all very powerful things, but maybe in the face of that power we have our own power of language,” Conlon says. “Language to speak up in the face of injustices, language to name who and what you are. The only thing that we can have in the face of our trauma,” Conlon says, “is our own narrative and to just speak up.”
Shia Conlon is a lens-based artist working with themes of trauma, gender, and class struggles. Follow him on Instagram.
Lucia De Stefani is a writer focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives in New York. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.