David LaChapelle on Life Ball, Censorship, and Identity

Artist, photographer, and filmmaker David LaChapelle sounds off on his 'controversial' poster for Life Ball, the recent debate over slurs, censorship, and the importance of finding one's own identity.

BY Parker Marie Molloy

June 04 2014 5:00 AM ET

In May celebrated photographer David LaChapelle unveiled his poster for Vienna-based HIV and AIDS charity event Life Ball. The poster, which features two nude images of transgender model Carmen Carrera, has stirred controversy abroad, with some calling the work “pornographic” and “degenerate.” The right-wing Freedom Party of Austria has taken to defacing the poster wherever it is displayed and has threatened to sue Life Ball organizers.

“Life Ball invited me to make an image for them, and I had an idea to use a transgender model who still had her— uh, I don't know what to say ... the political correctness in this situation will drive me crazy, and I don't want to just say 'penis,' but I wanted to use a woman who had both male and female attributes," LaChapelle tells The Advocate. "A woman with ... well, it's in Vienna, so let's say sausage."

"Sorry, I'm being silly," LaChapelle admits. "It's awkward to talk about body parts and stuff, so what I really wanted was a goddess who could project both male [and] female attributes. I called my friend Amanda [Lepore], and she said Carmen Carrera is beautiful and I should talk to her. She didn't know what stage [Carrera] was in her transition, and so I called her.”

“It was awkward to talk about the specifics. I'd never worked with her before, and I wanted her to trust me,” LaChapelle continues, discussing how he broached the topic of Carrera’s anatomy. “It was her idea to shoot her ‘tucked’ as well, so we did that. The point [of the poster is] that it really doesn't matter what's between your legs.”

An uncensored version of both posters is available on the following page. While the poster is certainly provocative, LaChapelle feels it has been unfairly denounced by conservatives. His frustration is palpable, as he sees himself as an artist watching his work be misinterpereted and censored. 

“They're calling this degenerate. What's degenerate? We all have a penis or a vagina — what the fuck is the problem?” he asks. “Why is it that we can depict every kind of violence and torture imaginable on TV and in movies, and there's no one with an issue with that, it seems, and it's getting more and more and more violent? Popular culture, television, movies, art, entertainment ... but you show a nude body, a woman who has a penis, and it's this huge debate.”

Left: David LaChapelle

“It's really coming down to censorship, and it's really coming down to this ... very, very loud, dangerous element that's popping up in Europe," says LaChapelle. "They need to pay attention because art is always a mirror, a reflection of what's going on in society, in culture, at that time.”

To some extent, that conflict and the divide between those who view themselves as the morally appropriate moderators is reflected in today's LGBT world, LaChapelle says.

“Years ago, [gay people would] put all the transgender people at the end of the parade on purpose," he says. To illustrate his point, LaChapelle recalls an award he received several years ago from an LGBT organization, which he says refused to allow a friend of his, a transgender woman and actress, to be the one presenting him with the award, instead opting for a cisgender (nontrans) person with a higher public profile. "I thought that was really hypocritical," says LaChapelle. "So I didn't go to accept it. I sent a video, and [my friend] took my place at the table.”

“I feel like [transgender people] have been the last ... you know, the most oppressed people,” LaChapelle says, searching for the right words to describe the oppression he’s watched his trans friends endure. “[It’s] very difficult. It's hard to get jobs ... people are hesitant to hire obvious transsexuals. The gay community doesn't understand it, and what I'm trying to do is show the beauty of a person.”

“I've known transgender people my whole life,” he says, speaking to the experiences that shaped his appreciation for trans identities. “Coming out at 14 and going to clubs and gay bars in Connecticut, [I learned that] everyone has a different story, and you can't just put them under one heading.”

Weighing in on the recent controversy over the use of slurs, a debate in which Carrera plays prominently, LaChapelle expresses a belief in people’s inherent right to self-identify however they’d like, stressing the importance of not pushing these identities on others.

“For this whole other stupid, distractive conversation about ‘shemale’ or ‘tranny’ — it's ridiculous,” he says. “People should be able to call themselves whatever they want, because there are so many variations that people can choose to live today. Any gay person or transgender person in any state of that transition, however they want to live, whatever body parts they want to keep or not keep or whatever, they should be allowed to call themselves whatever they want, and we should not lose sight that we are one community. We should stop this infighting, and we should not lose our sense of humor. That's one thing that gay culture has always had, was our sense of humor about ourselves.”

“When you co-opt a name that’s been called in a derogatory sense like Queer Nation did in the ’80s, where they took a derogatory term and turned it around, you can change the meaning of the word by using it yourself. The word that was once used as an insult, when you call yourself that, you defuse it.”

“I think you should be able to call yourself whatever you want,” he concludes. “At the same time, I think the polite thing to do, if a person is not sure, ask ‘How should I call you? What should I refer to you as?’”

“What's between someone's legs is their private business,” he says, referencing a number of awkward and invasive experiences faced by trans celebrities, including Carrera. “If they want to talk about it, they can talk about it. If they don’t, it’s no one’s business.”

“No one asks a pop star, ‘Did your vagina get stretched out after childbirth?’” LaChapelle notes. “But they'll ask anything to Amanda in interviews in the past; ‘Did it hurt?’ and blah blah. Who cares? Stop focusing on that. It’s not what this is about. [It’s not] the polite thing to do in an interview situation or a social situation.”

“I don’t want to be called ‘queer’ by a straight person, but as a gay person I’ll call myself whatever I want,” he says. “We’ve been called so many names ourselves, that we shouldn’t start this stupid distractive conversation about what’s proper, what’s politically correct, because there are just too many variations. Everyone’s going to want to be called something else. We need to lighten up a bit.”

LaChapelle’s latest work is currently being shown in his exhibition “Once in the Garden,” at Galerie Ostlicht in Vienna through September 14. More information can be found on his website.

See the full, unedited posters on the next page (NSFW) >>>

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