Bringing Light To The Difficult Lives Of Indonesia's Transgender Women

By Cassandra Mason

Fulvio Bugani is an Italian freelance photographer, who won third prize in the World Press Photo’s Contemporary Issues category this year for the photos he took while living with a transgender community in Indonesia. Bugani wanted to see what it meant to be both transgender and Muslim, and to tell the women's stories. He spoke with Cassandra Mason about those experiences.

Fulvio Bugani

Fulvio Bugani

Fulvio Bugani's love for photography was stirred early.  While looking through his family's albums, he realized those photographs were more than just a way to remember.

"It is an art, a form of communication with tremendous power and a great emotional charge," said Bugani. "It’s a way to express and convey important messages, as well as to explore the world. For me it is a way to be free."

He got a job as a clerk at a camera shop straight out of high school, and threw himself into finding partnerships with professionals who could mentor him. In 1999, Bugani opened his own studio in Bologna.

Now, photography is a way of life.

"It’s not just a job or a passion," he said. "It is far more than that. Photography gives me the opportunity to come into contact with many different people and that expands my vision and understanding of the world. Photography is definitely a way to know each other better. That is what I love about it."

Bugani's desire to know more about people and the way they live pushed him to explore his interest in how religion reconciles with sexuality.

Home to the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia felt like a good place to start, and research uncovered a small Koranic school for transgender people in Yogyarta. Those transgender women, known as 'waria' - a hybrid of the Indonesian terms for woman (wanita) and man (pria) - sit perched on the fringe of society. They are marginalized and face discrimination every day. 

Bugani wanted meet these women first hand, and to spend time living with them so he could understand their lives and why the school was necessary to exist.

Fulvio Bulgani

Fulvio Bulgani

Rejected from most mainstream occupations, the majority of warias must support themselves through prostitution, working in beauty salons or by playing "caricatures" of themselves on the street. They are prone to ridicule, poverty and violence. Operations to transition sexually are expensive, so most are forced to keep their male reproductive organs. 

"Many warias have also no families and no legal identities," said Bugani. "Some of them leave the island where they were born to go to Yogyakarta where the atmosphere is more tolerant and relaxed. Their families don’t know who they really are."

The school in Yogyakarta, which functions like a boarding school, is a place where warias can be themselves, and feel safe from the world outside. It was established by a fellow waria as a space where the community could practice their faith and celebrate rituals like Ramadan.

Yogyakarta has an overall community of about 300 warias, and despite the obstacles to normalcy they face, Bugani found some inspiring exceptions.

Fulvio Bulgani

Fulvio Bulgani

"I was very happy when I found a community at the outskirt of Yogyakarta, where warias breed catfishes in large artificial ponds to sell them to the local market," he said. "Here I met Angel, a young transgender [of] 22 years old. She arrived here two years ago, and was lucky to find this community where she can live. She was happy because she had done her coming out recently and her family had accepted her."

However, most of the other warias struggled to carve out a place in a society where they were largely seen as "freaks."

"These people are fighting every day to try to live a normal life," said Bugani. They face discrimination, social exclusion, and the disappointment of the people who look at them as freaks. They can not count on the affection and understanding of their family, and they feel alone."

Bugani met many young warias whose dream was to find a loving partner, but found it was very difficult for most. And in a bid to understand how difficult it would be to earn a living, he accompanied a group of warias to their street performances.

Fulvio Bulgani

Fulvio Bulgani

"It was really a hard day," he said. "We walked for more than eight hours under the sun in different part of the city, going into each shop, restaurant, office, etc, to beg for money.

"Some people told me: 'In Italy you pay the street artist as a sign of appreciation, but here you pay them to make them stop and go away.' I felt sorry for that, because I know that the warias weren’t happy to doing it, but that it was their only way to earn some money."

Bugani sees experiences like his time in Yogyarta as coming with a responsibility.

"Generally speaking, I think that in society, photography has a role in shaping the world view of the people. The photojournalist has a great responsibility. That's why there is an open discussion about altering images and ethics in photojournalism."

See more of Fulvio Bugani's work here.

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