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Self-Image as Intervention: Travis Alabanza and the New Ontology of Portrait Photography

A close analysis of the Instagram feed of Black British, gender-non-conforming, trans-femme performance artist Travis Alabanza reveals their production of non-binary, trans-femme iconography via the social media platform Instagram as a timely and necessary intervention into contemporary culture. In self-imaging complex, expansive, and intersectional identity, Alabanza’s oeuvre not only produces new visual exemplars, but their oeuvre constitutes an imperative and complex representation that defies the stereotypes and erasures of such constituencies produced by dominant culture, while simultaneously challenging our previously held conceptions of photography and self-portraiture. To understand the nuances and interventions of Alabanza’s self-images, this chapter will model a trans-visual studies approach, in which methods of analysis are co-informed by the object of study. Alabanza’s work unfixes the photograph, breaking open the space between looking at a surface of a picture and the person referenced by the image. Simultaneously, Alabanza’s interest in surface is not superficial; the images seem to encourage us to view aesthetics as being about communicating, identity, play, performativity, and in discourse with numerous visualities and aesthetic languages, including gender, racialization, class, and subcultural affiliations.