Olivia Arthur and Philipp Ebeling's five-year, multi-media documentary project tracing one man's transition
“Everybody has their right to believe what they want. There is no absolute truth in this world,” says TiChan at the start of a documentary project of the same name by Olivia Arthur and Philipp Ebeling. TiChan is a 30-something French man who lives in a small village in the South of France; he (TiChan continues to be referred to as ‘he’, until next year when the surgeries start and a name change will take place) is in the process of becoming a woman, currently undergoing hormonal treatment and due to start surgery in 2020.
It’s a lengthy journey and Arthur and Ebeling have committed to documenting all of it, but on October 5 they will be showing the first work they’ve made with TiChan at the Mairie du 12e arrondissement, as part of Paris Nuit Blanche – an event supported by Amnesty International. The exhibit is an evocative mix of moving image, stills, and audio, it sidesteps well-worn debates to ask, how did TiChan come to make this decision?
"I closed myself in, then I began to hide my emotions to create a shield of indifference"
“We didn’t want this to be explicitly about the transformation of going from man to woman,” says Arthur. “It’s about the process of arriving at the decision to do it. We wanted to try and describe the emotional make-up of the journey, the life journey that this person has come on to embark on this change. We wanted this piece to be about the person rather than the gender issue.”
Focussing in on TiChan, the nine-minute installation – soundtracked by Nimzo Studio – uses three screens to show images that interact and intersect with each other, giving an insight into him and his outlook on life. There are still images of TiChan at home and at work, moving footage shot on the fly, and more static ‘moving stills’. One of the first of these shots shows TiChan lying in bed; it looks like a photograph until, unexpectedly, he blinks. There are close-up photographs of his hands and face, accompanied by films showing how those stills were shot; there’s a photograph of TiChan reaching into a fridge, and a longer film of him cooking on the same day. He looks neither particularly male nor particularly female, his face remains impassive throughout. “I closed myself in, then I began to hide my emotions to create a shield of indifference,” he says.
"It’s a complex story and we don’t want to simplify it. We want to layer it up, to show the complexities of it"
- Olivia Arthur
The images of TiChan are often shot inside, lending a sense of claustrophobia to the way he chooses to live right now. But there are also videos taken outside which suggest a sense of relief, one showing TiChan skipping stones, another showing flocks of birds in flight. There are also many videos taken while TiChan was driving to his hospital appointments, the road stretching out in the dark; paired with footage of the video games he likes to play, they give a sense of a single-minded pursuit. The installation is subtle and patient, a look at an individual, inside and out, that embraces messy complexity and deliberately undercuts anything too neat. “It’s a complex story and we don’t want to simplify it,” says Arthur. “We want to layer it up, to show the complexities of it.”
The images are accompanied by audio, which includes field recordings such as footsteps or choral music, but which also includes TiChan reading extracts from an autobiographical text. He was asked to write this text by the French state as part of the psychological examination imposed on all who seek gender reassignment treatment; while it’s deeply personal, it also suggests different sides to his personality, and the different ways in which he has presented himself. Looking back over his life, he realised he was playing the role of a man with women, and the role of a woman with men, he says; in this text, he expresses a version of himself designed to satisfy the French state. When he read it out, says Ebeling, “he read it like an actor reading a script.”
"Making this transition is a big deal, a massive deal and painful, and in many ways not what you want to share with the whole world"
- Philipp Ebeling
In his personal life TiChan literally likes to act out roles, via avatars in computer games and by taking part in Dungeons and Dragons-style events in which participants dress up as their characters. He also sought out the documentary project with Arthur and Ebeling, contacting Magnum’s Paris office 18 months ago to ask that his transition be recorded. Magnum put him in touch with Arthur – who has previously photographed the LGBTQ community in Mumbai as part of the project In Private; keen to include moving image as well as stills, Arthur teamed up with Ebeling, who’s also a well-established photographer. Arthur and Ebeling asked TiChan why he contacted Magnum, curious about his motivation; his official line is that he wants to help other people undergoing the same transition, but the project also seems of therapeutic value for him, externalising the process. He had specific desires when making the work, for example, one of which was to be photographed nude.
“Making this transition is a big deal, a massive deal and painful, and in many ways not what you want to share with the whole world,” says Ebeling. “But then he came to us to ask that it be made. He doesn’t normally interface with the world, he spends a lot of time at home shut away from the world, so it’s curious. It doesn’t seem obvious.
“One of the things we wanted to bring into it right from the start was this idea of it being a collaboration, TiChan being an author or creator of this work with us,” he adds. “He came to us to ask for it to be done, so it creates a different dynamic to us asking him to let us in. We always wanted that to be a part of it.
It’s complicated but, as Arthur and Ebeling point out, in this TiChan is no different to anyone else – we’re all multifaceted, we all play out various roles, and we’re all hard to understand sometimes. Just one year into a five-year project, Arthur and Ebeling are still getting to know TiChan but ultimately, and even if “there is no objective truth”, they hope to create something truthful. “We’re following the development of a person,” says Arthur. “That’s the process we’re going on – to try to understand this character.”