The Neapolitan photographer Luigi Lista presents his long-term project: Queen Bees. After years in the fashion industry, the planets aligned for Luigi who, like in the best love stories, started by chance to photograph trans women in the street of Naples. As both a careful outside observer and (after 6 years of collaborating) an active participant, Luigi tells tales of pain, suffering loves, deaf joys, and will to live and exist. In this way, Queen Bees offers us a window into the modern Neapolitan transgender world and “a testimony that feelings have no gender and that all living beings need love”.
Ciao Luigi, it is a pleasure to talk to you! How are you feeling today?
Hi Lucrezia, thank you very much for your attention. I'm feeling good today, I'm home, I’m reading and I just had pasta and chickpeas while listening to No You Girls by Franz Ferdinand.
Your project Queen Bees is incredibly interesting and that is what I would like to focus on today! But, first, I wanted to acknowledge your photography work throughout and ask you to tell us about your fashion shoots! How did you get involved in this industry?
It all started from an encounter, I had already been involved in photography for few years, I was looking for myself as photographer, so I used to shoot everything. I wanted to cut out everything that didn't stimulate me. I had finished a medium-term project that later became my first exhibition. After that, with two close-friends and stylist, we began to collaborate shooting our first campaigns, editorials, tests. Over the years the commissions became more and more important, I collaborated with most important magazines and brands worldwide.
I suppose this kind of photography could be described as more editorial, commissioned side of your work. How do you manage to balance this commercial commitment with personal projects like Queen Bees?
Actually, let's say that only at the beginning my training was in fashion, but I was never good at adhering to precise standards, because the more I grew, the more my vision merged with everything I was as a person. Simultaneously with fashion jobs I started shooting a series of personal projects, even when I was commissioned on commercial jobs, and it was so satisfying!
Queen Bees is your first long-term photographic project and one of the two based in Italy, Naples specifically. How did you approach developing a project over such a long time and why did you choose to capture the life of the Neapolitan transexual community as the subject of this extensive photographic reportage?
Everything started by chance, like the best love stories. I was in Gianturco, a suburban area of Naples for a photo shoot. At the first light of sunrise, under the light of a street lamp I saw two trans women completely naked, covered only by a fur coat. I was thunderstruck, it was like I couldn't tell if it was a Vivienne Westwood campaign or a documentary, and I remember I thought: ok, my planets are aligned, now It’s clear. So I approached them and asked to take some pictures, they agreed, and from that day I started my reconnaissance, mostly at night looking for these amazing people. Later I came across Miss trans, a beauty pageant for trans girls, and only at that moment the real project began. I started a very research-based, unhurried approach to the work. I embraced these people’s stories, I collided and faced so many tales of pain, suffering loves, deaf joys and so much will to live and exist. This changed me. I like to say this work is my transition, from a photographer who worked with fashion stories to a photographer who works with life stories.
For those who don’t know and have never experienced it, how would you describe the trans scene and community within the context of the city of Naples compared to both the rest of Italy and worldwide?
Naples is Naples. It is an open-air theatre, an inclusive place where the trans community is trying to develop, the girls are very united, holding hands in this battle they’ve been facing for years. They conquered small victories, but the conflict is still ongoing. Naples is a great mother who welcomes everyone and the trans community is the daughter trying to express her own identity to brothers and sisters.
Entering and engaging with a minority community like the transexual one requires a lot of respect and understanding which your photos embody beautifully. What was it like to first interact with the Neapolitan community and would you identify as an interested and careful external observer or as a now active part of it considering the 6 years you spent alongside it?
As John Berger (who has written so much about the act of looking) teaches us, the observer sees what he or she already has inside, confronting the outside world to confirm or disprove his or her self. I feel that I have been both a careful outside observer, looking at the community in this such with an anthropological approach, and an active participant during this exciting experience for these girls.
Your pictures are beautiful and aimed at discovering and portraying a type of beauty that is still seen as outside the canonical standards. What is beauty for you and what concepts or perspectives would you like your viewers to see reflected in your photos?
I’ve always been searching for beauty in extraordinary things, out of the ordinary; for me diversity is invaluable, and true beauty, for me, is often an hidden gem and must be discovered. So this project is an invitation to accept yourself deep inside and show yourself for who you are.
Of relevance, several pictures were taken during beauty contests where transexual people can freely express themselves and show their beauty. What role did this context play in your photographic experience and why is it so central to the representation of this trans community?
Beauty contests for me are the ultimate expression of the concept of exposing and showing yourself for who you are. For the trans community this concept is more difficult and I’ve found that this almost desperate cry for existence is the community's way of responding to society's deafness. In my project this plays a key role, because it has double meaning, for the community and for me!
In your introduction to the project you mention Stefania, the organiser of the beauty contest, and how she told you “I had to buy the love of my family”. I believe this to be a very common experience for the trans community worldwide and to emphasise the importance of your project. Can you tell us how interactions like this make you feel and why Queen Bees is important to you?
Without Stefania this project wouldn’t have been possible. When she told me that sentence I felt unable to help her, I couldn’t give her all the love she had lost. Queen Bees is important to me because it is not only a window into the modern Neapolitan transgender world, but also a further testimony that feelings have no gender and that all living beings need love. More, through this work I opened my eyes and that’s the reason I added in the book a passport photo of me while I’m opening them.
We have been talking about this, but I still haven’t asked you a fundamental question! Why is this project entitled Queen Bees? I find it very inspiring and empowering, but I am sure everyone is curious to learn about its origins and interpretation!
The title Queen Bees was born from a vision. I imagined this community as a chaotic beehive, where all the girls are colourful, stinging, flying from flower to flower in an uncertain dance to find their place in the world. Moreover, the word Queen totally represents them.
Also, congratulations on bringing this incredible 6-year journey to print! What is it like to see your work published in a physical, paper version, as a photo book?
Thank you Lucrezia, it feels good, it tastes like a finish line, which in my case becomes a departure, the book for me represents an intimate way of cherishing a story, like a novel that you discover from page to page, in Queen Bees each page reveals to you the most magnificent and complex thing on our planet, a person, as Simone Weil says in Human Personality.
Now that this long project has come to an end, where do you see yourself and your photography? I am sure Queen Bees will stay with you materially for the next couple of months and probably for the rest of your life conceptually but looking to the future, is there any new personal project you have in mind for expanding your Wunderkammer in 2024?
As I said before Queen Bees was my own transition I embraced with all my effort. From a couple of years I've been working on another, completely different project about the relationship between humans and animals, their philosophical stance and the way we have observed them over the years to evolve and understand our own human nature. I will be working my whole life to fill my wonder room but leaving the door open for anyone who wants to take a tour inside.