‘Ladyboys’ are just bewildered lovely girls

The Icelandic photographer Gísli Hjálmar Svendsen has spent the last two years, on and off, in Thailand where he follows a group of self titled ‘ladyboys’ and photographs them in their daily lives. He means to publish the photos in a book and thereby diminish the prejudices that they experience in modern society.

“No, they don’t find the term insulting and actually use it with pride,” says Gísli when asked if the members of group he’s been photographing find the English term ‘ladyboy’ degrading in any way. As a matter of fact he says that they use it to stress the fact that they’re sex workers and also as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the Kathoey (a Thai term used collectively to describe individuals assigned male at birth, who may transition or take on a female gender identity or expression). Even though ‘ladyboy’ is often used collectively over the Kathoey.

“It’s so sad,“ Gísli says about the circumstances of the Kathoey in Thailand in the last few decades or so, referring to a group known in English as ‘lady boys’ or simply ‘ladyboys’. “In buddishm trans people and effeminate gays, the Kathoey, have a special place and were considered almost holy. That tradition lived for hundreds of years but in the last decades, as Thai society tries to become more westernized they are experiencing huge difficulties. They have become outcasts instead of sacred beings. I know that my photos are not going to change that, but I do hope that they will make people understand a little what it means to be a ‘ladyboy’ in Thailand.“

“Somewhere down my list was this idea about photographing ‘ladyboys’ … I had no idea what I was getting myself into.“

Gísli‘s quest started two years ago, almost by accident. He went to Thailand to take part in a workshop for photographers, where the participants had to find a subject for a photo series. A subject that showed the daily lives of the inhabitants. Originally Gísli wanted to do a photo series which would depict the huge difference between the rich and the poor in Bangkok, but his teachers considered the subject too big for him to be able to do it properly. “Somewhere down my list was this idea about photographing ‘ladyboys’ and as the other idea didn’t work I settled on that. I had no idea what I was getting myself into,“ he says.

In order to gain access to the group Gísli contacted one of them, Nancy, who eventually became his friend. Since they met she has been diagnosed with a severe disease and has not long to live, which prompted Gísli to take her story out of the original equation and make a separate photo series about her. “She is one of the most remarkable persons I‘ve ever met,“ he says. “She grew up on a farm, like so many in the group, and took it upon her self to go to the city to work as a sex worker to provide for her family. Her brother did not agree with that and doesn’t speak to their parents anymore, which of course causes their mother great sadness. It’s not talked about within the family but I could sense that her mother does not like Nancy’s profession. However it‘s the only way for her to get enough money to keep the family going, so it‘s a hush hush subject.“


Having gotten friendly with Nancy, Gísli gained access to the inner circle of the group and has spent a lot of time with them for the past two years. Aren‘t they suspicious of his motives? “They were in the beginning,“ he admits. “I am very similar to their average customer; a white, western, middle-aged man. So many thought I had some ulterior motives. But now I‘m just their weird friend who likes to hang out with them, taking photographs. I think they hardly notice me anymore.“

It‘s one of the things that made me want to publish these photos in a book. To try to make the people who look down on them see them as the lovely human beings that they are.“

Gísli has witnessed first hand that the life of sex working ‘ladyboys’ is no walk in the park. Even though they rarely get assaulted by their customers, according to him, the competition within the group is fierce and he has witnessed many violent brawls within the group. The police is also coming down on them with full force as the new military government wants to eliminate this angle of the sex trade in Thailand. A lot of the girls are on drugs, some organize robberies of their customers and on the whole it‘s a violent circle. But Gísli insists that most of them are just bewildered lovely girls, often driven to sex work by their families. “However

in-between there are also young pretty boys who just dress feminine, grow their hair long and wear make up. They’re not actual ladyboys. But that‘s what a big percentage of their western customers are looking for and the market of course provides what the demand asks for.“

He points out that ‘regular ladyboys’ are therefor getting less work and it‘s all spiralling in a very bad direction. “I‘ve seen a great decline in their surroundings and the general attitude of people towards them in these two years. It‘s one of the things that made me want to publish these photos in a book. To try to make the people who look down on them see them as the lovely human beings that they are. I hope at least that it will open some eyes. That would make me very happy.“

It‘s not yet clear how Gísli will go about publishing the photos, he is still gathering material and is in fact going back to Thailand early in the new year. He says he does not want to approach publishers yet, first he has to decide how to present the subject. Already he has hundreds of photos of the group, both studio photos and photos of them going about their lives, but he does not consider that enough. “To really make it outstanding I need lots more and I‘m in no hurry to publish. Maybe I will crowdfund the book and publish it myself when I‘m ready, I just don‘t know yet. My main goal is to really get to the essence of these girls and make people really see them. Until I have reached that goal I will keep going to Thailand with the camera a few times a year, and hopefully I can also make a documentary film from this material in the future. It all remains to be seen.“

Photos: Nancy, Gísli’s friend, can be seen in all of his photos here. In the main photo she’s with her friend Sukjal. And at the bar she’s with friends Anurak and Woraqhum.

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