In the intimate seclusion of a studio space, two women sit, arms linked around one another. Illuminated by the pink glow of a projected photograph of a married couple on their wedding day, the two women wear black and white; one of them loosely holds a bouquet.
What does desire look like in a feminine queer relationship? Chinese-Singaporean photographer Charmaine Poh began investigating this question as a graduate student at Freie Universität Berlin, through her series of staged studio scenes.
Jean and Xener in “How They Love” (2019). Credit: Charmaine Poh
Titled “How They Love,” the series documents Singaporean couples in front of one of their parents’s wedding portraits. Adorned in traditional marital props such as flowers and veils, Poh asks her subjects to present themselves as they wished within the rituals of traditional matrimony. “What are people attracted to in terms of queerness? Can you see desire?” she asked, over a video call from her home. “Is romance manifested in a different way than in heteronormative (relationships)?”
As a queer woman, Poh began “How They Love” in order to expand the visual narratives of a broader range of sexualities and gender expressions; a majority of stories she’d seen about the LGBTQ community in Asia were limited to cisgender gay men. These portraits also explore how LGBTQ people form their identities in a nation that has not yet recognized their rights.
Recently, courts in Singapore upheld a law that criminalizes sex between two men: Penal Code 377A, which descends from British colonial law and has been challenged as unconstitutional over the years, but has yet to be overturned. With this law still in place, LGBTQ people have no legal rights, which limits their access to public housing and health insurance, and complicates medical decisions and adoption processes for couples.
“It has arguably never been more accepted to be queer, and yet the tide has not yet turned,” Poh writes in the project’s thesis. “The state continues to monitor and marginalize this identity to various degrees, giving rise to a community that has formed, and continues to form, its identity through self-determination.”
Joy in “How They Love” (2019). Credit: Charmaine Poh
Poh has long been interested in the concept of performativity and influenced by the ideas of sociologist Erving Goffman and theorist Judith Butler, who have argued that identity is something actively constructed rather than inherent. The medium of photography lends itself perfectly to this. On set with her subjects, Poh becomes part of the orchestrated scene as she tries to distill deep truths about her subjects through multiple layers of performativity.
“Performance was part of my practice even before this project,” said Poh. “I’ve been concerned with how people become who they are.” In an earlier series, she photographed young women — herself included — in their bedrooms, wearing their school uniforms as they wrote letters to their younger selves. As with “How They Love,” these meditations on the passage from girlhood to womanhood take place in a similarly sequestered, safe environment. These works zero in on how individual identity emerges, even while their surrounding parameters remain the same.
Sy and Jonit in “How They Love” (2018). Credit: Charmaine Poh
Though Poh explores physical desire between the couples — in her portrait of Ele and Lee, the two women lay facing each other, rose petals scattered, the space between them full of tender yearning — the series also speaks to a broader sense of desire.
“(There’s) a sense of some kind of dream, or a future utopia,” Poh said. The studio became a space of both comfort and imagination, where each couple could fully be themselves away from the real world.
“A lot of them live with families that don’t accept who they are,” Poh explained. “So the idea of the studio came…and (I started) thinking about how it’s a safe space; how they’re different in this space.” The vast majority of housing in Singapore is managed by the government, and residents cannot purchase property unless they are married or above the age of 35. “The timeline and the life that you live is definitely so different,” Poh noted of LGBTQ life in Singapore.
Charm and Joy in “How They Love” (2019). Credit: Charmaine Poh
Approaching this series as a collaboration, Poh interviews each couple ahead of the shoot. She asks them how they want to be depicted and which props they want to use.
Sometimes, she uses their personal memories to inform the direction. “(We’d) talk about the way they came out to their parents, or how they felt on their first date. Sometimes we recreated the positions that they were in,” she said. “It was a way to place them in a certain moment of solitude; a private moment on this set.”
That sense of intimacy is palpable in each image. In one frame, Joy, who is transmasculine, holds their girlfriend, Charm, close to them while Charm gazes at the camera over her shoulder. Joy told Poh that it’s only within the last year that they’ve become comfortable with their gender identity, and since being with Joy — her first non-heteronormative relationship — Charm has come into her own as a queer woman.
In another image, Sy and Jonit recline together in front of a wedding portrait of Sy’s parents. When they met, Jonit had never been in a relationship before, and Sy fell in love with her on their long, meandering walks to Jonit’s home. “We’d walk from Holland Village to Dover…just to spend more time with each other,” Sy told Poh. “I would purposely say, ‘Let’s walk along the outside area,’ just so it’d be longer.”
Poh is currently seeking grants to expand “How They Love,” hoping to include more nonbinary people and nontraditional relationships in the series. “The majority of the people I interviewed still want marriage and monogamous relationships, and usually one of them is more masculine presenting and the other is more feminine presenting,” she said. “I think there’s definitely room for that, but I also want to see what other kinds of expressions there are.”