When Christer Strömholm arrived in Paris during the 1950s he didn’t set his sights on the landmarks of the French Capital, instead, he headed towards the city’s darkened streets and cobbled communes. The photographer found a home with the transgender women of Paris at a commune known as ‘Place Blanche’ and there he surrounded himself amid his muses.
His images are a stark reminder of the humanity behind the label and, while he gathered the grand images of the women around him, he also found some of his closest friends. Drenched in animosity and vulnerability as well as strength and compassion, Strömholm’s images still feel as relevant today as they were revolutionary in the 1980s when he released his book.
Strömholm collated all the pictures in his excellent 1983 book Les Amies de Place Blanche and, in it, he wrote: “This is a book about the quest for self-identity, about the right to live, about the right to own and control one’s body. These are images of people whose lives I shared and whom I think I understood. This is where I arrived in 1959. This is where I settled and started to tell of the life I shared with the transsexuals. They soon became ‘the friends of Place Blanche’.”
He added: “After the sun had set, the air cooled down. At the time when shadows stretched, we could catch glimpses of prostitutes walking out of alleys. Big and beautiful women. Some of them exceeded in height their hope-swollen clients. Surrounded by circuses, freaks and snakes, the prostitutes stood there in the buildings’ shadows, keeping a constant eye on the boulevard, the shows and the clients.
“Midway through January, when the fairground people set off again, the boulevard went back to normal – the party was over. On the boulevard and in the alleys surrounding place Pigalle and place Blanche, the prostitutes – both male and female, lesbians, transsexuals, transvestites or in other words: the usual group – took back their old spots.
“Prostitution was as active as it used to be at the end of the 19th century. Organised prostitution happened all year long. A desperate fight, both to earn the daily bread and, for transsexuals, to see their identitarian dreams come true.
“These beautiful ladies dreamt of travelling to Casablanca to undergo surgery. The outcome of a transformation started a long time ago. These women were biologically born as men. They lived here, in the place Blanche neighbourhood. They worked in cabarets, sang, did stripteases. They were outspoken and they answered back immediately to the public, it was a typical Parisian tradition. A cocky and saucy sense of humour.
“They earned 60 French francs a day, enough to pay for the food and the hotel room but not enough to afford the 40,000 francs surgery. The streets were their only solution. Some of them had loyal customers, others stood in the same place on the street. Here, prostitution was part of the neighbourhood life. A way to survive.”
“At the time of the Commune, there already were transvestites on the place Blanche. But it was in the late 50s that the word ‘transsexual’ began to be used. It was also at that time that it became possible for a man to physically become a woman thanks to hormones and surgery. But hormone therapy has also been the cause of tragedies. Often they were denied the help of a doctor. So they had to fend for themselves.”
“My friends lived together in a world apart, a world of shadows and loneliness, anxiety, hopelessness and alienation. The only thing they demanded was to have the right to be themselves, not to be forced to deny or repress their feelings, to have the right to live their own lives, to be responsible, to be at ease with themselves.
“Nothing more. It was then – and still is – about attaining the right to own one’s own life and identity.”
All photographs are © Christer Strömholm.