Jill Peters’ first encounter with the eunuchs of India was in 2007 when she was on her way to Ladakh. “It was my first trip to India and I was with a guide. He was very negative and told me to stay away,” says Peters, “So of course I didn’t,” she adds. In 2013, the 45-year-old spent two months meeting members, organisers and leaders of the hijra community.
“I began to see a personal side to their public persona. I saw beautiful human beings trapped in the harsh light of prejudice and judgment. I wanted to take them out of that state and show them in the way I saw them,” says Peters. Her endeavour has resulted in “Nirvan, the Third Gender of India”, a series of staged portraits taken in a Mumbai studio and Marve Beach, depicting eunuchs in all their regality and poise.
The photographs exude a vintage charm and urge the viewer to question sexuality as defined and limited by stigma and prejudice. Having contributed to various US-based publications, taken portrait shots of Hollywood actors such as Angelina Jolie, and exhibited in New York and San Francisco, the photographer’s main work involves the subjects of gender and sexuality. “Coming from the West where we have a very narrow view of gender, I am intrigued with the way different cultures perceive gender and sexuality outside the binary. I am also fascinated with gender in a historical context and concentrate on documented populations,” says Peters, who divides her time between Miami and New York.
With overwhelming support from friends and organisations such as Mumbai-based Humsafar Trust, Peters’ project looks at the subjects in neither a pitiful light, nor with anger. The portraits are absolved of all the background stories of each subject. We see them sitting against a maroon studio curtain and adorned in artificial jewellery and ornate saris. We also see them in breezy chhifon saris against the sea. “Maybe we are looking at the past, or maybe the future. That is for the viewer to reflect upon,” says Peters. The series is available for viewing on jillpetersphotography. com, and has never been exhibited in India, but Peters hopes to bring it to the country soon. Her explorations have also led her to direct the critically acclaimed documentary, Sworn Virgins of Albania, which explores the “sworn virgins”, a term given to women in the Balkans who choose to take on the social identities of men for life to enjoy rights and privileges of male population. “My intent is to open a dialogue that challenges our long-held beliefs about gender norms by looking outside our own culture.
By doing this, maybe we can come to recognise that we are all living within the same spectrum of natural human variance, whether we find ourselves planted firmly in the black and white, or a gray area somewhere in between,” she says. Her upcoming project will take her to the Fa’afafines, the third-gendered people of Samoa.