Marvel Harris is a Dutch photographer whose art draws deeply from his personal journey. As an autistic, transgender individual who identifies as genderqueer, he addresses ongoing mental health challenges in his photography. His work affords a unique and intimate view into his life experiences.
How and when did you become interested in photography?
I began my journey with photography around 2014. Right from the start I was interested in taking self-portraits. I also took photos of dogs, cats, and nature, but self-portraiture was something I felt deeply fascinated by, and I gained insights from friends who were also involved in self-portraiture. Another thing that brought me to photography was the fact that I used to dance a lot, but because of being underweight due to the struggle with my eating disorder, I wasn’t allowed to dance anymore. Dancing had been a way to express myself and let go of certain emotions or tension in my body. The inability to dance prompted me to explore other ways of self-expression, and self-portraiture became a significant aid in this pursuit. Undergoing intensive treatment for my eating disorder resulted in me missing a considerable amount of school. Consequently, I had to repeat two years of high school. Witnessing my classmates get progressively younger was frustrating, which led me to seek alternatives to complete my education outside the traditional high school structure. An acquaintance introduced me to the Nederlandse Fotovakschool. I applied, got accepted, and studied photography there. In retrospect, I think it worked out well for me in the end.
Can you tell us a bit about your project “Inner Journey”?
During my time at the Nederlandse Fotovakschool, I was still struggling a lot with my mental health, though the reasons remained unclear. I was constantly plagued by recurring issues and a lack of improvement. In my second year at the photography school, my mental struggle escalated to the point of suicidal thoughts. Together with my teachers and my parents, we agreed it was best for me to take a year off. During this gap year, I picked up my camera whenever I felt a need to vent any distressing emotion. Gradually, I realized my issues extended beyond my eating disorder and were connected with the way that I felt in my own body. Self-portraiture helped me get to grips with this discomfort. I identified my feelings as stemming from gender dysphoria. (Gender dysphoria is a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. This sense of unease or dissatisfaction may be so intense it can lead to depression and anxiety and have a harmful impact on daily life.) The more I educated myself about gender dysphoria and gender identity, the more I recognized that these issues applied to me.
Photography served as a powerful tool in comprehending and navigating the associated emotions. I showed the photos I had taken to my therapist, who subsequently gained a deeper understanding of my struggle. While I could spend hours articulating my feelings, my facial expression remained neutral, leading others to underestimate the severity of my suffering. The realization that I could express my anguish through photography marked the starting point of my project. I named the project “Inner Journey,” because that was exactly what it felt like and the name reflected the intimate and transformative nature of what I was going through. My therapist suggested that my photos might resonate with others facing similar challenges, which motivated me to start sharing my work online in 2017. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with many individuals seeing their experiences reflected in my work. As I continued to share my creations, the project grew in scope and influence. However, I find myself more apprehensive about sharing my work online today than in 2017 due to the increased hostility towards the LGBTQIA+ community on the internet. While such online hate likely existed back then, it didn’t seem as prevalent as it feels today.
Have you faced any unique challenges or obstacles in your career as a photographer that are
connected to your personal journey as an autistic, genderqueer, and transgender individual?
I am autistic. I see and experience the world differently and I think that this significantly shapes my artistic expression. Taking self-portraits appeals to me as it allows me to take control over the environment, including the extent of external stimuli. I also strive to remain authentic to my vision: a particular instance comes to mind. At the Nederlandse Fotovakschool, my teachers suggested that I photograph others instead of solely focusing on self-portraits, but I stuck with what felt most meaningful to me. Despite the potential disagreements, my approach proved successful in the end. I won a contest upon completing my time at school, which provided the funding for my first exhibition prints and my book. Admittedly, I still feel insecurities as a person sometimes but I view them as a source of strength as well. I make a conscious effort to be as honest as possible with myself. I am trying to show different aspects of what it is like to grow up as a human on this earth. Everyone has a different perspective on life and my work is an attempt to share mine. I am very emotional, and as an autistic individual, my mind can sometimes be my biggest challenge or my greatest asset. Regardless, I’ve come to accept that it’s okay how I am.
What are you currently working on? Are there any new projects coming our way?
I’m currently in the final stages of a new project. This work centers around the relationship I have shared with my cats, particularly during the pandemic. During that period of isolation, my cats provided significant comfort, helping me navigate my struggles with mental health and moments of profound despair. They seemed to intuit my lowest points and offered solace, serving as distractions from my intrusive thoughts. As I took self-portraits, they would often intrude into the frame, which I initially found annoying. However, upon reviewing the images, I was struck by the interesting dynamic of their attempts to comfort me, which led me to include them in my documentation. I shared the work with Sybren Kuiper, a Dutch graphic designer, who suggested creating a second book based on these photographs. I’m hopeful that it can be published soon.
You have published the photobook “MARVEL” together with MACK. Can you tell us about the
editing process and how the collaboration came about?
The editing process of the book was a collaboration with Sybren Kuiper, and I initially self-published it. Through a crowdfunding campaign, I secured the necessary funds for publication. Sybren suggested that I enter the MACK First Book Award, which I did in November 2020. One day, while I was shopping for a new camera, I received a call from Michael Mack informing me that I had won. The excitement was overwhelming. Following this, the book was published in its first edition by MACK in August 2021.
What kind of impact would you wish for your works to make on others?
I sincerely hope that my work helps others to feel less alone. Additionally, I aspire to influence perspectives on transgender, autistic, and LGBTQIA+ individuals. We are all human, each navigating our own unique struggles in life. My hope is for a world that embraces kindness and equality, despite our differences. While I acknowledge this aspiration may be idealistic, I remain hopeful for a world that displays more compassion. I want people to understand that the attributes that make us different can also make us beautiful and unique.
Can you share a moment with us that has significantly impacted your artistic journey and that you look back on fondly?
One significant memory is when Mack called me to announce that I’d won the First Book Award. Another impactful aspect has been the heartfelt messages I’ve received. Individuals share their personal experiences with me, which is so deeply touching that it often moves me to tears. These exchanges inspire me to continue sharing my work and persist with the project. The drive and emotion they instill in me are beyond words. Although it may seem like a small thing, it truly means the world to me.
What advice would you give to other aspiring photographers?
A piece of advice that I’ve discussed with my teachers, and one that resonates strongly with me, is this: If you’re doing something you love, even if you feel you’re not very good at it, keep on going. Improvement is always possible. Stay authentic and have faith in yourself. If you believe in yourself, you can bring the change you wish to see and create something that brings you joy and has personal significance. You have to be able to dismiss what others think or say about you, particularly when their words discourage your authenticity. However, this doesn’t apply to constructive feedback. Constructive criticism is valuable and beneficial, but it should never compel you to alter the essence of yourself or your work to please someone else.