JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Blow Up Press (here). Softcover (16.5 x 23.5 cm), 204 pages, with 132 color and black and white images. Includes texts by Francesco Franchina Grasso and the artist. Design by Aneta Kowalczyk. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: The Catanese red-light district of San Berillo, in Italy, once Europe’s largest open brothel, is a well-known haven for marginalized communities. Decades of failures in urban planning have aggravated the situation there, with prostitution, illegal occupations, and degradation mixed together in uneasy coexistence. Many of the prostitutes in San Berillo are transvestites and transsexuals, with more than few fleeing precarious situations like discrimination in the workplace, homophobia in the family, or simply the desperate need to make a living. In Glitter Blues, the Italian photographer Lorenzo Castore offers a rare glimpse into the lives of some of these Sicilian transvestites living and working in San Berillo. He introduces us to the “girls” – Franchina, Cioccolatina, Lulù, Ramona, and Graziella, to name a few – with whom he developed a friendship that became even more solid and engaged over time.
The project started back in 2004 when a friend invited Castore to visit, and slowly, as he met people and got to know them, it turned into a long term series. The situation in the transvestite community is particularly interesting given the backdrop of the Saint Agatha festival, which commemorates the life of the city’s patron saint. According to the story, the 15-year-old Saint Agatha of Sicily refused to abandon her faith and rejected a Roman governor’s advances. As punishment, her breasts were amputated, and she died a martyr. Castore says that he associated Saint Agatha with the “girls”, to whom “nature had not granted breasts but excess genitals, which had caused, in spite of themselves, a conflicting personal identity and too often had left them as objects of bigoted discrimination.”
Glitter Blues is quite exciting as a photobook. It has a glowing orange cover and the title appears in the same color, just slightly embossed, creating a more tactile experience. The book has a beautiful open spine, showing the stitches and the signature block. Inside, the photographs are printed full bleed, and appear in both black and white and color; occasionally spreads unfold revealing extra layers, and there are no captions, or page numbers, inviting us to focus on its visual flow. Two essays, by Francesco Franchina Grasso and by the artist, elegantly appear at the very end, closing the book. Castore notes that “this story is not only poetic. It’s also a story of suffering for a rejected identity. Often it is also a story of misery.”
Glitter Blues begins with a sequence of images presented as a leporello. Black and white images capture landscapes covered in a cloud of fog. This is Mount Etna. Then a small portrait, placed at the center, shows a young man in swim shorts sitting on the rocks as he looks straight into the camera. With this striking opening, Castore takes us to Sicily.
Castore’s photos are often grainy, blurry, and deliberately out of focus, aiming to convey an atmosphere full of emotions, expressive moments, and energy. The images collected in the book follow the “girls” in their ordinary days, from morning till night. One of the first portraits shows a woman standing in an apartment, a dog on her right is caught barking and a painting of a woman in a bikini on the left adds a gentle touch. A few pages in, we encounter the same person, standing outside as the light falls on him – this time the outfit and body language is more masculine. These daily transformations are elegantly interwoven throughout the narrative, and we then follow as he moves through the city to the San Berillo district.
A color portrait of one of the girls showing half of her face from behind a metal door, this time in full make-up and red outfit, signals that we have arrived. The area of the district is rather small, just four streets, yet these narrow, maze-like passageways, with overgrown trees and dilapidated buildings, feel like a jungle. Down these streets, the mood also changes, becoming more intimate and vibrant. Many of the photos show the “girls” in their bedrooms and outside as they get ready or pose. A spread pairs two photographs of one of the “girls” posing in a bedroom, shot with a curtain in the frame, creating a sense that we are allowed to watch. The spread unfolds revealing a sequence of seven vertical images showing her as she takes off her stockings. Then we see her lying on a bed as she smiles looking back at us.
Castore makes repeated rounds, moving between the rooms, trying to stay invisible so as not to disturb his subjects while they are with clients. He is interested in capturing their quiet moments, and also spent time with them celebrating birthdays, going for walks, playing bingo, and visiting the cemetery. Castore’s photographs empathetically reveal their humanity and vulnerability.
In his essay, Castore shares a little bit more about people he met, yet he doesn’t identify them directly in the photographs, leaving it to us to complete the puzzle. Ramona lives and works at the same place, and can decide when to attract clients. Ciccolatina (Antonio) usually has lunch at home with her sister, and then takes over from Ornella (Fabio) in the afternoon (as they share a room). Lulù (Marcello), who Castore met in 2014, has a reserved personality, “her femininity was so natural that even the family accepted her with ease”, even her father used to call her “my little girl”. Lulu’s case is a rare exception, however, as most of them are rejected by their families, and go through ongoing dramatic battles. There is a strong sense of belonging in the community, and this space allows their identities to bloom.
A number of notable photographers sensitively documented the daily lives of transvestites and prostitutes. Jane Evelyn Atwood spent years with Parisian sex workers in 1970s. Christer Strömholm’s photobook Les Amies de Place Blanche offers compelling portraits of transsexuals, capturing their pride. And more recently, Txema Salvans spent almost a decade photographing sex workers standing on the side of Catalan roads waiting for customers.
Glitter Blues is a small, yet unpretentious and joyful publication. It is a moving tribute to people who “live to be accepted for who they are, to have the freedom to be themselves with all the contradictions that this brings”. As a photobook object, it is beautiful and elegant, echoing the spirit of its resilient subjects.
Collector’s POV: Lorenzo Castore does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).