Let me tell you about Tira Yohanes Soepomo. She lived in the Muslim city of Jogiakarta in Central Java, Indonesia. She was a transsexual identifying as female, though her body was paused mid-transition. Having undergone repeated, and often fluffed, surgeries, her face was striking for its pronounced and irregular features—a mirror held up to her gruelling journey through gender reassignment.
She was also infected with HIV, and her physical health was deteriorating. Whilst living on the streets, Tira met Dayang, an abandoned street boy with no job, home or family. Here were two outcasts, ostracized by their communities and living in society’s peripheries. Together, they fell in love and moved into a six-square metre squatted courtyard next to the airport. They shared everything; their home, their dreams, their fears and, ultimately, each other.
Photographer Luca Desienna encountered Tira and Dayang in 2010 whilst working on a project exploring the city’s transgender community. He recalls witnessing them for the first time: “Dayang was sleeping on the mattress on the floor. After a short while, Tira sat beside him and, by the way she lowered down close to him, I felt their unique bond. She sat down as a lioness would sit beside her beloved—a mixture of tenderness and protection, and a distrust of the outside”.
Desienna scrapped his plans of leaving Indonesia after the couple invited him to enter their world. They trusted him to unveil their lives, their naked bodies and their love. As Tira explained to Desienna during one of their first exchanges, “People don’t know what I am, and they don’t want to know… they just stop at the entrance and stay there, staring…”
“From the wildness of their drunken lovemaking to the hushed reverence of their prayers, we follow the couple through the most intimate of daily rituals”
Desienna’s newly-published book My Dearest Javanese Concubine is a penetrating vision of Tira and Dayang’s relationship over the period of two years—revealed from the inside. While one might find certain clichés here—the “maverick” and the “vagabond”; two marginalized misfits colliding in their desperate situations to fall into a shocking and doomed love affair—it is not long before the lovers turn from characters to people, their bodies humanized under the weight of time and human destiny. Desienna transports us to a place beyond the surface and the scars, presenting a visceral portrait of a deep-seated love between two humans.
From the wildness of their drunken lovemaking to the hushed reverence of their prayers, we follow the couple through the most intimate of their daily rituals. Their battles with rejection, poverty and sickness are interwoven with blissful moments of affection and glances of joy. Dayang was aware of Tira’s invisible yet deadly illness, but this never curbed his love for her. Baring as much the resilience as the fragility of their special bond, the images radiate their ceaseless passion for life—no matter how finite their days and nights together may have been.
There’s no hiding that the lovers were aware of Desienna’s lens, and even desired it. In a series of consecutive burst shots, we see the naked couple up against the wall playing for the camera, embracing, fondling, kissing. At other times, they euphorically break into song and dance; it is clear that they recognized the confined territory occupied between the lens and the outside world. That was their stage—at its centre their single and worn mattress.
Nowhere else could Tira and Dayang have unashamedly revelled in the same freedom that they created within those four walls. Shunning even the slightest glimmer of daylight, it was only in their bedroom that they felt protected from the intolerant gaze of society. It was an underground place where inhibitions were lost, and passions embraced.
Everything else beyond was merely fading background noise. Through the beauty, empathy and tenderness in which the images have been taken and presented in book form, we are invited to embrace the normality of their relationship—a diary which is no longer a secret, and which has no reason to be.
“For all the loving and living that blossomed from the darkness of their squat, some flames are destined to burn only for a brief instant”
Yet, for all the loving and living that blossomed from the darkness of their squat, some flames are destined to burn only for a brief instant. Here is the self-destructive and tragic anchor point of the story: two lovers, totally and unconditionally infatuated by one another, yet not in control of their own destinies. With the whole world seemingly stacked against them, we cannot ignore the sense of an impending blow-out.
The book’s closing images are suffused with melancholy and hit the guts. The couple—never have we seen them so far away from the lens—stand beneath a poorly-lit shelter outside their home. The tone of their exchange is solemn. What are they saying? A pillow, stained with spots of blood, is thrown on a hospital bed. Next, we see Dayang strolling through the bustling street at night, sober, dejected, lost. In his hand, Tira’s ukulele.
In 2012, Tira passed away. Ultimately, in spite of the sincerity of lovers’ dreams, it was a loss that was destined from the beginning. My Dearest Javanese Concubine is a tale of passion, elation, hardship, pain and ultimately death. Though perhaps, above all, it is a tale about courage—the courage to fight for the fundamental yearnings that others often take for granted. As Tira once confessed, “All I wanted was what every other human being wants”. To be free in one’s own body, and to be recognized as human. To be witnessed, and remembered.
All images by Luca Desienna from the book My Dearest Javanese Concubine. Courtesy Blow Up Press
My Dearest Javanese Concubine
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