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Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert: Gender as a Spectrum

By: Amanda Sandström Beijer

Photos by: Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert. Photos on Joseph: Eileen Jordan

With an eye for beauty, Joseph captures the essence of being human, whether a lover, a friend or someone he recently met. It’s the warmth behind the lens that shines through, and the ’leaving people be’.

This often amounts to a statement in today’s society – the people who just are and have fought their way to an ability to just be. It’s an opposite to what society represents - the framework of being like everyone else and fitting into the thin norm.

In his book ’Gender as a Spectrum’, Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert captures everyone from drag queens and kings to trans men and women, to those identifying as genderqueer.

He was born in the South of Germany and decided to move to Berlin over a decade ago.

”I wanted to study art. Art has been part of my life since kindergarten. Beauty in all its forms, design and aesthetics. Berlin might not be beautiful at first sight but it’s a good melting point for everyone who likes to explore how to live on the edge. Mentally and physically. To me, that’s where art begins.”

Having seen the city's transformation over the last 12 years, makes Joseph able to see the energies that remain the same, as well as the ones that have changed since he first got here.

”Berlin offers you all possibilities. That said, I had to learn where to say no as there is so much going on. In a city that’s so full of options, you need to define what you want to be able to get it. Yes, the excess is part of the city. You can find your safe space, but you must be open for it before you can do so, or you’ll get lost in confusion.”

”Berlin can be harsh. When you fall – the world will continue circling around you, and that can make you feel lost. But Berlin doesn’t judge. You have to get up on your feet by yourself. And that’s when Berlin is ready to welcome you again. Sometimes I wanted to blame Berlin for things that made my life hard. But in the end, it’s like the city just puts a mirror in front of your face. But it’s beautiful in its own form. I often think about this sentence that the MICHELBERGER hotel at Warschauer Straße had at the front of their entrance for quite some time: ’I know I am ugly, but I glow at night’.

It’s clear that Joseph has fallen apart, built himself up and restarted the whole process over again. Yet, he’s not ready to leave for good.

”I always say, you must leave Berlin to be able to come back to Berlin. It’s a love hate relationship. I realized I need my time off sometimes and every time I return I fall in love again.”

Joseph defines himself as a romantic and sensitive person, something you don’t expect before having met him, if you have only seen photos. Yet the minute you come into his sphere, even you will soften up.

”I started with photography with a single use camera, while partying and clubbing with my friends.

I always had a big circle of people around me. Friends, fellows, lovers… I am a very sensitive, romantic person. It came from the urge of wanting to keep them. For just a bit longer. Time goes by so fast, but if I take a photo, I can keep the illusion that the moment or the person I photograph is going to be with me forever.”

Although the sensitiveness, as you can imagine, is a contrast to the rustic and brutalist side of the city.

”When it comes to how the city has influenced my art, it made me get to the point, be more direct. Ask yourself ’What do you want to tell?’ Put it out. And see what it does with you and with others.”

It took three years to finalize the photography book ’Gender as A Spectrum’. Seeing it, feeling it and reading it, you discover the world through Joseph's eyes. The soft sides, sad sides, vulnerable sides as well as the proud, fierce and strong togetherness that drives a project of this size.

”Kaey, my co-author, asked me if I wanted to do some photo project about people who are trans. I had something similar in mind and we just got together and made it happen somehow. Kaey is very well connected in the LGBTQAI+ Community and helped me a lot understanding how different people can be. I’m still learning from her, and I feel lucky to have been able to meet people that inspire me, such as the ones I’ve met through the book.”

”I always felt that there is more than what society taught us. How we must behave or feel. I was more feminine in my younger years, and at one point when I reached my teenage years, I tried to hide it. The book was a way to reconnect with my feminine side. When I was a little boy, I loved mermaids and unicorns, and I was wearing jewelry and dresses. I wanted to embrace this side of myself, that I somehow felt I had lost. To understand that I am the one who decides who I am. I thought I wanted to be a girl back then but now I have come to realize that I already was that little girl, and that she’s still inside of me. To realize that my gender is fluid and that it’s independent from appearance, was one of my personal enlightenments.”

The book features shots of people from all around the globe. The thing they have in common, is that they define stereotypical binary gender roles. Coming across the knowledge of gender-fluent people existing, even thriving, is something that can be a life-saving knowledge for many people who feel alone and as outsiders their whole life.

”I think I would have felt seen, had I come across a book like this myself when growing up. To know that I’m part of something greater that is waiting for me outside, would have meant a lot to me. I felt it, but a book like this probably would have helped me more reach the community-feeling which can give you so much strength and power.”

”One of my favorite quotes is also on the back of my book. It’s from Kay Garnellen and says: ’theoretically, every person could have their own gender.


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