Luca Desienna / My Dearest Javanese Concubine

Posted March 28, 2012

EXPLICIT CONTENT: may not be suitable for all audiences.
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Luca Desienna is based in London.

One of the most controversial love story ever told… the story of Tira and Gunawan.

Tira was a pre-op 48 years old transgender disfigured by repeated surgical operation, Gunawan an outcast street boy with no family and no job to hold to. Both were living in Muslim Indonesia, and struggling through an uneasy life made of poverty, HIV, desires, carnality, sadness, abandonment, alcohol, religion, love and mortality.

They met each other many years ago while working on the streets of Jogiakarta, Central Java, and since then they shared everything—their dwelling, their pains, their hopes… their illnesses.

They lived in a squatted courtyard near an airport, just off a very busy junction, battling everyday through poverty, inequality, abuses, intolerance and sickness, but still managing to taste blissful moments of tenderness and glances of happiness.

However the connection between love and death, here is a constant—Gunawan is aware of Tira’s HIV but he has unprotected sex with her. He stopped minding about it and gave himself up to the consequences. ‘I let God decides’ he once told me. This could be seen as an act of idiocy or as the ultimate act of love. However I don’t think anyone has the right to judge it.

To enter Tira and Gunawan’s world is to enter a place where there are no anchors, no comparisons, and no judgements. Among all the drama and pain, their existence is a solemn proclamation to the true meaning of love. Their life also questions our meaning of beauty and the male-female gender binary system upon which our societies are built.

During one of the first meetings, Tira told me: “Luca, people don’t know what I am, and they don’t want to know… they just stop at the entrance and stay there, staring… staring at the surface.”

I had the privilege to enter Tira and Gunawan’s world, and to go beneath the surface, to a world made of pain, joy, intolerance, poverty, scars, prostitution, mortality and God. It was not an easy life, but it was one where Tira and Gun still managed, among all the drama, to retain a joie de vivre. In that small space that they call their home, it doesn’t matter if people don’t see them or can’t accept who they have become, because in that four square meter microcosm, they can be themselves.

There the claustrophobia loses its confinement and becomes an endless reach. Life in those four square meters was devoured savagely.  They fought, played, ate, enjoyed, loved, sang, prayed, danced, had sex and got drunk. That was the real world. Everything else that was happening outside was only a background chatter.

Their drama is touchable. You can smell it, hear it, feel it.

My Dearest Javanese Concubine is the story of that drama… a story where people who are seen as marginalized misfits become modern heroes—heroes who have struck a pathway through what we regard as normal and accepted—a love story that shows us that love can be a bond that rises against everything.

—In memory of Tira Yohanes Soepomo, October 17, 1967—May 31, 2011

—Assistants: Andy Aw, Rulli Mallai



Although Jogiakarta is known as a fairly tolerant city, the transgenders still have to face a great degree of problems and struggles, primarily for economic sustenance. The majority of them unfortunately end up working as prostitutes because they clearly have no other choice, but also those that have established businesses are forced once in a while to resource from escorting and prostitution.

This causes a strings of serious concerns, above all for HIV. In fact, it is customary that the punters demand no condoms and that the transgenders find themselves torn between losing a client and maintaining their personal health. It’s a choice that most of the time is driven by their need for money.

In the city of Jogiakarta there are 228 transgenders and most of them are Muslims, and 31 are registered as HIV positive.  There are associations like Ponpes Al-Fatah Waria and Kebaja that actively inform their members of the HIV consequences and precautions.

Ponpes Al-Fatah Waria is the first ever Islamic School for transgenders. Waria is an Indonesian term for transgendered people. It’s derived from the words wanita (woman) and pria (man). The school does weekly teachings and prayer free of charge for the local warias. They are taught and directed by two local Imams.



Luca Desienna is an award-winning photographer based in London. He received many awards such as the Px3 People’s Choice Award in 2010, 1st Prize Winner at Simulacrum Photo Contest judged by Richard Billingham, 1st Prize MEET MY WORLD photo contest and an official selection at VOIES Off 2011. In addition he was shortlisted for the Photographers’ Master Cup, he received an Honorable Mention at the 2011 LENS CULTURE Exposure Awards and the Spider Black and White Award 2008, he was also selected as a finalist at the Best of Photography Annual 2008, and shortlisted for the 2008 Travel Photographer of The Year.

His photography appeared in magazines such as The British Journal of Photography, Vanity Fair, Intelligence in Lifestyle, Kult Magazine, Vanidad, Genis Aci, Eyemazing, No Name, a-n, Gomma, XL, VICE and Time Out.

He exhibited throughout Europe and has taken part in numerous art fairs and collective exhibitions, including the FOTO8 Summer Show and the Padova Art Fair. In addition he was juror of various awards, such as the Photolucida Critical Mass and the Crestock Photo Contest. Among his recent job highlights Luca was the ad campaign photographer for Diesel U Music 2009/2010 and was the editor of Gomma Magazine from 2004 to 2007.

Luca is the co-owner and Chief Editor of Gomma Online and Gomma Books Ltd, respectively a popular online portal for photographers and a bijou publishing house, specializing in high quality collectible photo books. Gomma was established in 2004. Luca is also the brains behind MONO, an hardback photo book showcasing the best contemporary black and white photographers (to be published in fall 2012).