In Indonesia, where 90% of the population are practicing Muslims, openly identifying as transgender becomes even more complex. Italian photographer Fulvio Bugani explored what it means to be both Muslim and transgender through his documentary work in Java.

After covering a variety of stories in Senegal, and the end of Ramadan on an island near Somalia, Bugani became curious about the possibility of a transgender community within the Muslim religion. After some research, he discovered a community in Indonesia where transgendered people are known as Waria, a term which is a combination of two Indonesian words: wanita, which means woman, and pria, which means man.

Focusing his reportage on Shinta Ratri (35), the director and the leader of the Muslim Waria in Java, Jakarta, Bugani came to know the Waria community. He discovered how Ratri serves as an inspiration for many young boys who wish to become women, while simultaneously working as the director of the Qur’anic school for Muslim transgendered people in Java. Thus, Ratri has created a duel space in which Muslim transgender can both meet and pray, without discrimination.

Despite Ratri’s efforts, the Waria community continues to face extreme difficulty in presenting their chosen identities to the world. As sexual reassignment surgery is often far too expensive for the average person, Waria usually retain their male reproductive organs. The few who can afford an operation have their breasts done, while others face a painful, unsanitary practice where the silicone is forced straight under the skin.

Similarly, earning a living proves difficult. Some of them are street performers, but many are prostitutes. There is a street where they work inside bars or restaurants. “At the end of the evening the customers are drunk, and they can’t understand if the girls are Waria or women. So, the Waria go with these drunk men, and earn money in this way, facing significant risks of HIV and other sexual diseases,” Bugani said.

As a documentary photographer, Bugani’s mission is share other people’s stories with the world. The recognition he received through the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2015—as well as his exposure at World Press Photo—proved immensely meaningful:

I’m very happy because the school needs support and recognition from foreigners, because within Indonesia, it’s not so easy. Members of the community are very proud because the story is presented in the right way—as reportage. These portraits are a way for them to present their female face to the world. They are very proud to be women, and very proud to be Muslims. It is an incredible sentiment.

Besides personal work, Bugani also receives commissions by working with Amnesty International and Médecins sans frontières. In all of these projects, Bugani sees photography as a significant means of communication: “It will be a pleasure to work with them again. I want to continue to tell stories—not just for me, but also for the people in these communities. I like to be both an activist and a photographer.”

—Fulvio Bugani, Lauren Sarazen