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Identity

Texas Isaiah Wants to Make Photography Fair

"I want young trans folks to know they deserve to participate in their fullest creative expression."
March 27, 2019, 5:10pm

Broadly has launched the Gender Spectrum Collection, a stock photo library featuring more than 150 images of trans and non-binary models, in an effort to improve the representation of transgender and non-binary people in media. View and download them for free here.

Texas Isaiah has ideas for the future of photography. When he first began taking photos, the California-based photographer from Brooklyn noticed something that didn't sit well with him: photographers were paid for taking images, galleries were paid for displaying and selling those images, but why was it that the actual people in the images often weren't paid?

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As a Black trans person, Texas Isaiah believes "it would be a dishonor to continue this method," and is dedicated to figuring out how to compensate everyone involved in bringing a photo to life. "I have all the capacity in the world for this," he tells Broadly.

And that's exactly what sets Texas Isaiah apart: a deep, intentional care for the wellbeing of his subjects—one that is visible in his rich, unforgettable photos. Broadly spoke to Texas Isaiah about his work, Black trans visibility, and what truly fair compensation looks like.

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BROADLY: You've often mentioned the importance of how the subject in a photograph relates to photography and the space they're in. Why is that so important to you?
TEXAS ISAIAH: The genesis of this idea was most likely felt as an adolescent but transpired during the first solo project I worked on, BLACKNESS, which documented and celebrated the diversity of the diaspora across spectrums of gender, sexuality, and ethnic heritage. I found that more than half of the sitters I photographed did not access comfortability during their previous photo sessions with other photographers; they weren't thrilled about getting their photograph taken; and some even despised the process. Some of the people who shared with me I did not know that well, or we were meeting for the first time. BLACKNESS was photographed in my previous residence in Crown Heights, off of Nostrand and St. Marks. I believe the mere fact that this project was in my domestic space allowed for this kind of transparency to unfold. I found myself sharing a great deal as well. It allowed me to investigate the fear towards photography not only with others but amongst myself. I realized the people that I was sitting across from did not necessarily see enough of themselves within photographs or the space making it so that what they desired wasn't being fulfilled. As for me, during that moment, I did not have a plethora of Black trans photographers or sitters to connect to historically, and it caused my approach to photography to shift instantly. I began to think about the importance of the essence and love of space (which I later found out was a concept of topophilia) and how a historical and contemporary experience within photography influenced people's ability to participate in their own visual archive making. It's imperative for us to make images of ourselves and to have people who are willing to devote time and attention to our legacies to be a part of that process.

When you're photographing, what's going through your mind?
Butterflies run through my mind and stomach. I still get nervous before a session, especially if it's the first time I am photographing someone. My nervousness isn't pitted in fear, as much as realizing that this is important to me. I tend to remind myself to be present, so I am often thinking about the conversations and body language unfolding during a session. It's always a "class is in session" moment.

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As you've garnered some fame in the art world, what is it you want those who follow your work to know about you that they maybe don't already?
I won't say I've garnered some fame, but I enjoy life offline more than online. I deactivate my social media accounts every once in a while, and I experience the world outside of the internet. The funny thing is, I love pieces of the internet. Without social media, I wouldn't be able to share my work and experience the work of others. But, boundaries are a great thing, and I have the right amount of limitations when it comes to the off and online world.

What advice would you give to a young trans kid looking to break into the photography world? Or, in other words, what do you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
I was lucky to have a few people who cared about my best interests, but I lacked the commitment to trust myself. I questioned myself far too often, and it prohibited me from doing a lot of things. At some point, things came to a head, and I had no other choice but to lead with intuition. I want young trans folks to know they deserve to participate in their fullest creative expression. I don't have any concrete advice, because I am learning as I go and it isn't always easy. However, having genuine, honest, people around you makes a difference.

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Growing up, did you have trans and/or PoC or Black photographers to look up to? If so, who were they?
Gordan Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Dawoud Bey, Jules Allen, Ming Smith, and more are visual narrators I have and will continue to look up to. However, I wish I knew the names of Black trans visual narrators that were doing work 30-50 years ago, and I am confident they existed, but unfortunately, due to colonialism and transphobia, I do not know their names; therefore, I am unable to speak their names. The historical erasure of our ancestors is a huge loss for us as a whole, and so it feels a little disjointed to not fully witness the entirety of a legacy.

In your opinion, how important is visibility for trans people and trans people of color in the art space in 2019 and how do we move the conversation forward from visibility and representation?
The conversation concerning visibility for Black and brown trans folks involves many movements of conflict. There is more imagery of Black and brown folks in media than ever before, yet the increased violence towards trans people, especially Black and Brown trans women, is overwhelming and heartbreaking. The violence never discontinues, and as history has shown us, it only increases. We can also talk about how most of the imagery of Black and Brown folks are captured by white people, and that draws back on the conversation around visibility and representation. Who are capturing the images is just as important as who is in the photos, and collectively we need to discuss this. It's truly remarkable to witness the work of Juliana Huxtable, Tourmaline, Martine Gutierrez, Dr. Kortney Ziegler, and Ahya Simone travel through various spaces. But, I also want to see the presence of Torraine, Jah Grey, Davia Spain, Edxie Betts and more people (if they wish) in these spaces. There are so many folks out there doing incredible work.

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I've seen you speak about finding ways to compensate subjects of photographs beyond typical hired model work (e.g. those in street photography, event photography, etc…) which I think is a really important idea that's relevant to the field of journalism as well. How do you envision that and why is it important to you?
When my work began to travel through art spaces, I thought about many ways of driving more money into the trans community. I recall in the nightlife scene whenever someone would host an event/party, everyone would get compensated. The door person, the visual narrator, the DJ, the bartender, etc. Everyone would go home with something even if it wasn't excessive. I find it strange that a photograph of a trans person can possibly sell for thousand's of dollars and yet a percentage is split between only the gallery and artist, yet the sitter may be going through devastating circumstances. As a Black trans person who wishes to invest in the inclusion of Black trans narratives in photography, it would be a dishonor to continue this method. It's taken many conversations between some sitters and me to establish what would feel good for all of us. And we will have to continue to revisit these conversations, and I have all the capacity in the world for this. I don't have all the answers on the most effective way for this to work, but I am figuring it out, and I do believe it is worth having a conversation about.

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