"For me, it's really important that I'm photographing people who identify as non-binary from the perspective of a non-binary person. I wouldn't feel comfortable if I didn't identify as non-binary doing this project," says British photographer Jackson Akitt. The Brighton-based student, who uses they/them pronous, is over ten people deep into an ongoing photographic project documenting non-binary people in their local community. The series was first exhibited at the Brighton Photo Biennial in October, blown up to 1.2 meter by 1.2 meter large prints—a larger than life portrait of a queer community in Britain's gay capital.
"I'm very defensive and very protective of the people I photograph because they're sharing their stories and their time with me," Jackson told Broadly. "I think it's really important." They were studying photography at the University of Brighton when they first came up with the idea for Non-Binary Portraits. "Being non-binary myself, I was feeling a bit isolated in my friendship groups," they said, describing their college experience as an "ongoing process of educating people" about their own gender identity. "I was feeling a bit alone and wanted to reach out and find other people, really."
When Photoworks, a non-profit arts organization, and Together The People Festival commissioned Jackson to create a photo series about non-binary locals in Brighton, they lept into action: putting out an open casting call on Instagram, reaching out to queer friends of friends, and hitting people up on Facebook. (The 23-year-old soft-spoken photographer says that having "an excuse" to go out and photograph people is definitely a plus point for someone as "socially awkward" as they are.)
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Their aesthetic approaches may differ, but like non-binary Canadian photographer Laurence Philomène, Jackson's series also operates as a crucial form as visibility—especially in a world where the most well-known non-binary or queer people appear to conform to a certain look. In fact, part of the joy of these intimately staged portraits is the variety and diversity of its subjects, who range from a scruffy student photographed in a library to a beaming parent with a child.
"I'm really conscious of trying to make sure I photograph people from a wide range of backgrounds and different identities within the non-binary label," Jackson said. "I just really want more representation of people who look very different from each other, but identify with the same terms."
Like Orange is the New Black actor and genderfluid model Ruby Rose, I suggest—white, skinny, and good-looking? "[The media representation of non-binary people is] usually quite biased towards white, typically androgynous, skinny models," Jackson acknowledged. "It makes it seem like it's something for white people to be androgynous and non-binary. It's important to have a diverse representation of what we look like."
Jackson is continuing the project and hoping to photograph people from a "whole spectrum" of ages, and from as many places as possible—especially non-binary people from rural areas like Cumbria, where they are from.
The reaction from Jackson's subjects, so far, has been ecstatic. One person whose portrait was exhibited in Brighton wanted to take the enlarged image home. "The print of it was about 1.2 meters by 1.2 meters big," Jackson remembered. "It was very, very heavy [mounted] on wood, and they wanted to have it in their home. It was the most flattering thing [for me] and a really nice idea to have this massive image of yourself as you walk into your flat—just [being able to] bring your friends around, and be like, 'That's me!'"