Identity

9 Photographers Flipping the Script on Trans and Non-Binary Representation

Artist Laurence Philoméne invites some of their favorite photographers to show what trans and non-binary representation outside of the cis gaze looks like.

by Laurence Philomène
13 November 2019, 8:03am

Hobbes Ginsberg

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

When I was in high school, every Thursday after class, I would take the metro to the big public library in downtown Montreal. There, I’d go straight to the photography section and grab every book I could find. I was filled with a voracious hunger for images, although unsure of what I was looking for in them. The first time I saw queer bodies in a photograph, I got my answer. The photo was in Wolfgang Tillmans’ book “Truth Study Center.” It was a sweaty picture of two white men kissing. I became obsessed with the book. I’d borrow it over and over and I studied it religiously. In it, I found an intimacy.

The first time I saw trans bodies in that library was in Nan Goldin’s work, the classic “Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” an autobiographical slideshow depicting intimate and mundane scenes in the artist’s life in 1980s New York, including snapshots of post-stonewall queer subculture. Soon after, I encountered Bettina Rheims’s monograph “Modern Lovers,” which offered minimalist black and white portraits of early 1990s gender-non-conforming youth. My life exists in two parts: before I saw these images, and after. It was like seeing myself in the mirror for the first time.

The Nan Goldin, Bettina Rheims, and Wolfgang Tillmans books made me, at 18, feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself. But as time went by, and I began to document myself, my friends, and my own transition, I started to question what it meant that all the images of trans bodies I was exposed to growing up were shot through a cisgender lens. What is left unsaid?

In order to try to answer that question, I reached out to nine gender non-conforming and trans photographers—some close friends of mine, and some artists whose work I’ve admired from afar—and asked each of them to send me a photo or project of their own that focuses on trans and/or non-binary selfhood or community. The idea was to explore the intimate dynamic that manifests when trans individuals witness each other (or themselves). I wanted to know: Why do we document ourselves? What does it mean to be seen? What happens when see each other? Below are their answers. — Laurence Philomene

B. G-Osborne: "waiting for my new skin to bloom"

"These towels have existed in my grandmother’s Union Street house for decades—probably since the house was built in the 1950s. She washes them every week even though they are no longer used; I have no idea how they remain lively after that many washes. Rough like pumice stones, I remember the ritualistic rubbing and scratching myself raw after every bath with my tiny hands, the door closed and locked quietly, waiting for my new skin to bloom.” — B. G-Osborne

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"Union"

Elle Pérez: "alternative possibilities of sex"

“The testosterone vial (bottom) and the platano palm (top) are linked by light, and through their juxtaposition form a different kind of portrait—a version that attempts to show what the experience of testosterone hormone therapy is like outside of the physical changes traceable on the body. The platano as a cultural touchstone is a hallmark of Puerto Rican cultural production, however, almost always the fruit and never the leaf. I am interested in the alternative possibilities of sex this vision of the platano offers when re-imagined as a body.” — Elle Pérez

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EP-19-PH-035, Elle Pérez, gabriel, 2019, Digital Silver gelatin print, 55 X 38 ⅜ inches (139.70 X 97.47 cm) 56 . X 39 ⅞ inches (143.51 X 101.28 cm) (framed) Edition of 5 plus II AP
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EP-19-PH-034, Elle Pérez, t, 2019, Digital Silver gelatin print, 55 X 38 ⅜ inches (139.70 X 97.47 cm) 56 . X 39 ⅞ inches (143.51 X 101.28 cm) (framed) Edition of 5 plus II AP

Hobbes Ginsberg: still alive

“These photos are from my recent book/show titled still alive, a series of self portraits that explore what it means to grow up and build a life for yourself. Still alive is a celebration of making it through another year without killing myself and learning to navigate my struggle with mental illness. Meandering through the story of an ever-changing self, these selfies question ideas of grandeur, of being an icon, and our relationship to our constructed environments. Vulnerable and hyper-saturated DIY tableaus explore what it means to find stability and self sufficiency, to become an 'adult' and what it looks like to survive as a queer person. It was really important for me as a trans artist, and especially someone who works a lot with their body, to make work that wasn’t specifically about being trans, and demand that my work be viewed that way. So often it feels like the things we make are only allowed to be about our trans-ness, and more often than not about that as a struggle, and it feels so reductive.” — Hobbes Ginsberg

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Self Portrait at 25 (after dorothea tanning), 2018

Jess T. Dugan: Every Breath We Drew

“These self-portraits are from my ongoing series Every Breath We Drew, which explores the power of identity, desire, and connection through portraits of myself and others. I have always been driven to make work about my own life and experiences; I believe deeply in the importance of representation and hope that my work can be used as a catalyst to begin larger conversations about gender, identity, and sexuality. When I was coming out as a young queer person, I didn’t see myself represented in the broader culture. I first discovered images of queer and gender nonconforming people in fine art photography books, and this discovery was profoundly influential to me. One of my primary aims is to create, exhibit, and publish photographs depicting queer experience to fill society’s gap in representations of these lived experiences and embodiments.” —Jess T. Dugan

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Self Portrait (Bath), 2013
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Self Portrait (Muscle shirt), 2012

June T. Sanders: "photography as an act of love"

“This work initially came from a desire to make portraits of people I admire or care for or look up to in some way. But over time it’s sort of developed into a more complex representation and a posturing towards a radical, queer exchange. Now it’s also a way to make images that might approach a fantasy realm or a framework for past, present, and future embodiments. The working title for this body of work is Some Place Not Yet Here. A lot of the time, I’m thinking about how we as queer and trans people move through space, move through our bodies, and move through the landscapes surrounding us. And how we channel our own social and personal histories within those movements. I’m interested now in how an image might reflect these qualities and the questions, potentials, and emotional weight an image can hold for ourselves and our larger communities. This work is important to me, really, because it’s important to others. And because it’s allowed me to see photography as an act of love. I sometimes feel the most within my body and the most within a queer community when I’m photographing—and I think that comes from the immense amount of care and vulnerability that is offered to me from the people I make photographs with. The cathartic experience of making photographs, and the feedback I’ve gotten from people who see themselves reflected in the work are I think what motivates me the most now.” — June T. Sanders

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Harpo & Ike, June Sanders
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Fox, June Sanders

Lia Clay: "beauty and dimension beyond subversion"

“I’ve been photographing friends for the past year or so. Honestly, there isn’t any intention behind representation or identity … with these images. It’s a place where I want to leave that behind, just for once. I think the catalyst of me being where I am today is more to do with my identity as a trans woman, than that of a photographer. We barely get the chance to actually control how we are represented … most of it is leaning in on mass media and hoping they get it right. Sometimes they do … usually when they take a backseat. As a photographer trying to push further and further into the sphere of what is considered 'successful,' it becomes immediately clear that identity is a dangerous word. We have to work so hard to outgrow it… and push the lens elsewhere. We exist in a place in media where identity from those who identify outside the realm of cis-normativity has become demanded of us.

I don’t think people understand the weight that’s put on you when you’re a creative artist working for money. I feel so protective of the images I make with my friends. There’s this hyper-critical focus that’s come about because I am so scared someone will only see them as representations of identity. I don’t want them to rest on that … this isn’t about subverting the normative. This is about creating a realm of beauty and dimension beyond subversion. It’s about closeness and feeling a sense of safety in working together. It’s about being in control … for fucking once. A friend of mine told me a long time ago that I didn’t photograph her like a ‘trans woman,’ rather a woman. That’s the problem when cis photographers approach us. They aim their lens on what makes us different or piques the interest of the viewer. The reality is that it’s not for our benefit, it’s for theirs. They get praised for their 'brave' and 'challenging' viewpoint. We just get the Diane Arbus subtext.” — Lia Clay

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Dylan, Fort Tilden, 2019
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Marina Labarthe: Enby Spoken Histories

Enby Spoken Histories is an archival storytelling project documenting the rich and colorful histories of non-binary and transgender individuals. We record, preserve, and disseminate stories told by the community to raise awareness, educate, and normalize our humanity. Although our identities are ancient and our stories have been passed down for generations, they remained undocumented and inaccessible to policy makers and the public at large.

Carter (co-founder of ENBY) and myself feel that our identities have been misunderstood by society and the general public throughout time. We are documenting our own histories, in the ways that we want to tell them, because no one else can do it for us. We are going to be visible and understood for who we truly are—human beings—no matter what it takes.

Being misunderstood by society often means facing violence, especially if you are a trans person of color. Enby Spoken Histories was born out of emotional need—a need for our community to feel seen, heard, reflected. ENBY is not only an archival storytelling project, but a movement striving to disrupt the systems in place that affect queer lives daily.

This piece was titled after a poem written by Bobby Sanchez before going into an interview at the StoryCorps booth in NY. It is one of many examples of ways in which people tell their stories and we work together as a community to lift them up.” — Marina Labarthe

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Ancient Identities, ENBY Spoken Histories. (Pictured—left: Shai; right: Anonymous).

Shoog McDaniel: "star-filled moments of joy and wonder"

“Being a trans fat person means being twice as magical, but it also means attracting a lot of negative attention. Often times when we walk through the streets and people look at us weird, it’s hard to know if it’s about our fatness or our transness. This is compounded if your are a person of color, with disabilities or any other marginalized identities. It is very important for me to shine light on the magic of Transfats because we often exist so far out of the norm that we struggle daily to meet our basic needs in this world. Healthcare? Jobs? Love? Safety from systemic discrimination? A lot of things people take for granted. However, with that struggle comes beautiful, star-filled moments of joy and wonder, and I aim to capture those. I want to highlight the fact that when we come together to share space and time, our intersecting marginalizations actually create universes around us, taking us to a place free from judging eyes—even if just for a moment. When we come together, it is a powerful thing. When we love ourselves, it is writing a new story about how we will live our lives, not dictated by cis white men sleepwalkers. We are the dreamers, because we have to be. We have to imagine something better than this. That’s what I aim to do through my work.” — Shoog McDaniel

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Burr White, Shoog McDaniel
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Matias Herrera, Shoog McDaniel
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Self-Portrait, Shoog McDaniel

Texas Isaiah: "what has always existed"

“This image is of Tashan Lovemore from Black Trans TV. It serves as the genesis for a project I am working on, which explores, honors, and nurtures the contemporary history and presence of Black people who exist underneath a trans masc umbrella. The heart of my ideas, thoughts, and visions are rooted in what already exists and what has always existed. I am interested in contributing images to a visual culture that has not served many Black and Brown individuals. I am interested in inspiring others to document themselves and their communities because we deserve to tell our own stories. This image carries a dream I have been holding for quite some time. I haven't witnessed a ton of pictures of Black trans men taken by other Black trans men. I don't often see photographs of us smiling and engaging in healing remedies and conversations that can contribute to the overall discussions surrounding masculinity and manhood.” — Texas Isaiah

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Tashan Lovemore, 2019