Brooklyn-based photographer Jennifer Loeber has developed a series of projects in the last several years around themes of youth, sexuality, and alternative lifestyles. In her new body of work, titled GYRLE, she photographs the experience of a subject named Lorelei over the course of her transition to becoming a woman. Loeber recently spoke with me about the childhood summer camp where she first met Lorelei, relating personally to her subject through observing her “second puberty”, and the surprising reaction of drunken college students to six-four trans woman during spring break in Florida.
VICE: How do you know Lorelei?
Jennifer Loeber: I originally met Lorelei when we were teenagers at a non-traditional summer camp I chronicled in my series Cruel Story of Youth. It was a sort of teenage utopia self-governed by the campers and freed of the usual constraints of a conventional camp experience. At that time, she was still identifying as male and named Robert.
I didn't find out about her transition until she added me on Facebook. We had reconnected when Cruel Story of Youth was being exhibited and written about. Given our shared history, I felt comfortable enough to later ask if she'd pose for my ongoing nude series, Zeig Mal. Shooting that single image led directly to this series.
Was she easy to convince to participate in the extended project, or did it take some cajoling?
The thought that kept circling was that it was the first time seeing each other after many, many years. I wondered if it might be a terribly awkward or flat-out bad idea on my part. But our collaboration was actually easygoing and more rewarding than I had even hoped, mostly due to the unbelievable willingness of Lorelei to share her experience so intimately.
How long have you been working with her?
We started shooting in the early fall of 2012, while she was living in Northampton, Massachusetts. I’ve since been back several times. I also traveled to Florida, where she lived with her mother briefly.
What are you looking to ultimately show or communicate through these images about either Lorelei or the transgender experience?
It's important to have the chance to look deeply and candidly at someone living through transition. Politeness dictates that we collectively don't want to stare or intrude with personal questions, and the more timid may simply want to process at their own speed. I would hope my work offers such pragmatic options, in addition to being personal expressions.
Some of the images are very intimate. Do they show an intimacy between the two of you that relies on a personal connection and trust developed over time, or are they reflecting Lorelei’s open and honest nature?
That summer camp had a huge impact, and gave us both a palpable sense of belonging and unparalleled freedoms at an impressionable age. When you meet someone as a kid during such an intense experience, you're forever tied to one another in some metaphysical way.
Despite not having been in each other's lives for over a decade, we fell almost immediately in step. She admitted that she has had a long-standing crush on me from our teenage years, which I honestly wasn't aware of then. I was a bit shocked! We're just friends and I am happily married, but it was sweet to discover someone still liked me with bad hair and braces.
What's fascinating is that history now adds a layer of sexual tension between the two of us that transcends the boundaries of female and male. I'm interested in the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Hopefully, human beings will someday feel comfortable enough to process and accept behavioral evolution. It's all a gray area, despite religious and political ideologies that insist on unambiguous standards.
A number of the images are moderately explicit. Are there moments that you don’t photograph? Are there photographs that you take but don’t show?
Lorelei has allowed me total access to her life and the people in it, provided they're also comfortable with my photographing. So far, nothing has been cut due to explicitness, though I doubt that would ever be criteria for editing an image. This body of work aims to show as much of her life and journey as possible. Nudity and sexuality are essential.
Out of all the photographs taken, how do you select which ones to include as part of the project? Under what criteria do you judge images as strong enough?
Editing my own work is the most challenging part of being a photographer. You fall in or out of love with images, sometimes for the wrong reasons. I’m lucky to have had some outstanding photographers give feedback on this series, including Todd Hido and Alec Soth.
Do you involve Lorelei in the selection of images that you publish publicly?
No, but I don't keep anything from her. If she felt uncomfortable about an image and asked me not to present it publicly, I'd honor that request.
What are some of the insights that your experiences out in the world with Lorelei—at the beach, at the hospital and other public spaces—have given you into the life of a former male navigating her new femininity?
I didn't expect to see my own experiences of becoming a woman mirrored so closely in Lorelei, but each time I photographed her, I witnessed moments I vividly remembered as a teenage girl. Her "second puberty" through the use of hormones is eerily identical to mine, in terms of dealing with a changing body and mindset and the chaos that ensues.
It's been revealing to see someone go through that teenage turmoil, not only as a fully formed adult, but also having previously lived with all the privilege of being male. It's an uneasy shift to voluntarily make.
What have you observed about public preconceptions about her?
Unfortunately, people still sometimes stare, whisper and misuse pronouns with her, but I've mostly been pleasantly surprised by positive reactions. When I photographed her in Florida, it happened to coincide with spring break. I had no idea how hordes of drunken college students would react to a six-four trans woman, but other than a few double takes, no one seemed to care in the slightest. The US has a long way to go in accepting transgender people—and protecting their rights and safety—but there are glimmers of hope within younger generations.
Is the project finished? Have you started to exhibit the work yet?
It's an ongoing project. Lorelei leads an unconventional life full of surprises and adventures, so I can't yet say when this body of work will be finished.