I remember the first time I heard the sound of the shutter. It was like magic. It was my dad's old Olympus OM-10, and, thinking it was broken, he'd given it to me. It turned out that it just needed a battery. Three dollars later, I was well into a photography obsession. I didn't know that falling in love with that sound and what I could create with it would change the course of my life forever. I didn't know that it would empower me to create change in the world. After recognizing myself as an LGBT person back in 2005, I swore that I would never become a flag-waving activist. But today I am most certainly an activist, and my flag is my camera.
It all started when I was on the brink of deciding to begin a medical transition, and I worried about what people might think. Mostly I just wanted people to be able to see beyond the fact that I am transgender, understand my value as a person, and appreciate what I have to offer the world. As a photographer, I immediately began to think of ways that I could photograph transgender and gender-nonconforming people in a way that would allow people to see those very things in each of us.
A few months ago I was asked to shoot some portraits for a trans-centered art exhibition at a local gallery in Syracuse, New York, where I now live. At first the plan was to photograph local folks for the exhibition, but it quickly became clear to me that there was a much bigger opportunity, and I immediately picked up my previous plan to photograph transgender and gender-nonconforming people in a way that would allow others to see us and connect with us as human beings who can be valued and respected in today's world. The Transcending Gender Project was born, and everything has fallen into place and taken off at an incredible rate.
I think one of the most powerful things about many portraits is that they allow us to connect with the subject on a basic, human level. That certainly was what I hoped would happen for people outside the LGBT community when they saw these photographs -- that they would be able to have some sort of human connection with the people in them. I intended to help change the hearts and minds of the rest of the world with the Transcending Gender Project, but as I've been meeting and photographing people, something unexpected and wonderful has been happening: The people I've been photographing have been changed by the experience.
It started happening almost immediately, but it was during and after the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference a few weeks ago that I realized how powerful this project is for the people I'm photographing too. I would photograph a person, and when they would see the photograph, their eyes would light up, or tear up, or both. Almost everyone said something similar to, "I usually hate photographs of myself, but I love this!" It was so exciting to see people so uplifted by seeing themselves in a photograph that they loved.
I set out to change the way the rest of the world sees us, but this project has ended up helping change the way we see ourselves.
In just a few weeks I will embark on the first part of an incredible journey throughout the U.S. to photograph some truly inspiring people, from nuns to wildlife biologists to forensic scientists to cat rescuers to dentists and everything in between. I will photograph these people and tell their stories in an authentic way. We are all activists, really, by living authentic lives, sharing our stories, and being ourselves, and even more importantly by accepting and loving ourselves.