Photography to me has always been about resistance. When fashion photography was my focus it was an attempt to highlight Black models and models of color as not only indispensable to the fashion industry, but as the creative genesis for fashion. With the work that I’m focusing on now, it’s an attempt to dissect the traumas I’ve faced, to turn the camera inward while also offering a platform for others to be vulnerable. The Trans Quality of Life series is just that.
Riding on the bus to school, using the restroom in public spaces, literally going to the store would lead to some form of harassment. The more my identity evolved the greater the risk to my safety.
I hadn’t seen any long-form photographic series that centered Black transgender people specifically, adequately documenting their transition, and depicting their everyday lives. Because I am not transgender, it’s imperative that this project allows the subjects to be the voice, so the project features video and a lot of personal text from its participants. So far, the bulk of my work for the project has been done in New York throughout the five boroughs and in my hometown of Baltimore. Since it’s a long form project I will be documenting the participants for no less than two years.
My personal investment in this work comes from my youth. Growing up in Baltimore, I believed for years that I was transgender. I dressed and internally regarded myself as a woman throughout the entirety of my high school years and well into my college years. During this time, I dealt with seemingly insurmountable discrimination. Riding on the bus to school, using the restroom in public spaces, literally going to the store would lead to some form of harassment. The more my identity evolved the greater the risk to my safety.
After spending a great deal of time with the trans people that I met in college and my friends who transitioned after high school, it became very evident to me that I was not transgender. I never felt unhappy in my body or disconnected to the gender assigned to me at birth. If anything, I identify somewhere in the gender binary closer to androgynous or Gender Non-Conforming, but from this experience came an obsession with protecting and advocating for the rights of transgender people. It has been fantastic to see the improving rights of transgender people in recent years, and especially the emergence of popular adult websites such as shemalehd that represent trans people in the adult film industry.
The less than positives have been not being able to work with transgender people from across the country. I am an independent photographer so traveling places to continuously document is extremely expensive.
A positive outcome of this project has been learning the importance of language. Understanding the value of asking a person’s PGPs and never assuming. Learning and unlearning words that are used colloquially for and by transgender people that are actually harmful and oppressive. Decolonizing the way I thought about what transition is supposed to look like for transgender people. All of these seemingly small things can create truly safe spaces for trans people, a better understanding for cisgender people, and a far more positive world.
The less than positives have been not being able to work with transgender people from across the country. I am an independent photographer so traveling places to continuously document is extremely expensive. It’s also difficult to rope people in for participation. Many of the people involved have never seen the images I’ve made because I want to alleviate the vanity and self-consciousness from the process. I want them to be completely natural, not worried about how they look. Shooting with this level of mystery has a profound effect on the subjects looking at how far they’ve come within their transition. I can’t afford to offer payment to the participants who oftentimes are going through the financial burdens of being trans. The end result of all of this is that people have dropped out of the project. It’s difficult to have spent months documenting a person then suddenly you can no longer use the images. So, I’m working harder to find people who are truly engaged with the point of this work and why it is being done this way.
Representation for trans folks, up until recently, was practically nonexistent. Transgender people living in poverty are at an incomparable disadvantage in the United States, falling victim to attacks, murders, employment discrimination, health care discrimination, and a total lack of resources. As the conversation on trans experiences moves closer to the forefront of American culture, the narrative often focuses on white trans folks exclusively. Meanwhile poor, Black transgender people are being murdered. I photographed the family of Crystal Edmonds over the holidays, a trans woman from Baltimore who was murdered in 2016. There was a myriad of mysterious and heartbreaking circumstances surrounding her murder. One that stood out to me was the fact that Crystal was categorized as a John Doe when her body was found. The implications of this are extremely dangerous. It makes one question how often this happens and how accurate the trans murder rates really are.
As a result of such extreme discrimination, transgender workers face higher rates of unemployment and are at greater risk of poverty. The 2013 national report on hate violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-affected communities by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) tell us that trans people of color were 6x more likely to experience violence when interacting with law enforcement. According to a 2013 report by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) “no federal law provides direct explicit legal protections for transgender workers based on gender identity/expression—and only 17 states and the District of Columbia offer these protections. It is also widely believed (but difficult to prove) that the life expectancy for transgender women of color is between 32-35 years old.
My hope for this project is that it offers a visually stunning platform for transgender people to share their stories and empower others to live their authentic lives. As well as encouraging non trans people to support and advocate on behalf of trans rights. Although the series is in its infancy stage, I hope that this work can become a book and possibly a solo exhibition of the images. I want these stories to reach as many people as they possibly can.