I have been thinking about doing this project for quite some time – at least 3 or 4 years – but I really haven't had the time or energy or resources to take on something like this before now. It was during the time before I had started medically transitioning, and wasn't sure how or when I would, that I really started thinking about photographing trans* and gender non-conforming people in a way that really makes people think about how we approach gender on a societal level. I was living in New York City at the time... and I spent months and months thinking about different approaches I could bring to the project, but nothing ever really clicked.
So on life went, and in 2012 I started transitioning. I moved to Syracuse, NY, where it has really taken me two solid years to establish myself, my business, and get over the total shock that was leaving NYC after living there almost 10 years. (There is still residual shock, and if the right opportunity presented itself, I'm sure we would move back).
I struggle with a few things in life – chronic health issues and ADHD namely. So, for the first year I was here (almost year and a half, really), it was an uphill battle trying to find work, do photography, and be healthy. I had three surgeries in the first year I was in Syracuse, so I just didn't have the time to do a lot.
About a year ago, I got a job I really love, where I work anywhere from 25-40 hours per week. The past 6 months have been pretty good on the health front – so I have really been able to thrive a little more. I own a senior portrait business, Seniors by Rhys, and photograph high school seniors all over the Syracuse and CNY area. I really love it – and I hope that I'll be able to do it full time by next year so that I can have more time for photographic activism.
Back in February, I was contacted by one of the board of directors at ArtRage Gallery here in Syracuse, who asked if I would be willing to photograph for an exhibit about trans people. I was really feeling good about where I was at with things and managing my ADHD, so I was honestly really hesitant to take on the project, but after meeting with the gallery director and the director from the board, I knew that I had to do this project. Personal work that changes people is really what I want to do with my photography, so I knew taking it on would be fulfilling... but I could never have imagined how this project would evolve.
We started with the idea that I would photograph local folks and we could maybe use the photographs in some sort of local campaign. When I started thinking of people I could photograph for the project, there really weren't a ton on the list – I don't know a TON of people here in Syracuse. The most problematic part of my list was that it consisted of about 60% white transmen. So, I thought, hey – I'm going to NYC several times, I should see if there are some folks who would be willing to participate there. I posted on a few groups, and started sharing a couple of the photos I'd already shot for the exhibit.
Now, I've always been a big thinker. I actually think a lot of the reason I was bullied and/or not taken seriously growing up has little to do with my gender, and more to do with the fact that I am a big thinker. When I do something, I go big or go home. So as I started making a list of folks to photograph, I realized that there was really a lot of potential for this project to bring visibility to transgender and gender non-conforming folks.
When I first came out as gay, and then trans, I was that kid that didn't really want to get involved in activism or run around waving a rainbow flag. Really. But I AM an activist, and in a way, I'm waving a flag, even if it's not a rainbow one. Because I want to create change and I want people to be seen for who we are: human. "Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change, or stasis." (Wikipedia) And that is exactly what this project aims to do.
When I started this project, I set out to create beautiful photographs that tell stories about people. Photographs that when any person looks at them, what they take away has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with who that person is. I know that there will be hateful people who immediately recognize this as a "trans project," and will not look at these photographs with an open heart and mind. I just hope that one day, they will realize that our world would be a better place if we all looked for what we have in common instead of looking for what we don't, and if we all just saw each other as humans. I hope I am able to help achieve that in some small way.
After the Huffington Post piece ran, I received probably 300 emails in a couple of days. As we read the emails, I realized that one of the best things about this project is going to be meeting all of these amazing people and telling their stories. What a privilege and honor.
Thank you for reading – and I look forward to keeping you all updated about this project.