The Transcending Gender Project came to my attention early this week, and it's such a perfect fit for the Picture Tells A Story post that we're doing things a bit differently today.
The photo features just a few of the images that photographer Rhys Harper is working to compile through the course of the project, which is dedicated to creating a visual celebration of the wide spectrum of lives and identities among trans and gender nonconforming people. That aim is accomplished through the creation of rich black & white environmental portraits of people from all over the country, and all walks of life.
Earlier this week I had a chance to ask Rhys a number of questions about the Transcending Gender Project. Our Q&A is after the break.
E. Winter Tashlin: For people who may be unfamiliar with the term, can you explain what you mean by "environmental portraits" and why you feel that particular type of photography is important to the goals of the project?
Rhys Harper: I'm trying to photograph everyone in an environment that tells a story about them, as much as I possibly can. These are not candid portraits, but they should portray folks in some sort of environment that says something about that person. We want these photographs to show people that trans-identified and gender non-conforming folks share a human experience with folks who are not. We are police officers, soldiers, teachers, musicians, students, cat rescuers, postal workers, attorneys... the list goes on and on. I want to photograph people in these environments to show that hey - we're not so different than the next person. That we have a shared human experience.
EWT: How do you see the Transcending Gender Project helping advance understanding and acceptance, particularly among people who are unfamiliar with trans* issues and experiences?
RH: I can relate to people who are unfamiliar with the trans* experience. I grew up in a small, conservative town in Oklahoma, and growing up, I had no idea that transgender even existed. The first time I ever heard of something other than two genders was in my freshman Sociology 101 course, and I remember distinctly the moment my professor told us there were more than 2 genders. It was LITERALLY like someone had told me that there were actually 36 hours in a day. So, I really feel that I can relate to being in an environment where you really just don't know about trans issues or experiences. The other thing is that for people that are in those environments, I feel like there are some negative stereotypes out there - a la shows like Jerry Springer - about trans* and gender non-conforming folks.
There is also way too much focus on physical transition, bodies, and genitalia, and not enough conversation about who we are as people. [People unfamiliar with trans* lives] aren't getting the right information about who we are and what we have to offer the world, and I am absolutely certain that many people would be shocked to learn that the postal worker, the student down the street, or the parents in their PTA are of trans experience. They have no idea, and so this project exists to bring awareness to people so they can see that they have more in common with people of trans or gender non-conforming experience than they may realize.
EWT: What (if any) need do you think the project can help fill for people within the trans* community?
RH: I think there is a need for recognition of diversity within the community itself, and I think that because the trans and gender non-conforming community has so much diversity within itself, there is a melting pot of opinions that sometimes collide. I would like to see this project bring some unity within our own group, and I hope that this project reminds us to celebrate that diversity. I think we forget sometimes about that diversity.
The other thing I really want to focus on is giving trans people of color, trans women of color, people in smaller communities, and people with disabilities a place to shine in this project. So, if that is you - please get in touch!
EWT: If people are interested in supporting or participating in the Transcending Gender Project, what should they do?
RH: There are two huge ways to support this project, both of which are essential: sharing this project, and helping us through financial donations. How much of the country we are able to travel to really depends on how much funding we are able to secure. The Empire State Pride Agenda has generously sponsored our printing costs for the upcoming exhibit in November, but we still really need funding for our big US tour. I need at least 2 months to plan the trip once the funds have been secured, so we are hoping we have enough funding for a 2-3 week trip by mid-July.
EWT: Anything you'd like to add?
RH: I would just like to add that I am overwhelmed by all of the amazing folks who have contacted us to be photographed, and who have supported the project thus far. I'm humbled by everyone who has emailed and shared their story and volunteered to be photographed - it is so awesome that people WANT to be more visible, and every email I get I realize more and more how necessary this project is. We can't wait to really get rolling with it, and we can't wait to meet ALL of the awesome people we know we're going to meet!
You can find out much more about the Transcending Gender Project, including information on supporting Rhys' work, on the project's website.