I met Rhys Harper when he was on his way out of Syracuse, moving to Arkansas. The chance encounter led to a wide ranging discussion at an Apple store where he first told me about his ‘Transcending Gender’ photo project. The photos that he showed me on his phone that he had already taken were from around the country – beautifully lit and lovingly chosen backdrops ranged from the boxing ring to a field somewhere in the West.
Harper’s photos could not have been taken at a more perfect time in the Transgender movement – TV shows featuring transgender characters are winning awards left and right, activists have been getting louder and more focused – forcing media and people to finally have the conversation about how people discuss gender. The photos featuring everyday Americans could have the same effect that the ‘It Gets Better’ videos had years ago to mainstreaming the language and the people who identify as transgender.
Since Rhys is back in Arkansas I got a hold of him via e-mail for this interview on photography, media and even his success at crowd fundraising. You can find more information on the project on twitter, on facebook and on his site.
Can you explain what The Transcending Gender Project is?
The Transcending Gender Project is many things. First, it is not about gender at all. It is about people. It started as a way to show the world that transgender people are not crazy or freaky people – that they are our neighbors, students at our schools, doctors in our hospitals, musicians on your favorite radio station. My biggest goal with these portraits has been for people to see beyond their gender, and instead see shared human experiences. It started out as a series of portraits celebrating the lives of humans who happen to be transgender or gender non-conforming in some way, but after I spent three weeks driving from New York to Los Angeles and then back to New York by myself, photographing people across the country, I realized some things. The biggest thing is that gender expectations in our society – the idea that men should be this one thing, and women should be another – don’t just hurt transgender people. They hurt and affect us all. Why should men be expected to not cry or show emotion? Why should men not be able to carry a pink hello kitty phone case, if that’s what they’re into? (And if they do, why do we automatically assume they’re gay?) Why do we gender colors and kids toys? Why do we assume that super feminine women aren’t smart and fierce? You don’t have to be a trans person or a member of the LGB community to be affected by these expectations.
In addition to the environmental portrait series, I am currently working on launching a portrait series where I will photograph anyone and everyone – trans or not – to start conversations about gender, and hopefully to help shift the way we understand gender in our society.
What started the idea of photographing transgender and gender non-conforming people?
I started thinking about this series before I started my own transition from female to male. I wanted people to see the person I am, instead of just thinking about the fact that I’m trans, and so as a photographer I immediately started thinking of how I could photograph trans people to show that we’re really not all that different from the next person. It is my labor of love to create positive change in the world, and hopefully make it a more loving, accepting place.
What was the most interesting portrait that you shot? Either technically or just the subject in the photo.
Gosh, they’re all interesting because they have their own stories. For the subject, I’d have to say it was Sister Estelle, the nun. She’s an Episcopal nun who, although she has not taken official vows, is living out her personal calling and faith. She’s a firecracker, and just an amazing lady. She bought a house in Indianapolis, and is renovating it to turn it into a transition home where people can come and have a safe place to live while they find their footing and access health care they need. She’s just incredible, and wicked fun to hang out with.
Being transgender still is something that a lot of people don’t like to either admit or really talk about. How was it getting people to appear on camera for your photos?
I thought that would be the hardest part of the project. I expected to be pulling teeth trying to get people to get photographed. In fact, it was the opposite. I think I’ve had about 1,000 people apply to get photographed, and people are still applying. It’s so cool to see how much things have changed. These people want to be visible, they want to have their voices heard. It is really inspiring. People tell me all the time what great work I’m doing, but I have to be honest – the real heroes are the folks who are getting photographed. It’s a vulnerable thing to put yourself out there like that, and it wouldn’t be possible to have this project without them.
Your project has come about at a big time for the transgender movement – years ago I very rarely heard the word mentioned other than as the “T” of the LGBT. Now there’s major TV shows featuring characters and actors that are identified as transgender. Do you think that has changed how your project has been received?
Absolutely. It was just the prime time for a project like this, and I feel grateful to have a background in marketing and design, because I think that’s really helped, too. I lived in NYC for almost ten years, and so I have some solid experience from my time there which has been so helpful. Laverne Cox on the cover of TIME, starring in a Netflix original series, and lots of media around these topics. I wanted to see positive, inspiring representations of trans people in the media, so it has been absolutely critical to the mission of this project that these photographs and stories reach people outside the LGBT community.
How did you get started shooting photos?
This is going to sound really dumb, but I fell in love with the sound of the shutter. I was a sophomore in college, and my dad had an old Olympus OM-10. He gave it to me, and there was just something that about that sound that just sung me a sweet song. More than ten years later, I can see looking back that I was destined to be a photographer well before that time. I remember when I was a little kid and used to have babysitters, I would set up pretend portrait studios and take their photos. I was always a creative child with a photographic memory. I guess the universe just has a way of working things out sometimes.
When I first started photography, I was completely shooting black and white 35mm and working in the darkroom. I didn’t start doing digital photography until a few years later when I moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design.
Have to ask… talk to me about gear. What do you shoot with? Cameras? Lights?
I’m shooting with a couple of old 60D bodies – I have a Canon 50mm 1.8, and a Canon 18-135 cheap kit lens. I also use Yongnuo 560III speedlights. Prior to moving to Little Rock, AR last month, I had been using a Paul C Buff White Lightning X800 and old Vagabond II, which my good buddy loaned me for the better part of a year. Right now I’m just using the speedlights until I can buy my own X800 and Vagabond II. For a modifier, I’m using a 43” Wescott Apollo Orb. It’s awesome.
I’m pretty focused on the photos, and less so on the gear. The thing I need most is a new lens (which will be a Canon 24-105L) and the strobe head/battery pack. But I work with what I have, and I try never to let gear hold me back from making photographs.
You have an Indiegogo funder running right now – and you’ve done them in the past for this project. How do you like doing crowd funding? And are there any methods to your success that you could share for others looking to do it?
To be honest, crowd funding is hard. It was much easier the first time, and the second campaign hasn’t been successful. It’s a hustle. I don’t love asking people for money, even though everyone is crowdfunding something these days. I am so beyond grateful for the success of the first campaign. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the generous support of so many.
I have some other things in the works right now as far as raising money for the project… so I’m just focusing on making photographs and launching the next phase of the project.
My biggest method is to make everything about the work and the mission. I think if you have a cause that is worth supporting, and you just completely put your energy into seeing that mission through, it’ll happen one way or another.
Zach Roberts is a photographer and videographer who splits his time between New York and Alaska. His work has been published in The Observer, The Guardian, The Brooklyn Paper, and BBC, as well as Gawker, Portfolio.com and GregPalast.com. He is currently the photo editor of TheMudflats.net and a regular contributor to Truthout.org.