The meeting with Jack in August of 2009, to photograph and interview him, was one of the most successful sessions I’ve experienced to date with the project.
There was a small skylight in the roof of his apartment, and the light that came through it moved across the kitchen while we conducted the interview until it was centered on floor when the time came to shoot the photos. We positioned a small futon cushion, a plush green blanket and Jack under the beam from the skylight, and the results are below.
Although Jack didn’t want his face to be shown, I feel that the photo works. I have had no desire to re-shoot, neither for technical reasons nor for the content of the image itself. I am interested to hear your impression of it.
In the interview, you will hear quite a bit. Jack is smart and funny with much to tell about his life and process.
As I listen again to the recordings, I am struck how the major points of his story seemed to have been in pairs. He talks about his two parents, two colleges, two psychiatrists, to name a few. Within these pairs, the elements seemed, at times, to be opposite one other, like black and white, yin and yang, leading to an apparent search for balance, which can be seen in the tattoo.
In keeping with the theme of pairs, Jack’s ink-work represents two major stages of his life, a tattoo within a tattoo, one story that holds another, all in balance.
Whether it be running marathons or the gauntlet of his own transition, he flies free.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
I first photographed Trevor in October of 2008. It was with my digital camera and I was practicing photographing people, part of the preparation I undertook for the tattoo project. Trevor was kind enough to subject himself to a multi-location shoot on a fine fall day. He seemed comfortable in front of the camera, which put me at ease.
Ironically, it’s usually the other way around. The subject is often the nervous one, but I was new at making portraits and was somewhat timid about it. It was his relaxed nature in front of the camera that helped me find my rhythm.
I have several favorites from that set of over 200 shots, but will just post one here.
When TransMasculine Ink began in earnest, Trevor once again made himself available. We shot some images on a beautiful summer day in July, 2009. After conducting the interview over lunch, we went to the park in town and I photographed him in the shade of a gazebo so the brightness of the sun would not wash out the colors of his tattoo.
You will see in his body art a phoenix, the mythical firebird that is reborn from the ashes of its own destruction, a rather fitting symbol for a man who has remade himself.
The photo was perfectly fine, but the more I worked with it and looked at it, the more I wanted… well, more. For me, this photo was too much about the tattoo and not enough about Trevor. It didn’t really speak to me, and I’m the one who took it! In addition, the recording of the interview at the restaurant was unusable — the background noise of the people at the tables around us was too prominent.
Trevor agreed to repeat the interview and the photo shoot, but I had to catch up with him — literally.
He was in training for a marathon. I had to meet up with him on a Saturday in early August 2009, a day of the week allotted for a “long run.” At the end of 14 miles jogged under the blazing hot sun, he submitted himself to another photo shoot, which was repeatedly interrupted by the need to wipe the glistening sweat off of his skin with a towel. When we were finished, we conducted the interview in the mercifully cool foyer of a nearby building at MIT. To say that Trevor was a trooper that day is an understatement.
But it all paid off, both the running and the photography.
With regard to the running, Trevor completed that particular marathon, and then ran another. In the first two marathons that he ran, Trevor raised $10,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in memory of his aunt who died of cancer. I think Trevor is off running another marathon today, and he completed the Boston Marathon just 12 days ago. I don’t know how he does it– I can’t even run to the end of my driveway without sucking air.
Trevor says that he will be preparing for a marathon that he will enter in October if anyone wants to join him. (I will not be doing so.)
With regard to the photography, I am happy with the resulting photo. The more I look at it, the more I like it, although the sun makes his ink difficult to see. Still, the photo is about Trevor more than his body art. But I’m interested to hear what you think.
The interview turned out well too (the content more than the quality). We learn from him about his choices, the emotions of his coming out to family, and about his own comfort with himself and who he is, a trait that might explain his ease in front of the camera.
As for Trevor, in the interview, you will hear him talk about his tattoo, and how it represents the way he has taken his own course. In a way, his transition has been like the marathons he runs. And he plans to keep running, to keep flying free like the phoenix.
I first photographed Nate on June 14, 2009 as the official beginning of this project.
Since then, I’ve photographed him three more times, twice for the tattoo project. He’s been accommodating and accessible, comfortable enough to be photographed, eager to help out with the project, not seeming to care that I don’t really know what I’m doing. He works outdoors so is physically fit and photogenic as hell. And all those tattoos… so many stories to tell.
In short — he’s been a perfect subject and a good friend. That’s all the more remarkable because while I photographed him, I asked him to go to unpleasant places, to think about the emotions he was feeling when he was tattooed, to remember why he decided to get the ink.
For the photographs, I chose to focus on the tattoo on his left forearm. He told me he had gotten it to cover the scars from self-inflicted mutilations from his youth, acts of loathing for a body that did not match his internal sense of self.
I found myself struggling with the best way to photographically represent such a powerful story. The tattoo was the portal to the narrative, but the photograph had to be about more than the inked skin — I wanted it to be about the man wearing the ink.
To match the rawness of his story, I chose to photograph Nate in my bare garage. I had no flash so relied on the ambient lighting, which called for some decisions. Wanting a small aperture to obtain a good depth of field and keep everything in focus meant longer shutter speeds that might result in a blurred image if Nate moved. I experimented with both, resulting in some images with the proper exposure but a blurry left forearm and others with better focus but under-exposed In both cases, Nate’s eyes were lost in the shadows of his brow — not ideal when wanting to convey the emotions of the subject.
And even though I had taken care to remove the crap in the background, I failed to unplug an orange electrical cord that now jumps out of the photos.
Then, I improvised and illuminated Nate with the headlights of my car, but he had to hunker down to be situated squarely in the beams. I like this photo quite a bit, but I am not sure that it portrays the tattoo as part of the focus of the image. (And again, there’s that annoying orange cord in the background.)
Nate agreed to be photographed a second time and so three months later, we were back in the garage. To improve the lighting, I used a little flash I found in an old camera bag and bounced the light off of a silver reflective disk, using my digital point-and-shoot camera to estimate the necessary exposure. (Still hadn’t gotten around to getting a light meter.) To get past the depth of field issue, I asked Nate to hold his forearm up next to his body rather than have it extended. That allowed the camera to come in closer and become more intimate with him.
And this time, I remembered to unplug that damn orange cord!
The resulting images seemed flat, lacking contrast and needing some serious color correction. I was able to make a presentable image using Photoshop (with before and after corrections on the left and right sides), and I got close to this correction in the darkroom. At the time, I was taking a portrait photography class where we all gave feedback on our images, and the problem identified with this photo was the ceiling light. I had let too much of it into the photo and it draws the eye away from the subject. I had not remembered to carefully check the borders of the photo when framing the subject. Unfortunately, that meant that the image still wasn’t right.
I had the poor guy out in the garage again a month later. By this time, it was October and it was getting cold, but Nate was a real trooper out there with his shirt off. And as they say, the third time was the charm. No orange cord, no shadows over his eyes, no big ceiling light mucking things up. I had finally captured Nate in the way I had originally intended. (You will notice that part of this image graces the header of this photoblog.)
NARRATIVE We didn’t sit down for the interview until January of 2011, a full year-and-a-half after I first photographed him. During our conversation, Nate disclosed that our first photography session brought up some feelings of dysphoria that he hadn’t felt in some time. You will hear me respond that he never mentioned that to me, as though I was accusing him of not being forthcoming. In actuality, I felt guilty that the act of participating in the project might have been detrimental to him. Had he told me right away about the dysphoria, I likely would have canceled the shoot.
As I listen again to this interview, I am struck by how much Nate has given in this process of photography and narration. He did not hold back, and although I sound as though his story did not affect me, that was just a front. Some of his narrative was difficult to hear, but as he had the fortitude to put himself out there, I was damn sure not going to let him see me react under the weight of his story.
This first post is rather experimental. Like the photography class where we all discussed and critiqued the photos we had taken, I have created this photoblog to get input during the progression of the project. If you feel so inclined, please use the comments section to mention what works and what doesn’t and how you feel about this project. Your feedback will help me improve the work.
Thank you– Anderson
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Are you interested in the science and biology of being trans? Check out AmericanTransMan.com, a blog about trans stuff and science stuff with a transmasculine perspective.