Originally from McAlester, Okla., photographer Rhys Harper started taking pictures in 2003, after he found his dad's old camera and "kind of fell in love with the sound of the shutter." Transgender himself, Harper — who relocated to Little Rock from New York last year to be closer to family — has long wanted to do a portrait series about transgender lives, and finally found the time and wherewithal to make it happen in January 2014. Since then, Harper has shot portraits of over 110 transgender Americans from coast to coast for his "Transcending Gender Project," including dozens of photos taken on an epic, self-financed road trip last fall that took him from New York to L.A. and back again.
To help offset the considerable costs of the project, Harper shoots portrait photography (visit seniorsbyrhys.com for more info), and has set up a GoFundMe page so people can donate toward travel expenses and a desperately needed new camera. You can find a link to contribute to the project and see more photos from the series at the Transcending Gender Project website, transcendinggender.org.
What are you trying to capture when you take these portraits?
A lot of people say: "Oh, your pictures are about gender." That's actually not true at all. The portraits themselves are really about people who just happen to have these life experiences. My goal is to go beyond gender and really celebrate these peoples' lives beyond those identities. We see a lot of talk in the news and transgender is a hot topic right now. You see a lot of people asking questions about surgeries and bodies and physically what makes a trans person. I really wanted to get beyond that.
It does tend to go "below the belt" when the media talks about trans people. I've been guilty of that myself, but I am a reformed sinner.
[Laughs] You know, I think that's people in general. I think people are very fascinated with sex in the world. I think it's just this curiosity: these people who we don't necessarily understand. But we're doctors, we're lawyers, we're students, we're parents. We're all of these things and more. I basically wanted to create this shared human experience with people who are not trans, so they could look at these portraits and say: "Oh wow. I'm actually not that different from this person. We actually have something in common."
Being transgender yourself, has the project changed your mind about gender?
Not me personally. It's not that it's changed my mind about gender, but I sort of think there are things that are more important to focus on. It has created a new way for me to see things. It's not that I have new or different ideas, it's just that I've been able to see a new perspective. Myself, being someone who was born female, but who completely identifies as male, that's my personal experience. But there are a lot of people who don't identify as either [gender]. We feel like we're forced into these boxes. People like this idea of black or white, yes or no, this or that. It's hard for people to accept someone that doesn't fall into one of those places.
A lot of these portraits were shot in "Flyover Country" — Arkansas, Colorado, Utah, Wisconsin — Middle America. Why was it important for you to get out away from the coasts?
When trans topics [first] started being seen in the news, you got a lot of stories about Big City people. I grew up in McAlester, Okla., so that's not my experience. One of my favorite portraits, one that really resonates with me, is the kid I photographed in Oklahoma holding the gun. That's the shared experience I want to create. ... I wanted to show that that kid, Chris, he has things in common with his small community. That's an identity he can share with those people. So I'm really just trying to create that shared experience so maybe people can see: "Hey, we're not so different after all."
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