In 2019, I participated in a photography project with a cisgender photographer who sought out transgender and non-binary models. Despite saying that he wanted to “photograph [us] the way [we] wanted to be represented,” the photographer did not ask how I wished to be portrayed. My wardrobe choices were dismissed, I was repeatedly misgendered, and I was instructed to “look tough.” I had wanted to smile, but the photographer was not interested in what I wanted. My body, under his “cisgender gaze,” became an object onto which he had mapped his own ideas of how a non-binary person assigned female at birth was supposed to look (butch, androgynous, tough). After the photoshoot, I was asked to sign a photo release form granting the photographer rights to the photos. The typewritten form asked me to choose one of two boxes marked “male” and “female.” Next to these two options was a hand-drawn box that had nothing beside it – a last-minute, disingenuous attempt at inclusivity.
After hearing about my negative experience, and learning about the harm this project had caused to other participants, staff at the UR Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity discussed how they could re-build relationships with members of the trans and non-binary community. As a meaningful, reparative offering, Stories That Move You was created, and received funding from SK Arts. UR Pride’s intention with Stories That Move You was to provide trans and non-binary people in Regina and Saskatoon with an opportunity to explore their own subjectivity by working with a trans and non-binary artist who had shared lived experience. Too often, trans and non-binary people are subjected to a “cisgender gaze,” resulting in harmful misrepresentations of their stories, characters, and bodies.
Beginning in fall 2019, I worked collaboratively with eight trans and non-binary people who responded to a call for participants. Through a series of workshops and one-on-one sessions, I assisted them with creating personal narratives and visual representations of themselves – always with a commitment to supporting their agency in how they are represented. Participants wrote, voiced, edited, and recorded audio narratives. Each participant also developed the concept for their portrait; they determined the mood, the environment, their wardrobe, how they would pose, and so on. Afterward, participants chose one portrait, from a selection of photographs taken at their shoot, to be included in this exhibition. Each participant has also retained rights to their photographs and will be paid an artist’s fee.
It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of portraits in this collection are of white trans masculine folks, an indication that there are still barriers for certain trans and non-binary people to participate in a photography project such as this. While this project is an attempt to illuminate and challenge the power dynamics between cisgender photographers and trans/non-binary subjects, it is important to also be aware of the power relations within trans identities and lived experiences. As a non-binary person, I share some lived experience with other trans and non-binary people; however, I am also a white settler, able-bodied, middle-class, masculine-of-centre genderqueer person. I do not, for example, share the experience of racialized trans and non-binary folx, or trans femmes and women, who tend to be sexualized and objectified in visual media, and disproportionately at risk of harassment and violence. A question to consider for future projects is: how can we break down barriers that prevent certain trans and non-binary folx from participating in collaborative trans and non-binary photography projects?
For this exhibition, eight trans and non-binary people from Saskatchewan have chosen to share digital and visual stories with you. They tell stories in their own words and voices, and share portraits that were created in a collaborative process, therefore ensuring that each person is represented, within this particular context, as they wish to be seen.
- Evie Ruddy (they/them)