Transitioning in the midst of a decade long photography project, presents an opportunity to see how differently people relate to me as a man vs. a woman.
Enjoying a day off, I decided to swing by the Weirdest little Church in Texas, check out their volunteer program and hopefully capture a few shots on camera. A long-time hobby of mine, photography of the homeless continually helped put life into perspective. Since transitioning and being gendered as male, the interactions between myself and others while behind the camera has felt different.
Photography is about the interaction and connection it creates. Yes, it is about capturing a single moment in time but it is more than just a moment; it is raw human emotion and vulnerability evoked by another human being, that through trust, they let me see. Always able to form a quick, good rapport with strangers, I can honestly say that there were very few times people declined having their photo taken. Inquisitive human minds seemed drawn to me and I was drawn to them in an unassuming, non-judgmental, curious way, as their eyes shared their existence in the underbelly of society- lessons from the less-fortunate always impressed upon me.
Homeless people were more than willing to chat and I was constantly amazed by their willingness to let me photograph them, but also, to get in so close. Through their eyes, I felt their souls without them even knowing. Trust allowed me to take such intimate photos but is it possible that for the past decade, the genuine welcome and trust existed only because I was perceived as female?
Since transitioning to male, people seemed to gravitate to me less and that instant spark was elusive. They seemed more wary, less interested and less excited while I seemed less approachable, more suspicious, or more of a threat. Something had indeed changed in the way people accepted me as a photographer.
While waiting at the church for someone to take me under their wing and show me around, I decided to wander and see if I could get any photos. Casually meandering, I moved from table to table, observing, trying to pick up on the “feel” of the place, taking it all in through the senses. I sat down at one of the tables, curious if anyone would be curious about me but I went completely unnoticed, almost invisible. Subconsciously I chose to sit next to a woman, perhaps testing the stereotype that women are friendlier and more approachable. She ate her food slowly, in a daze, without ever glancing up and I wondered what made her smile as a child, or if she did smile, ever.
Moving to another table, I started up conversation this time. With shifty eye contact and fidgety fingers, the two men offered only monosyllables. The few others that I said hi to seemed disinterested and shuffled on about their way. Finally, I struck up conversation with a young guy with a dog. Easy ice breaker. He opened up to me and seemed quite conflicted about his place in life. Some people long to be seen; others long to be heard. Through his red eyes, I could feel his struggle so I kept the conversation going then eventually asked if I could snap a quick photo of his dog. Hesitantly, he went back and forth on it, insecurely fumbling over his words for such a long time that enough space opened up for me to feel guilt that I’d asked in the first place, then finally, in what felt like a hard feat, he declared politely that he would rather not.
Zero photos were shot that day. Not a single one.
Was it possible that all these years, the homeless were so accepting of me because I was female and not male? Is it way less threatening to have a photo taken by a female outsider than a male outsider? Afterall, this is a distrusting, potentially paranoid population, particularly the women, who no doubt experienced their share of sexual abuse, if not rape, on numerous occasions by men. On the other hand, men appear infinitely more interested and curious when a woman is behind the camera.
Just as I began to feel dejected in my new role as a male photographer, Pastor Mark called me to shadow a volunteer.
“Be careful and if you run into any problems, just come find one of us. If anyone gives you a hard time just walk away. It can be a difficult population and many of these people have mental health issues,” Mark explained to me.
I wasn’t deterred. I had photographed the homeless for a decade, used my intuition and instinct, well aware of the risks so I let his advice roll off my shoulders and assured him,
“Oh yeah, I’ve taken photos of the homeless before. People are usually pretty accepting of me being around and if they don’t want their photo taken then I totally respect that!”
“Well be careful here or you could get punched in the face. Some of the people are in and out of jail and they can be dangerous.” He chuckled at my over-confidence.
Old news. Thing is, never had anyone warned me in such a direct manner so I instantly envisioned myself bloody. A face with no teeth, I imagined. Men are way less likely to hit a female. It was uncomfortably clear to me that I was in more danger of assault than ever before. Maybe these people would be more suspicious and less forgiving of me now, as a guy, than when confronted by an innocent girl. The definition of safety was being re-written in my head.
Fear had never defined me. How ironic to experience more fear in one week as male, than 36 years as female. Perhaps the deficit of knowledge of the subtle nuances in the code of male socialization, caused me to feel ill-equipped in my new gender reality.
While being seen as a man, fulfilled me, I realized this came at a price. People don’t just see gender; for them, my male presence elicits a wide range of corresponding emotions, past experiences, and expectations of how I might treat them. Always an incredibly intuitive person, able to absorb the energy around me, perceiving the space between words, sight and sound, and swimming in undercurrents, energy around me was forever changed.
So heavy, I now feel the cumulative weight on my shoulders of everybody’s bad experiences with men.
I refuse to give up.
I welcome the opportunity to understand this world from multiple perspectives. Passionate about preserving a moment of raw human emotion through a hobby that relies on human interaction, ironically, I now see my new self, reflected back at me through others. I am an incomplete project.
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