Sara Swaty has a story like so many photographers — how her parents gave her that first camera, a 35mm Vivitar; how she obsessed over making images in high school; how she studied it in college.
But a key moment for her photography came in one of her cultural anthropology classes at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. When they discussed gender, and how it’s perceived and treated differently around the world, she realized it's not always the rigid male-female dichotomy she recognized.
“When I was learning these things, I could feel my own bias,” said Swaty, a Los Angeles-based photographer. “There are all of these ideals surrounding masculinity and femininity, what a woman is supposed to be, what a man is supposed to be. Why do I think that, and what has made me think that?”
Gender, she said, is a gradient, “just endless.” She began to seek out people across the spectrum — men and women who shaved their body hair, or didn’t, or took hormones to alter their appearance, for example.
After graduating in 2011, she returned to her hometown of St. Louis with plans to continue her project. She found a muse, she said, in an old high school classmate.
She remembered Hayley as a cute, funny lesbian. But now Hayley was Harrison, transitioning to a man.
“Everyone, when they’re transitioning, feels very different. Some aren’t very open. It’s a very personal, deep thing to be going through,” Swaty said. “Harrison was just so easy to work with. He was just open and seemed incredibly happy.”
Session after session, Swaty shot portraits and moments with Harrison and the friends and family around him. She kept the photos black-and-white to bring Harrison to the forefront with no distractions. Her pictures capture his pain during his early shots of testosterone, and his joy later on as he shares breakfast with his nephews.
Swaty loved shooting Harrison with his girlfriend, Heaven. She watched how they interacted and listened to how they spoke to each other. She could see how it affected her images.
“It eases everyone’s comfort level,” she said. “Watching small, delicate interactions between people - they make me smile.”
Many months into the project, she chose to move to Los Angeles. To pursue photography, she decided, she needed a different surrounding, a different community. St. Louis will always have her heart, she said, but it was hard to leave Harrison.
“It really killed me,” she said.
She’s still shooting Harrison, sometimes just for a few hours during a trip home, or for longer, planned sessions. It’s a time for photographer and subject to catch up, recharge and reflect.
In some ways, the project is more than she ever hoped for. She’s learned a lot from her relationship with Harrison, and the work inspires her. Each session becomes her new favorite. “I’m sure my next session will be my favorite, too,” she said.
But the images themselves still have work to do. Swaty worries about Harrison and other transgender people she’s photographed. She knows they could be targets for violence. She sometimes speaks to people who view her photographs, and she hears them struggle with their own ideas about gender and where Harrison fits within them.
“What I would love to accomplish: that people don’t hate what they don’t understand,” Swaty said, choking up at the idea of someone she knows being hurt. “I just think it’s beautiful to be able to experience both genders in one lifetime.”
Harrison, she said, is happy in his own body. In their last session, he told Swaty he finally felt that he looks as he should.
And Swaty still believes that “gender is a wonderful, beautiful gradient.”
“I like to think of it as a circle, where you can be at any intersecting point. It doesn’t matter to me where you land, in between or outside. Why do you have to pick?”
- Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN