In 2003, photographer Jana Marcus started photographing and interviewing trans people for a small photo exhibit. She didn’t know at the time that the exhibit would grow into a major project, Transfigurations, that would travel to galleries around the country for several years and receive prestigious awards and universal praise.
Transfigurations has recently been released as an elegant softcover book that is destined to be in every trans person’s collection (and on his or her coffee table, as well). With a foreword by renowned trans activist Jamison Green and over 100 pages of photographs and bios of trans men and women, Transfigurations presents the true diversity and varied experiences of the trans community.
Matt Kailey: Transfigurations, which is an absolutely beautiful book depicting a diverse cross-section of the trans community, was originally an award-winning gallery exhibit. Can you explain how the whole project got started and why you decided to take on this project?
Jana Marcus: I’m a documentary photographer, which for me means I enjoy telling stories through images and words. I’ve always been drawn to subjects I don’t understand, and try to discover answers through the camera.
Transfigurations started when I went to graduate school in 2003 and had the opportunity to spend three years creating personal work, which is a huge luxury for any artist, especially for me, who had been working as a commercial photographer for years. Around the time I started grad school, I had rented a room in my home to a young man who was studying at the local university. After six months, he shared with me that he had been a woman five years earlier, and told me about his transition process. I was amazed.
I didn’t know any transgender people at the time and certainly had no idea women could become men. His story stayed of great interest to me, so as I was deciding what my thesis in grad school would be, I decided to photographically investigate who trans men were and their thought processes around what influenced their concepts of masculinity. The original work was twenty pieces titled The Making of a Man. After grad school, I took six months to photograph trans women and their concepts of femininity. I then repackaged the entire work, of both trans men and women, and that became the exhibit Transfigurations.
MK: How did you round up the participants, and was it difficult to find people who wanted to be photographed?
JM: In the beginning, I didn’t know any trans people. My housemate had moved on to another university, so I started to attend local support group meetings for trans people and asked if anyone would be interested in being photographed for my project. They all thought I was nuts and gave me the cold shoulder! What I soon realized was that the folks in the support group meetings were involved in a complex process of discovering who they were. I was searching for the voice of people who had already been through the physical and mental process and were able to talk about it with perspective.
My partner remembered she knew someone who had transitioned, so several phone calls later, Stu agreed to come to the studio and be photographed and interviewed. He thought I was “cool,” so he told some of his friends, and then the word spread like wildfire about the project. It took about six months to get rolling, but once it did, I had more people willing to participate than I could actually photograph and interview with the given time period to create the work.
To this day, having photographed over a hundred trans men and women, I’m still amazed at the courage and willingness of every one of my subjects for coming forward, being out, and giving a voice to the trans community – spreading trans awareness through this work. It’s been an incredibly moving experience for both myself as an artist, and for the people in the work.
MK: In what ways did this project change you, if at all?
JM: I became very aware of the gender boxes we are all put in, in this culture, something I hadn’t really thought about before. I also came to understand how gender expression in many ways is a performance. Every day I perform my gender based on the choices I make – the clothes I put on, etc. Mostly, this entire experience has been incredibly humbling to me, and I’m very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to bring the transgender story to the mass public.
MK: What were the responses that you saw when people viewed the gallery exhibit? What effects did the exhibit have on non-trans people who might not have had a lot of exposure to trans people? What were the responses of trans people viewing the exhibit?
JM: As an artist, we often create in a vacuum, unaware of how our work will be taken by the public once it is out there in public view. I was very clear about my intentions of representing trans people in a non-sensational way. For lack of a better word, I really wanted to “normalize” them to the mass public – to show that they are no different from anyone else, they’ve just had a much harder time getting to a place of feeling comfortable with themselves. The work on the whole is really about being men and women – about gender identity – which everyone can relate to, no matter where they may fall on the gender spectrum.
The response to the first gallery exhibit, at San Jose State University, blew me away. About 100 people came to the opening, and everyone was crying as they slowly went through the exhibit, looking at the images and reading the words of the subjects they were looking at. Attendees were incredible moved. A mother of a transgender child came up to me and said, “Thank you for doing this work. It lets me know that my child can grow up and have a good life.”
At the same opening, a middle-aged, straight, white male came up to me and said, “I didn’t know anything about transgender people before seeing this work, and I’ve learned something new – but mostly the work has made me think about the kind of man I am projecting out into the world.”
The trans community has really rallied around this work and supported it wholeheartedly, feeling that it is one of the only fair representations out there of who they are and their journeys of becoming whole.
So you can see the work has moved many people from all walks of life, which has been incredibly rewarding for me as a documentarian and as a person. I think the universal appeal of what it means to be men and women in our culture is one of the facets that has made this work so popular. My goal in my work has always been to start the wheels of social change into motion. I’m very proud of Transfigurations and how it has helped so many people.
MK: The gallery exhibit won several awards and traveled around the country for several years before it was turned into a book. Did you know when you started that it would eventually be a book? How did that come about, and how has the response been to the book?
JM: When I started the work, I had no idea it would be as popular as it has been for the last six years. Having published before, I took this to my agent in New York, but he refused to rep it to publishers because he told me he had personal issues with trans people. Without an agent, I couldn’t get in front of publishers, and I found myself stuck. Several university professors wanted to use the work as a textbook in their sociology/gender studies classes. So last year I decided to look into self-publishing. This gave me the opportunity to produce a book of the highest quality duotones, but it was very expensive.
A friend recommended I try kickstarter.com, a website that puts artists together with donors, and we raised $13,000 in ten days! The trans community really rallied around the book and together we raised the $20,000 to produce the book. That was an amazing time! So we raised the money, and the book designer, Mark Ong, and I produced the book within two months and sent it to press overseas. It officially came out in October 2011. The response has been stupendous.
MK: Please give us a little of your personal background. How did you first get interested in photography, who were your influences, and how did you develop as a photographer?
JM: Since I was young, I have had this unquenching desire to document things. I love images. I love trying to capture something in a single frame that moves someone else. I moved to New York after high school and apprenticed with a few fashion photographers before going to art school at the School of Visual Arts. Early on, I realized I want to say something about the world around me in my work and immediately ditched the idea of becoming a fashion photographer for more journalistic endeavors.
But the fashion influences have definitely stayed with me. Fashion photogs are doing some of the most cutting edge photography out there. My greatest influences have been the Hollywood glamour photographers of the ’30s and ’40s, like George Hurell – rich black-and-white images with stunning lighting. You can definitely see that influence in Transfigurations.
I’ve enjoyed a nice career as a commercial photographer, specializing in performing arts, magazine editorial, and portraiture work – hey, we all have to make a living – but documentary work is really where my heart is. In undergrad, I studied sociology/community Studies at UC Santa Cruz and got my MFA in photography from San Jose State University. I recently was awarded Community Activist of the Year by the Bay Area Elections Committee for the book.
MK: What is your next project, or what are you currently working on?
JM: I’m currently writing a novel – but I’m thinking about Transfigurations: Ten Years Later and photographing everyone in the book ten years after the fact. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
MK: What else would you like to say?
JM: I see myself as a storyteller, a conduit in many ways, to bringing stories to the public in the hopes of breaking down stereotypes and bringing about awareness, to start the wheels of social change, to use the power of the still image to inform and bring understanding to issues – to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice of their own.
In my industry, we believe images can change the world. That may be naïve, but we are all aware that since the beginning of photography, images have provoked reactions in people, and those reactions have caused change to happen. This is because photographs are more than just a visual record – they engage your compassion, becoming a springboard for interpretation and debate and hopefully delve into life’s deeper meanings.
Transfigurations captures a moment in the life of each of the people in it, and these images are a powerful statements of what is and what can be. My goal with Transfigurations has been to put a human face on the transgender community. I wanted to make people care about this community as much as I have come to care about it.
This book is about hope – hope for awareness and understanding in the mainstream culture, and hope for every single person in the world who is trans or thinking about transitioning, that the journey is doable and can happen – and, as Dan Savage would put it, it does “get better.” In the end, the work is about being a human being and celebrating the human spirit.