Some people might be forgiven for thinking that transgender communities are a relatively modern phenomena. And yet, if you delve into history you will discover that a number of communities throughout the world have embraced the idea of gender variance.
One such example is the two-spirit traditions of North America. Two-spirit is a modern umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe individuals who take on an alternative gender status, different from either man or woman. Historically, in many indigenous North American tribal communities, two-spirit traditions and individuals were not merely respected, but were often considered doubly-blessed – possessing both the spirit of a man, and the spirit of a woman.
Over time, however, as a result of outside influences, members of indigenous communities have often been forced to conform to “standard” gender roles, which has resulted in a marked decline and in some cases a total disappearance of these traditional two-spirit roles.
In the middle of the 20th century, prejudice and misunderstanding towards gender variant individuals remained the dominant way of thinking. In fact, to express oneself as transgender was seen by some as an “individual psychopathological deviation from social norms of healthy gender expression.” (Susan Stryker, Transgender History)
It would be nice to think that, over the course of the last few decades, awareness and acceptance of transgender communities has increased.
So, in order to get an insight into how the transgender community is seen today I decided to interview Nicky Ebbage, a non-binary photographer from Bristol and creator of the “Bristol Trans Portraits,” a photography project which Nicky hopes will bring visibility and awareness to the transgender community in Bristol. It is also Nicky’s desire that the project will foster better understanding amongst people who have perhaps never met a transgender person before, while providing an empowering experience for all those who take part.
Nicky believes there’s a distorted view in the collective cultural psyche of who transgender people are and what they look like and, in particular, what transgender women look like, something which has been formed over many decades of misrepresentation in the media.
How did the idea of the Bristol Trans Portrait project come about?
The idea first came to me back in July 2020, after I attended and photographed a trans rights protest in Bristol. Throughout lockdown, I’d become increasingly frustrated at the way trans people were portrayed in the media, and also felt a lot of uncertainty regarding potential reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. I felt really powerless in the face of it all. But when I attended the protest, I suddenly found myself in a group of other trans people for the first time in ages. There were so many passionate people there trying to bring about change, and it made me feel really inspired to try and do something as well, so I started thinking about how I could use my skills to help my community.
Can you tell me a bit about how the project works?
Usually people approach me if they want to get involved, except for the very first person I collaborated with. I saw Maddie Coward speak at the protest mentioned above, and just thought she was incredible! We got chatting on Instagram, I mentioned my idea for the project to her, and she was really keen to help me get it set up.
Since then, all of the other participants have basically been submission based. There’s a participation form on the website that people can fill in, and I tend to get at least one new submission per month – which is pretty convenient, because I only do one new portrait every month! Back in November 2021 I was offered a stall at Trans Pride South West though, and I got about 20 new sign-ups from that – so I’m currently working through a waiting list!
The more difficult part tends to be ensuring I’m representing different demographics in the project. At the moment I’d say the project definitely skews towards representing younger trans people, as all of my participants so far have been under 30. Many older trans people have had quite different experiences, so I’d like to ensure I represent more of those stories in the future, along with more working class folk and people of colour. If the project ever starts to feel like it’s only representing one demographic, I intend to pause the waiting list and start contacting people myself.
The images are all taken in Bristol, usually in recognisable locations around the city. I like to ask my participants if there’s anywhere in the city that they love being, or that feels special to them, and that’s where we end up using. Occasionally someone asks me to suggest a location instead, in which case I tend to go for places which have a lot of colourful features!
What has the response to the project been like?
It’s been really, really positive! I’ve had so many people tell me how much they love the project – both trans people and cisgender (non-trans!) people!
My favourite moments are when the project has been able to get a conversation going in some way. When the Olympics was airing last summer, I did a quick self-portrait on a basketball court, because I wanted to talk about barriers I have faced to playing sport, as a non-binary person. I received so many different responses to that, both online and in person! Other trans people were sharing their own experiences of participating in sport, while many of my cis friends and colleagues started asking me more about it, and telling me they’d never really thought about that aspect of trans experiences before.
It’s really amazing that the project can prompt those kinds of conversations!
In terms of your expectations, have there been any surprises?
Mostly I’m just really amazed at how far the project has reached. In my head I still consider it to be this local community project, so it’s quite strange to think that I have Instagram followers from all over the world! A couple of my Patreon supporters are actually from the USA, which is just mind-blowing, considering I assumed the project would only really be of interest to people from Bristol!
From a personal perspective, how do you feel about the project?
Personally, this project is really empowering for me, in so many different ways. At a very basic level, getting to meet and work with so many different transgender people in Bristol has really helped me reconnect with my community. I’ve made so many new friends, just through working with them on the project, and I’ve been able to have so many wonderful conversations with people!
I think it’s also done a lot towards helping me find my confidence as a photographer. Prior to this project, I actually didn’t have a lot of portrait experience, whereas now portraits are what I spend most of my time doing. I’ve also learnt that I’m a better photographer when I’m allowing myself to be myself. Being transgender is a big part of who I am and how I experience the world, and those experiences shape my approach to working with clients. This project has allowed me to really understand what my own approach is, settle into it, and view it as a strength.
In what ways, if any, has the project had a positive impact on both the participants and yourself?
A lot of participants have told me that taking part was really confidence-boosting for them, which is wonderful.
(Erin Brady (they/them)
On a wider scale, I think this project is slowly having a positive impact on visibility for the trans community. I think creating portraits of the trans community, especially as a trans photographer myself, really does give us a chance to overturn that distorted view of who trans people actually are and what we look like.
Transgender people so rarely get the opportunity to create media about ourselves, but projects like this give us an opportunity to define ourselves, instead of letting others define us. I ask all my participants to submit written text along with their photos if they feel comfortable doing so, so in that sense the project also platforms real transgender experiences.
Finally, Nicky, how do you envisage the project evolving?
I’d love to see the work on display somewhere, and I think it would be a wonderful way to reach more people, and create even more visibility! I also like the idea of creating a book or educational pamphlets. If the project continues to be a success, I’d even like to expand outside of Bristol – either to South West Trans Portraits, or even Trans Portraits UK. I’m definitely getting a bit ahead of myself with that one though!
All of these things are essentially funding dependent, so my first plan for the future is getting to grips with funding applications!
Visit the Bristol Trans Portraits website for more of Nicky's work.