As many of you may know, transgender people have become a hot topic across the United States of America. Streams of ink, oodles of pixels, and hours of podcasts have been spent trying to demonize trans people of all ages, painting the community and its allies with the vilest brush. While it’s true that most trans adults have some kind of built-in resilience —after all, we made it adulthood— we know that trans kids are in danger thanks to the current rhetoric spewed by reactionaries. My question was, “Is any photographer doing their part to tell the truth about trans kids and their families?” The answer, after some research, was Jesse Freidin and his project Are You OK?
The Essential Camera Gear of Jesse Freidin
- Hasselblad 500c
- Canon 5D
I always keep things extremely simple. If I’m shooting film, I use a Hasselblad 500c with an 80mm lens. If I’m shooting digital I use a Canon 5D with a 50mm lens. Natural light is my preference, and I rarely use an assistant. I never go to work without cough drops and granola bars in my camera bag!
The Phoblographer: Please tell us a bit about yourself. How did you start on photography?
Jesse Freidin: I’m a queer/trans-identified professional photographer and author, and I’ve been running my photography studio full-time for the past 16 years. My focus has always been portraiture and storytelling – first through fine art dog photography private commissions (I was a leader in that field for many years), and now through this current project, ‘Are You OK?’. Photography lets me connect with people deeply. By telling others’ stories, I’m really just telling my own.
My obsession with photography began as a kid. I’d steal my parents’ Polaroid camera and use it to take photographs of my neighbors. In college, I began collecting vintage Polaroid cameras and taught myself how to use simple cameras to tell simple stories. I did not get an MFA but instead got an incredible education as an apprentice at a high-end family photography studio in San Francisco, where I became an associate and started my own career. I’ve had studios in San Francisco, Los Angeles, The Berkshires, and Santa Fe. It’s been a busy career so far, and I’m so grateful to love what I do, even in the most difficult moments.
The Phoblographer: Taking a look at the news, anyone could understand why you’re doing this. would you mind explaining it in your own terms?
Jesse Freidin: As a queer person, I am extremely concerned for my trans community and the silence surrounding our struggles. Marginalized groups are never guaranteed safety, and right now trans youth are the hot topic in fascist, republican circles. Anti-trans rhetoric and legislation are at an all-time high, and I did not feel that the right stories were being told by the right people. I created a project that would pass the microphone to the trans and non-binary kids who were being harmed, in hopes that elevating their stories would help educate others and create change.
The Phoblographer: Something we quickly noticed in your word is the peanut-esque look of your photos. It’s the kids who are the stars, and parents appear in the background as faceless pillars, ready to support their children. How did you come by this idea?
Jesse Freidin: I struggled for a long time trying to conceptualize this project. I knew I wanted to focus only on the child, while also articulating unconditional love from their families. Because of the size difference between kids and adults, this concept of not showing the parents’ faces bubbled to the surface and after doing a few tests in my studio, I knew it was a very unique and powerful format for the series. To me, it connotes that the only way to have a living trans child is to support them. It’s the parents’ support and presence that matters, not their personalities or identities. I only wanted to show support, almost in an abstract way, and that’s how I landed on this kind of headless portrait.
The Phoblographer: What’s your usual way to work? How do you find your models? Is there any way to support this endeavor?
Jesse Freidin: Finding families to participate is very hard work. I do an immense amount of research on LGBTQ support groups, parent groups, non-profit youth centers etc in each state that I am traveling to. I then speak to countless program coordinators and parents to create trust and answer questions, and rely on them to help share the information with their communities. At this point, photo sessions fill up fairly quickly because kids and families really want to get involved which is a really amazing feeling.
‘Are You OK?’ is completely funded by donations. People can learn more and support the project here: https://www.areyouokportraits.com/support
the Phoblographer: Are you afraid of possible repercussions in this quite hostile era for trans and queer people in the United States of America?
Jesse Freidin: Yes. I am always concerned for the safety of the kids and parents I photograph, and for myself. I speak with kids and families at length about the pros and cons of participating in such a public project, including the danger they are putting themselves in. That being said, every single participant still says yes to the project. They want their stories told, they want to be heard, they want to create change and they completely understand that that requires sacrifice. It is not a safe time to be queer or trans (or a woman, or BIPOC, or Latinx, or a Jew, etc), and it is also not a time to be silent.
The Phoblographer:Lastly, is there something you would like to say to our readers?
Jesse Freidin: Photography is an incredibly powerful tool. Don’t take it for granted, and don’t let yourself get lazy. If the only things you are seeing through your lens are things that don’t challenge you, you aren’t working hard enough. Caring about an important cause and building a personal project around that topic is so rewarding, and it will always help advance your career.