As many of you may know transgender people have become a hot topic in the United States of America. Streams of ink, oodles of pixels, and hours of podcasting were spent demonizing trans people of all ages and painting the community and its allies with the most vile brush. While it’s true that most trans adults have some kind of built-in resilience — after all, we made it to adulthood — we know that trans kids are at risk thanks to current reactionary rhetoric. My question was, “Is a photographer doing his part in telling the truth about trans children and their families?” The answer, after some research, was Jesse Freidin and his project are you ok
Jesse Freidin’s must-have camera gear
I always keep things extremely simple. When I film I use a Hasselblad 500c with an 80mm lens. When I shoot digitally, 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 Phobographer: Please tell us something about yourself. How did you get into photography?
Jesse Freidin: I am a queer/trans identified professional photographer and writer and have been running my photo studio full-time for the past 16 years. My focus has always been portraiture and storytelling – first through private commissions for fine art photography of dogs (I was a leader in this field for many years) and now through this current project.are you ok‘. Photography allows me to connect deeply with people. By telling other people’s stories, I’m really only telling my own.
My obsession with photography started as a child. I would steal my parents’ Polaroid camera and use it to take pictures of my neighbors. In college I started collecting vintage Polaroid cameras and taught myself how to use simple cameras to tell simple stories. I don’t have an MFA, but instead received an incredible apprenticeship 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 thankful that I love what I do, even in the most difficult moments.
The Phoblographer: If you watch the news, anyone could understand why you’re doing this. would you like to explain it in your own terms?
Jesse Freidin: As a queer person, I am deeply concerned about my trans community and the silence that surrounds our struggles. Marginalized groups are never guaranteed safety, and right now, trans youth is the hot topic in fascist Republican circles. Anti-trans rhetoric and legislation are at an all-time high and I didn’t feel like the right stories were being told by the right people. I started a project that gives the mic out to the harmed trans and non-binary children in the hope that elevating their stories would help educate others and bring about change.
The Phoblographer: Something we quickly noticed in your word is that peanut-like appearance of your photos. The children are the stars and the parents appear in the background as faceless pillars ready to support their children. How did you come up with this idea?
Jesse Freidin: I’ve been trying to conceive this project for a long time. I knew I wanted to focus only on the child while expressing the unconditional love of their families. Due to the size difference between kids and adults, this concept of not showing the parents’ faces surfaced, and after doing some testing in my studio, I knew it was a very unique and powerful format for the series. To me it means that the only way to have a living trans child is to support them. It is the parents’ support and presence that counts, not their personality or identity. I just wanted to show support, almost in an abstract way, and that’s how I ended up doing this kind of headless portrait.
The Phoblographer: What is your usual way of working? How do you like your models? Is there a way to support this project?
Jesse Freidin: Finding families to participate is very hard work. I do immense research on LGBTQ support groups, parent groups, nonprofit youth centers, etc. in every state I travel to. I then speak to countless program coordinators and parents to build trust and answer questions, and rely on them to help those who share information with their communities. At this point, the photo sessions fill up pretty quickly because kids and families really want to join in, which is a really amazing feeling.
‘are you ok‘ is funded entirely by donations. People can learn more and support the project here: https://www.areyouokportraits.com/support
the Phoblographer: Are you concerned about the possible repercussions at this rather hostile time for trans and queer people in the United States?
Jesse Freidin: Yes. I am always concerned for the safety of the children and parents I photograph and for myself. I speak extensively with children and families about the pros and cons of participating in such a public project, including the danger they put themselves in embark Nevertheless, every single participant says yes to the project. They want their stories to be told, they want to be heard, they want to bring about change, and they fully understand that sacrifice requires. It’s not a safe time to be queer or trans (or female or BIPOC or Latinx or Jew etc.), nor is it a time to be silent.
The Phoblographer: Finally, is there anything else 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 see through your lens are things that don’t challenge you, you’re not working hard enough. Taking care of an important cause and building a personal project around it is so rewarding and it will always help to advance your career.
All images by Jesse Freidin, used with permission. Be sure to visit Jesse’s website to learn more and learn more about “Are You OK?” Would you like to be featured? Click here to see how.