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Friday, April 19, 2024

Photographer captures strength of transgender youth amidst a wave of anti-trans legislation – Boulder Daily Camera

If there’s one thing that Jesse Freidin can do, it’s capture someone’s soul.

Rahliek, Age 20, Virginia. (Jesse Freidin/Courtesy photo)
Rahliek, Age 20, Virginia. (Jesse Freidin/Courtesy photo)

No, Freidin doesn’t possess powers similar to that of a Disney witch — rather, the lauded photographer, artist and educator has a rare talent for documenting the essence of his subjects in a way that goes beyond the frame.

From his critically acclaimed “When Dogs Heal” project that captured people living with HIV and their dogs who saved them, to his viral series “Doggie Gaga Project,” snaps of pooches on Polaroid dressed in Lady Gaga’s most iconic looks, Freidin’s images are disarming, intimate, joyful and have a beautiful way of plunging the viewer into the subject’s world — whether that subject is a puppy or a person.

For a decade and a half, before COVID-19 hit, Freidin garnered a reputation as the country’s leading canine fine arts photographer by telling stories about unconditional love and the human condition — with dogs at the center.

In recent years, however, Freidin’s work has evolved from the cute to the more contemplative.

“During the pandemic, I felt like I had said everything that I had wanted to say about the dog/human connection,” Freidin said. “I, as a queer person and member of the trans community, felt increasingly concerned and angry about the start of the anti-trans laws that were gaining momentum.”

In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, the United States saw a significant surge in the amount of anti-trans legislation being introduced to the House — 144 bills, to be exact, according to Trans Legislation Tracker. Bills like Arkansas’ “Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act,” which aimed to ban gender-affirming care, as well as Montana’s “Save Women’s Sports Act”, slated to stop trans girls and women from participating in women’s sports teams, were among the 18 that were passed into law.

Ora, Age 16, Illinois. (Jesse Freidin/Courtesy photo)
Ora, Age 16, Illinois. (Jesse Freidin/Courtesy photo)

By 2023, the trend continued to increase with a record-breaking fourth consecutive year of anti-trans bills being considered nationwide, according to translegislation.com. Hundreds of anti-trans bills continue to be pushed in 2024, and 11 of them have already passed — all within the first three months of the year.

It is within this very universe that Freidin’s latest photo series is set.

“Are You OK?” documents the experiences and narratives of transgender and nonbinary youth residing in the United States during this period of severe and regressive anti-trans legislation. The powerful collection, currently on display at the Dairy Arts Center, delves deep into the challenges faced by these individuals during this turbulent period.

At 7 p.m. Friday, the Dairy Arts Center will host Freidin in a free event to discuss his work, offering attendees a unique opportunity to gain insight into the stories behind the photographs and engage in meaningful dialogue about the pressing issues affecting the transgender and nonbinary community.

“Are You OK?” goes beyond a traditional gallery show. Alongside the Dairy Arts Center’s visual arts curator Drew Austin, Freidin took this project “outside of the box” — literally — and displayed the photographs on the Dairy’s exterior walls, like an outdoor portrait hall. The images are on view alongside a transcribed interview between Freidin and the photograph’s subject and will be on display through May.

Also included are QR codes that link to an audio recording of each interview. This approach to the exhibit allows audiences to hear each subject’s stories in their own words, letting transgender and nonbinary youth be at the center of their narrative.

“The only people, at this point, that can be trusted to speak about the harms being done by this legislation, and the only people who should be speaking about trans lives, are trans people,” Freidin said. “Nobody else. That’s why I did this project — because the information out there is actively harming us.”

One photograph tells the story of 23-year-old Juls. Through bold and brightly painted eyelids, Juls stares confidently at the camera, flanked by another person — Juls’ mother, whose face is out of frame, but whose hand rests gently on her child’s shoulder.

Looking into Jules’ face while listening to the recorded interview is powerful. The experience is immersive, and it feels like Juls is right there, in real life, talking to you about her world. It’s beautiful, it’s poignant and you hear her story twice as loud. It hurts.

Portrait of Juls, age 23, Florida. (Jesse Freidin/Courtesy photo)
Portrait of Juls, age 23, Florida. (Jesse Freidin/Courtesy photo)

“I just don’t understand why, instead of going forward, which is what we’re supposed to do, we’re going backwards,” Juls said to Freidin in her interview. “I come from Brazil, and only now are we starting to make change in our community. Brazil is one of the biggest countries in the world that kills trans people, but trans people are still making progress there. And here we’re going backwards.”

Despite her fears and trepidation, Juls also expresses gratitude for her mother, who, though in the background, has remained a supportive presence in Juls’ life. This theme is consistent across every one of Freidin’s portraits, with parents or parent figures present in the image — symbolizing their presence in their children’s lives.

“We have data that says having one supportive adult in a trans young person’s life decreases their suicide risk 40 percent,” Freidin said.

“Having supportive families will not keep a trans kid or adult protected from the harms of the world, but it is a fact that having supportive parents gives trans kids a chance to grow up,” Freidin said. ‘That is really all that anyone paying attention is fighting for. We cannot guarantee that any trans person will live a long happy life because we can’t guarantee that for any human. But what we can try to do is set kids up for success. And that is completely dependent on whether or not they have supportive adults in their lives.”

At Friday’s event at the Dairy’s Carsen Theater, Freidin will discuss his inspirations behind “Are You OK,” while further educating attendees about anti-trans legislation, followed by a Q&A and discussion.

Austin, Dairy’s visual arts curator, said that Freidin’s talk will offer an opportunity for attendees to receive factual and nuanced information from a transgender artist who knows better than anyone how anti-trans legislation affects their lives, rights and freedoms. Moreover, the event serves as a platform for individuals to support transgender youth, confront their biases, advocate for inclusivity and speak out against injustice.

“It’s important to explain why we’re doing this project, and why it matters,” Austin said. “We’re making space for people to share their experience through art or words, but it’s also creating space for people to be seen. It’s about showing people that trans youth exist, and they’re real, and they’re not going anywhere. Regardless of what your opinions are, these people are just youth. They’re kids. They’re just trying to be themselves, and they’re under attack.”

Austin continued: “They don’t have the right to play basketball with their friends on the team with whatever gender they identify with, or they don’t have the right to go to the bathroom that they feel comfortable going in. Our government is trying to silence them and invisibilise them, and making stances that these people don’t exist.”

Freidin’s work is a testament to the fact that trans youth do exist. And right now, they are not OK.

For more information about the project, or to reserve a spot at Friday’s event, visit thedairy.org/event/are-you-ok

Local support

• Out Boulder County provides a variety of programs for LGBTQ+ people, including transgender youth, in Boulder County, including youth programs, support groups, social events, mental health referrals. Learn more at outboulder.org.

• Boulder County Public Health offers a variety of resources and links for inclusiveness for health and mental health providers. Learn more at bouldercounty.gov/families/lgbtqia/trans-resources-in-boulder-county.

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