The Trans Artists Highlighting the People No One Else Wants to See

We talked with visionary trans photographer Amos Mac about his teen magazines, working with Juliana Huxtable, and giving greater visibility to people not usually represented in mainstream culture.

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Oct 3 2015, 6:00pm

Photos via Amos Mac

New York community leaders, politicians, and artists gathered in Chelsea last night to honor the work of two transgender visionaries: Amos Mac and Juliana Huxtable. The young artists work in a variety of mediums and have collaborated together. Callen-Lorde Community Health Center—the country's largest provider of transgender health care—had organized the event to celebrate Mac and Huxtable's work for the trans community.

Since 2009, Mac and Rocco Kayiatos have published a magazine about transgender male culture called Original Plumbing. In the magazine, Mac's photography showcases trans men who rarely receive media representation. Where mainstream media often reduces complicated human experiences into digestible generalities, Mac captures the individual. He depicts people we've never seen before, who are all around us.

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At the ceremony, he wore a sharp, dark button-up, while Huxtable rocked an appropriately eccentric eye-ball encrusted metal choker and ankle length orange leather trench. They stood before a Callen-Lorde banner while photographers flashed like paparazzi. Inside, Callen-Lorde's board members and donors bumped elbows with a crowd of trans art and nightlife luminaries. Art star De Se poised glamorously by the DJ table as Senator Brad Hoylman chatted up his colleagues near the coat check.

Photo via Amos Mac

Huxtable's friend, artist Neon Christina, spoke into the microphone, honoring her. Huxtable took the stage. Tearing up, she thanked Callen Lorde for providing the trans community with essential health services. "For people like me and Amos," she said, "Healthcare can be, essentially, the foundation for your dreams." The crowd erupted in applause. Next, Finn Brigham, Director of Care Coordination at Callen Lorde, took the stage to present Mac with his award.

"Seeing [Amos Mac's magazine, Original Plumbing] for the first time helped me to understand my own identity," Hansbury said. "It was the first time I had ever seen trans masculine people presented in what I consider to be the perfect way: sexy without being fetishized, confident without being made to explain themselves, and beautiful in a way that was totally unapologetic. For trans men, positive media portrayals are few and far between. Sexy, beautiful, diverse, and queer portrayals don't even really exist, except for OP magazine."

After the show, I caught up with Mac to discuss Callen Lorde, his photography, and what it's like collaborating with Huxtable. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo via Amos Mac

Broadly: You're a photographer, a publisher, and a writer. How have your different art practices influenced each other?
Amos Mac: I think growing up and having this deep love for magazines, especially of the teen pop star variety, which is an interest that hasn't gone away regardless of how many years I continue to roam this Earth, influenced my photography and the way I wanted to share it with the world. I also tend to see art zines or "self published" magazines as a type of accessible art. I'm usually more interested in seeing art on the pages of a magazine than on the walls of a gallery, so maybe that's why I gravitated toward putting my work in that format.

You shoot a lot of portraiture, what does it take to capture that je ne sais quoi - the identity of your subject?'
I have no idea. I just try to make each subject comfortable, try to make conversation, try to connect, to allow the subject to show me their true self. You know, if that's what they want.

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Transition is such a personal experience, and it can make a major impact on so many parts of our lives. What does being trans mean to you, as an artist?
Being trans is an experience I have. It continues to shift and change forms in my life as I do different things and have different moments and relationships. Being labeled (by others, media outlets, etc) a "trans artist" is something that has placed my work in the eyeline of certain communities, which in turn has kind of taken a life of its own and given me a lot of visibility.

What does adaptation mean to you?
Adaptation feels like a process, similar to transition. It's a way to deal with the way the world sees you, and how that can change depending on your presentation as a human. Speaking from my experience, after being assumed to be a specific gender growing up and people reacting to you as a specific gender in the world, and then having the experience shift, it's a learning process and something that has never stopped.

Photo via Amos Mac

What is your greatest accomplishment?
I made a 3-layer vegan chocolate cake for my friend's birthday, and it was delicious.

Had you been photographing prior to the images you shot for the first issue of OP?
Yes, I had been photographing for years before that, had various art shows in small spaces like bars, and little boutiques, and things like that. I'd shoot portraits of queer people, and people in their own spaces, and also of moments I'd witness out in the world. I guess you call that "street photography." Then I started photographing trans men in the San Francisco area, which inspired Original Plumbing.

Your publication, Trans Lady Fanzine, featured the artist Zackary Drucker. Has the interplay between masculine and feminine trans experiences been an inspiration in your work?
Absolutely. Especially with other trans artists. During the collaboration with Zackary, it was a moment where I really felt the bond of working with another artist and creating a body of work that was something I couldn't have planned for. It just unfolded beautifully and the experience was a gift.

Was your photography prior to OP also documenting trans male culture?
I was photographing trans people, but I was also doing a lot of street photography, capturing a lot of moments - nothing that was trans focused the way that my work can is now. A lot of funny images, just moments I would notice. I always had my camera with me, a big heavy thing in my backpack. I have a great photo of two girls photographing each other on a completely empty A Train, as I was on my way to the airport, from like, 2004. This was before the iPhone, so the girls were using a point and shoot and kept trading places and really using the benches as their runway, so to speak. I asked them if I could document their shoot, and they were into it. I also have a wonderful photo of vomit all over the floor of a packed L train. The faces of the commuters and body language in that one is hilarious. Also from around 2003-2004.

Photo by Amos Mac and Zackary Drucker

Your body of work reads to me as an unintentional documentation of history; you've captured the images of so many people whose identities have had such marginal representation.
It was my intention to document human experiences I wasn't seeing in the media, to carve out a space where people would be able to see themselves reflected, or to inspire them to do the same. I was sick of waiting around to see myself reflected in the media, so I did something about it.

There aren't that many people whose legacy follows them in their lifetime - and you're so young, and already feel like an artist who's made a major impact, and whose legacy is self-evident. How do you hope your work affects the world?
If it changed a mind, or brought some sort of visibility and understanding to people about human experiences, that makes me happy. To show people that there isn't only one way to be male, female, trans*, alien, other-worldly, or human. I hope it shows trans people that we are in charge of our own representation. There isn't a correct way to be, other than the way you really are.

What does the future of transgender representation look like?
It's hard to tell. Follow me on instagram to find out!