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On Transgender Day of Visibility, a portrait series celebrates black beauty

Texas Isaiah's portrait of Star for the "Every Image Is an Offering" project.
(Texas Isaiah)

For artist Texas Isaiah, the annual International Transgender Day of Visibility is complicated.

Although representation and visibility in the media are steps forward, coverage often centers on celebrities and leaves others out of the conversation, painting the picture that the community is “doing OK and flourishing, when that isn’t the case,” he said, pointing to the alarming murder and suicide rates of black and brown transgender people.

A collage of images of Vanessa, a subject in Texas Isaiah's project "Every Image Is an Offering."
Vanessa, a subject in Texas Isaiah’s project “Every Image Is an Offering.”
(Texas Isaiah)

After mobile photo and video editing app VSCO approached Texas Isaiah about creating a project around the day, he partnered with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a black transgender advocacy organization named after the activist who was an icon of the 1969 Stonewall riots.

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Texas Isaiah thought about ways to contribute to an evolving conversation about the images of black transgender people and what the late Johnson would love to see in image-making, then he created a portrait series on the everyday lives of black transgender people.

Portrait of Davia in the artist Texas Isaiah's new project.
(Texas Isaiah )

“Every Image Is an Offering” is available on VSCO’s discover page. It features intimate portraits of 11 black transgender, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary artists, musicians and activists in and around Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

The project is about changing the narrative, Texas Isaiah said.

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“There are images of black trans people that are circulating throughout media, but the majority are taken by white, cishet men,” referring to cisgender and heterosexual men.

As a black transgender artist, being behind and in front of the camera offered a way to “step into these spaces of folks and relate to them in a particular way, but also offer myself up to learn how to approach this practice.”

For Elle Hearns, the founding executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, the photos represent truth and power.

The project is an opportunity to “see ourselves through our own eyes as opposed to the eyes of people who want to feel good about what they think they provided us as black trans people,” Hearns said. “It’s something that I wish we had more of in our world ... especially through an artistic expression.”

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Jesi, with arms in the air and seen from behind, in "Every Image Is an Offering."
Jesi in the project titled “Every Image Is an Offering.”
(Texas Isaiah )

Texas Isaiah worked collaboratively with the subjects in his photos. He described the process as a hangout session typically lasting 30 to 45 minutes. It was important that the sitters felt comfortable.

It also was important to shift the dynamic of photography, giving people agency in the way their image was created.

“These individuals, they show up for themselves,” he said. “They show up to tell their own stories. And I can be a conduit to them and how they choose to speak about themselves and their lived experiences.”

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Self-portrait of Texas Isaiah, at a mirror, holding a camera in front of his face.
Self-portrait of Texas Isaiah
(Texas Isaiah )

Hearns hopes the black transgender community in the U.S. and abroad can see the portraits as a “mirror of hope and opportunity.”

And for allies: The “images reflect that our history has not been won,” she said. “There’s great work ahead of us, and we do have leaders, and we do have people who are fighting for themselves.”


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