14 Intimate Photos That Depict One Trans Woman's Rapidly Changing Life

Photographed by Melody Melamed.
This article was originally published on September 16, 2016.

On November 11, 2015, Abby Stein came out as transgender and announced that she'd already begun hormone replacement therapy (HRT) on her blog. But what started as a personal declaration became a viral sensation, since Stein has an unusual backstory — she grew up in a deeply religious community as a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn, was married at 18, and had a young son before coming out.

It wasn't long before news organizations were telling her story in simplistic, bold headlines: "Member of prominent Hasidic family from Brooklyn comes out as transgender," "Hasidic groom Yisroel Stein is now a woman called Abby," "I left Hasidism to become a woman."

Almost a year later, it's clear that the conversation around Stein's transition must move beyond what any headline can convey. And thankfully, photographer Melody Melamed worked with Stein in order to do just that; Melamed's photographs reveal a more intimate, nuanced take on a story that was once treated as tabloid fodder.

It wasn't long after Stein went public that she met Melamed, who reached out to her online. Melamed was intrigued by Stein's unique narrative and conveyed as much in her initial messages, explaining that she wanted to help capture the story of Stein's transition. Meanwhile, Stein was drawn to Melamed because she made one thing clear: She had no interest in making Stein go viral all over again.

"I think there’s more to her story than somebody just writing an article about where she grew up," Melamed told Refinery29, adding that she and Stein had an "instant bond" when they first met. "We kind of just got each other, although we were strangers."

Melamed set out to make their first shoot together as intimate as possible, with Stein posing in her underwear and bra — which was "pushing it," according to Stein.

"But I actually liked [shooting] after that. It did help me feel more comfortable," Stein said. "Melody’s really good at pushing my boundaries in a good way, in a very understanding way."

Since then, Melamed has photographed Stein a handful of times; every time they meet, they add another chapter to Stein's story.

"There are some photos where you can see my chest and there’s a huge difference in every way," Stein said. "The facial difference, my hair — everything has changed so much. It’s making me feel more positive."

She added: "A picture speaks a thousand words."

Stein's physical changes are certainly evident in the photos, but Melamed said that Stein's transformation didn't stop at her appearance.

"The photographs we’ve taken together speak so much to her emotional journey," Melamed said. "I’ve been lucky enough to go there with her."

The complete photo series Melamed shot, which debuts next week at New York City's Photoville, takes viewers on Stein's journey, too. Click through to see a selection of the images and to learn more about Stein and Melamed's unique relationship.
Melody Melamed is one of 29 female photographers featured in "Represent: 29 Women We Admire," a photo exhibit presented by Refinery29 on display at this year's Photoville, which runs September 21-25.

Photoville is the largest annual photo event in NYC built from repurposed shipping containers, combining photo exhibitions, outdoor photo installations, talks, workshops, and nighttime multimedia events in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It is free and open to the public.

The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.

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1 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "This is one of the first portraits I took of Abby. I asked her to sit on her bed, and in that moment, I realized she was sitting right underneath a framed photograph of her son. She sat down, and she kept on asking me what I wanted her to do. I told her to just sit and take a deep breath. It was quiet, and I wanted it to stay that way. This was a kind of meditation for us. I remember waiting for her to take a breath. I snapped the image and looked at it, realizing the power in that moment; her son was looking down on her, quite literally. For me, it was an extraordinary moment. Later, Abby told me that this image made her cry."

Stein: "I was just three months on HRT [in this photo]. To be bold, it was a kind of emotional moment for me, reflecting on myself and my offspring. I remember the thought in my head at the moment was 'Which kind of role model do I want to be for my child?'"
2 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Stein: "This picture is from fall 2015 in my room in a Columbia University Dorm. At the time, I felt like I was pushing the boundaries of body confidence, but in the long run, seeing the picture actually helped me a lot with body positivity."
3 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Stein: "This picture is from my visit to Williamsburg — my birth place and an enclave of Hasidic Jews — in December of 2015. I wasn't sure if I should go, and I am grateful that Melody encouraged me to visit. It was an amazing experience visiting my hometown as an outsider."
4 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "In order to contribute to the integrity of her story, I wanted viewers to at least have a glimpse into the world she came from: The Hassidic part of Williamsburg is unlike any other part of NYC. It is insular, isolated, and judgmental."
5 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "There was a huge risk in taking her back there. Everyone knows her — who she was and who she is now. She asked me to bring along a few friends so that we would not be alone as we walked through the streets she grew up in. Abby knew that all eyes would be on her, and she was not comfortable with our mission, but she conquered her fear with tremendous power."
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6 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "This photograph was taken in one of her favorite delis. She wanted to share an Ashkenazi meal with me. I remember walking into the deli right behind her and watching everyone around her stare. They knew exactly who she was. The awkward energy in the deli was palpable and intense."
7 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Stein: "Have you ever heard of the motto 'it gets better'? We have a version of that in Yiddish, called 'it gets besser.' 'Besser' is 'better' in Yiddish. We use it a lot to talk about people leaving the community. 'It gets better' is usually used for the LGBTQ community, but then we apply it to people leaving the orthodox community. It’s a very similar experience."
8 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Stein: "I’m still working to be totally okay physically, which is a big problem for almost every trans person — feeling comfortable with your body. Just seeing the difference of nine months and being able to say, ‘This is who I am,’ and telling the world that you can do the same is something I really want to do."
9 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "I don’t photograph Abby every week or every month, but if there’s a life event that happens or something that’s a big deal, I usually like to be there... I like to document her changes. But not just her physical changes. There is something about the way that she changes as a person. It all goes together."
10 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "Abby got up to show me her 'gender fluid' flag, and she asked me to photograph her with it... I remember thinking I didn't want to because it was too literal...but as she was talking about it, I snapped a quick one. When I looked back at my film, I realized how much I actually liked the moment. Her face was covered by it, yet you know it's her. She is the flag."

Stein: "This picture was taken at the camp I worked at this summer (July 2016). I was actually not aware that Melody snapped it until after, but it means a lot to me. It is covering my face with a big part of my identity."
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11 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "We went outside because I wanted to see the paleness of her skin against the rich green in the woods — simple, but true. She laid on the hammock, and I photographed her as she swayed, and as I stepped back to see her from a distance, she flipped over and landed on the dirt. As she screamed and laid there in shock, I screamed back and told her not to move — it was perfect!"
12 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "She was laying on the ground underneath the hammock, and right away that symbolized so much for me. It was a happy accident, I suppose — I realize more and more how much I love those moments the most."
13 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "There is an image I took of Abby the first time I met her where you can see her looking down at her feet through a reflection in the mirror, in her bathroom. When I see that image I see fragility, angst, unsureness. I wanted to capture a similar moment with this photo. I saw her differently, just like she saw herself differently. This time, she's not looking down at her feet. This time she is in a different place — physically, mentally — and it is absolutely necessary for viewers to see and feel that in order to begin understanding this idea of gender identity."
14 of 14
Photographed by Melody Melamed.
Melamed: "This portrait of Abby was taken about eight months after the first time I photographed her. I drove up to Cold Spring, where she was working at a Jewish sleepaway camp for kids. This time, things were very different. Abby asked me where she should sit, and again, I told her to sit on the bed... This time, she didn't ask me what I wanted her to do. She was different. Extraordinarily confident, bright. She is very sexy when given no direction — I don't mind that...but I wanted to see something else — something slightly more bold. I think she felt what I needed, and in that moment she sat there with this regality. I remember thinking that she had changed. It made me happy."
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