‘Taking Away The Shame’: These Intimate Portraits Capture The Beauty Of The Transmasculine Community
For three years, Australian photographer Soraya Zaman travelled across the US shooting a project called American Boys, a collection of intimate portraits of the transmasculine community. Zaman originally released the photographs of the 29 transmasculine people in a book back in 2019, but now, the collection is joined by one more face.
“We can call it 30 now,” Zaman smiles, tells Refinery29 Australia over a video call. “When the book came out, somebody had to not be a part of the project for their safety, but those circumstances have changed. So that's really happy.”
The Sydney-born creative has called New York home for the last 10 years, but is back in Melbourne for their first solo exhibition ever — Reconstruct (the) Normative, a showing of American Boys reimagined in a physical space.
“It's interesting when you live somewhere outside of your home country for a while, and you can come back and can really feel the culture in this new way. [There’s] this sense of nostalgia that's really, really beautiful,” they say, telling me about the jaffle, lamington, and Melbourne coffee they’ve enjoyed since landing here.
Zaman is video calling me with Melbourne’s Federation Square Atrium behind them, the occasional tram dinging away in the background.
“It's always a little nerve-racking when you put your work out there. I think it's pretty cool for Melbourne to have this on display. I'm just interested to see the reactions and feedback from the public.”
The portraits are striking, powerful, and dynamic. At Fed Square, they hang on digital screens that are over two metres high. “The work [is] larger than life; their portraits are bigger than me,” Zaman says.
In another way, the works are bigger than them; their small passion project has become allowed audiences to engage with the true spectrum of the transmasculine community, helping the cultural conversation evolve past homogenous representation.
“I started [American Boys] in 2016. And it really started as I small personal project. In retrospect… it was really me exploring my own gender at the time through my work and through meeting other people.”
Representation was front of mind for Zaman, and looking around what was served up in the media while they were growing up left them wanting.
“It’s really important to see yourself reflected back in media; it's kind of invaluable because it's validating. Especially when I was a kid growing up in Australia, everything that you saw was heteronormative, cisgender. And when you're not that, you feel really isolated without even having a context of understanding that feeling,” they say.
Zaman continues to emphasise the sense of belonging and relatability that can be achieved through representation (though they point out that visibility is not the end goal, and how that shortsightedness leads itself to performative tokenisation).
“I've [received] messages from parents, siblings, and educators just kind of going, ‘thank you so much, it’s given me a whole new level of understanding to really help me know — parents especially — that my child who's trans can thrive and be happy and have a beautiful life.’ Stuff like that just makes me feel really, really good,” they say.
Zaman found each of the 30 transmasculine folk through social media, mostly through Instagram. They were drawn to each of their unique storytelling abilities, and naturally, curated a selection of people from various walks of life. Zaman pulled these stories into a book, saying how important and necessary it felt to take these photos offline, since they can get lost over time.
The photographs feel deeply personal, and in them, a snippet of each person’s soul feels on display. They feel quiet and loud at the same time, with a self-assured confidence. It’s the kind of intimacy that can’t be manufactured. I ask Zaman how they fostered such a trusting bond with each of the transmasculine subjects.
“It's really important that those stories come from the communities… they’re intimate because they're my stories as well; so that so much of what's spoken was my experience as a child also,” they say. “There was a deeper level of understanding and I feel like that's what you see in the pictures. And whether somebody who didn't have that life experience would be able to get there… I'm not sure.”
Coinciding with Midsumma and Pride, it’s an exhibition that’s well-timed, if not long overdue.
“Pride means I'm trying to live without shame — in the full sense of that word. What we're trying to do is take away all the shame around being outside of what society deems is normal.”
Reconstruct (the) Normative is a free exhibition open in Fed Square until 10 February. Zaman recommends attending after 8pm for the full experience.