Considering Protest and American Social Issues with a President Elect, Trump

Many were surprised at the outcome of the 2016 election season, not just in Chicago, but all over the world. This has been, by-far, one of the most interesting and challenging political seasons to get through. Many expressed the notion of just wanting election season to be “over,” but it turns out that having a result and an end to the election has not been the outcome that many were hoping for—and that is especially visible in urban liberal spaces across the country. In the last few weeks, Chicago has seen a noticeable upheaval with those frustrated, saddened, and angered by President Elect Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the election. Although Clinton won the popular vote, the electoral college ultimately allowed Trump to prevail. 

This was a particularly upsetting win for marginalized groups who were directly insulted by Trump during the 2016 campaign. This includes but is not limited to African American individuals, women, and especially women of color, Muslim Americans, immigrants, refugees, Mexican-Americans, Latinos, and those who identify as LGBTQ. Many saw various offensive moments of the campaign as being “the end” of Trump—especially moments like his leaked video, ultimately proclaiming that sexually abusing women without consent was okay. A significant amount of individuals, affiliated with both democrat and republican parties, believed that these remarks would certainly disqualify Trump from the presidential race. Hoping for an “end” to the political season was, for some, partially because of the frustration associated with these various moments in the campaign. However, America voted, and it appears that these instances of clear bigotry were not enough to disqualify Trump for the highest ranking office in the United States. 

This was not an election which centered on debates of policy, and rather, candidate discourse, decisions, and worldview. It’s focus on the dichotomy of social outlook between the two parties is ultimately, at least in this anthropologist’s opinion, why the post-election protests are particularly striking, visually and rhetorically, for this 2016 election. It is not necessarily that Americans are upset that a republican candidate won the presidential election—it is the values, dialogue, and contempt openly reflected in this particular candidate. The public reaction is not to the ideologies of republican party, it is directly to President Elect Donald Trump

As with any major political moment, popular culture is a good place to begin looking for meaning and a better understanding of popular opinion. Commentary like the recent Saturday Night Live skit, “Election Night,” echoes another sentiment—that perhaps we should not be surprised at all that Trump was able to win the United States election. It is a comic portrayal of a very serious point: that America at-large remains racist, xenophobic, and sexist as ever. This is a frustrating point, but still one that we need to try to wrap our heads around for any kind of social progress. While people were saddened, scared, and frustrated by the election results, and took to social media, TV broadcasts, radio, and open protest in the streets to demonstrate this collective affective sentiment—perhaps the reaction to the racism, sexism, and discrimination that was a part of pre-election discourse was not one which should have amplified being “blind-sided.” Maybe the shock and embarrassment demonstrate should not have been as prominent in the vocalizations, in consideration of American politics and sociopolitical climate as it stands today. These issues have been all too real for the communities that they impact the most, and while angering and frustrating to see an openly discriminatory candidate win an election, perhaps the fact so many would vote for a candidate with these values should not be ground-breaking “news.” 

I’ve been trying to figure out how to put the stream of social media posts, fake news articles, journalistic reactions, social science discussion, and informal conversations that I’ve encountered into a post that anyone at home or abroad could relate to. It is difficult to take the “next step forward” or “onwards and upwards” approach in this article. It also does not feel right to live in denial or total angst regarding what is currently happening in American politics. When Jimmy Fishbein went to photograph the protesters at Trump Tower, right in the heart of River North, Chicago, I realized their reaction was all I needed to explore—a state of refusal, voices of anger, and yet, a communal feeling of togetherness and hope that individual voices can in fact make a difference, or at the very least, an impact.

One of the aspects of democracy that binds America together is the notion of “free speech” and the right to openly protest. The feel of the city immediately following the election, was definitely one of resentment and immediate action. While there is always one “losing” party in the U.S. with our bipartisan system, something felt different about this election. Presidential elections always involve value systems and beliefs that extend beyond political economic views and governance—but with Trump’s particular bigotry and distain for various human groups, many people took this election victory as a personal attack on their cultural background, sexuality, gender, or religious beliefs. These aspects run deep in an individual’s human experience. 

Protests have continued in Chicago, and they will likely continue into the new year as well—witha march planned for inauguration day. Many question if these kind of protests and forms of public display actually end up doing anything in the long-run. People are left to wonder if hope is totally lost for the U.S. with this particular republican win, or if we are going to be able to move forward and still see the kind of social changes we thought were going to be on the horizon for 2017. 

Let’s take a moment to reflect on some the most important protests, movements, and forms of activism in the U.S. over the past 100 years. I have found that looking at these has certainly shown a glimmer of hope into what seems to be an uphill battle. What does the act of protesting do? In the moment, it may seem like a hopeless battle for those pushing for change and acknowledgment of the problems that surround this political decision—but it is important to remember that all major forms of activism have taken time, effort, and countless hours of energy to achieve results. Change rarely happens over night, which is why efforts that may seem fruitless in the beginning may end up being worthwhile in time. 

Protesters of Trump’s presidency are really looking to continue what all of these movements are fighting for. Meaning that what these protestors are standing for really encompasses movements for women’s rights, sexual freedom, equal pay for equal work, civil rights and especially the fight against racial discrimination, and equality and fair treatment of LGBTQ members of our community. They are fighting for the safety and rights of refugees and those seeking a better life in the U.S. post-migration. They are fighting for a world, socially, which is brighter and filled with more opportunity for our children’s generation. To me—this could not possible be a more worthwhile fight. While we do have to accept the outcome of the election, and ensure a smooth transition of power, we do not have to accept the social worldview that Trump embodies. We do not need to accept that a president and their supporters can determine the social and political future of the United States, we all have a voice, we all have the opportunity to oppose these views and protest normalization of Trump’s vision for America. 


By: Megan Melissa Machamer

MA Social Science, University of Chicago
BA Sociocultural Anthropology, UC San Diego

Megan Machamer is a sociocultural anthropologist who develops creative commentary for the Jimmy Fishbein photography blog. Her perspective as a social scientist contributes additional dialogue to stand-along photography and serves as one perspective to evoke thought and conversation upon viewing these photos.


Transgender Portrait Series Part III: Discussing Historical Moments

As I have reviewed and re-reviewed several of the transgender interviews conducted as a part of Jimmy Fishbein’s Transgender Portrait Series—some which we have not yet discussed on this blog—it has become clear to me that the older, as well as younger, individuals in this project all discussed a common theme of shared “historical moments,” as an active part of being apart of the LGBTQ community at large. Issues for this entire community are discussed in relation to individual experiences and social understandings of their own positionality. For those growing up in Chicago and realizing their gender identity at various moments in time, context was almost as important as their own interpersonal relationships. This is particularly true for those who experienced the struggles and movements of the 60’s and 70’s. For today’s LGBTQ youth, the legalization of same-sex marriage at the federal level in the Obergefell V. Hodges case marked an important moment for LGBTQ community rights, and it is seen and discussed in terms of “progress” for couples and those who desire to marry—but also for the recognition of the community at-large. 

Below I have constructed an infographic based on Chicago History of the LGBTQ community. It is worthwhile to note that alongside of progress, there are also movements and struggles taking place every day, especially for the trans community. 

 

As you can see from this infographic, a lot of historical emphasis has focused on community resources, centers, and events for the LGBTQ community, as well as the passing of laws and the “coming out” of prominent figures. More and more neighborhoods are considered to be welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer families of all forms in the city of Chicago. An article by DNA Info noted the best places for same sex couples and LGBTQ members to live in the city. These historical moments are important to consider in individual lived experience, and we can begin to conceptualize how different “coming out” and being openly transgender might have been for those growing up in previous generations—when compared with the opportunities and resources available to today’s youth. 

That being said, the fight is not over, and individuals who identify as LGBTQ of all ages still emphasize the struggle of coming to terms with their identity and being respected and treated properly in communities all over the country. I found it was interesting to compare historical commentary on behalf of older individuals we interviewed: notions of secrecy, stigma, and general lack of understanding on issues surrounding gender, with youth commentary on social media and new issues of activism (such as gender neutral bathrooms). Ultimately what this clarifies is that while progress and major activist impact has been made for this community, there are now new issues and considerations in the current historical context, which are just as important to discuss. 

I am going to recap some of the interviews we have discussed on the JFP blog, with older participants: Audry, Katie, Rachel, and Susan, as well as younger interviewee, Tyler. Before moving on to additional interviews and topics, I want to use the strong content found in these interviews to explore the question of history: ultimately, how do the connections which bind people together (or rather, separate individuals and groups) change over time? 

 

One of the most common themes was “coming out” as transgender within the context of time and historical moment. Rachel noted, “If you were a young person 40 years ago having these thoughts and feelings, you were beating yourself up” and Audry too acknowledged the aspect of her own difficult transition, “Of course there was a lot of shame and confusion, because I was like the only person in the world who had this problem. Right now, people have the internet, back then I just had me—and I’m certainly not going to go to my parents and tell them I have this!” Certainly times have changed in terms of resources, online interactions, and community access, but for Tyler, while social media was an active part of his coming out, it is not as though it has made his transition smoother: “I came out on Facebook, I was hoping that everyone would know, so that it wouldn’t be awkward and I didn’t have to explain it to people…I thought with the people I had on my Facebook it would get around, because that is just how high school is—for some reason it didn’t, and I didn’t want to have to explain it to people. So, on the first day of school, I told my teachers, ‘this is the name I want to go by—don’t say my other name because it’s done.” Yet, like Rachel and Audry, Tyler struggled and continues to struggle with how his own identity fits, even in the context of coming out in the present sociocultural climate, he claims: “I’m so sick of fighting to be normal. I’ve never been normal in my life….Now finally knowing who I am, and being on testosterone and getting top surgery soon—I’m trying to now be me, and still, like, not being accepted and not fitting in—it sucks, I’m so sick of fighting to be normal. I am normal—what is normal anyway? There is no such thing.” While different elements of coming out have changed over time, coming to terms with one’s identity and being able to effectively communicate that remains an incredibly difficult thing for many. 

There are many older trans individuals that feel a sense of “jealousy” or longing for the experience of LGBTQ youth today. Tyler’s experience captures that while certain things may be improved or much better than they were 40 years ago, it isn’t exactly a smooth transition coming to terms with identity. It could very well be that the two generations have difficulty understanding one another in certain ways because of historical context. Susan discussed this issue and her thoughts at length: 

“If you would have told me that I would be walking around now, in a hotel, using the women’s wash room and things like that—trust me when I say that I’m not a threat, or any of that stuff—some people you probably have to be concerned that they may be doing it for other reasons, but this is a part of who I am and who a lot of us are. I’m so jealous of these young people, not in a bad way, but—they don’t realize how easy they got it. They don’t realize how difficult things were. There was no information and if you tried to get information, you were deemed weird—a pervert—you were sick—work I mean, they would have crucified you. They would have just fired you. They would have found a reason to fire and get rid of you! You really had to do a lot of burying. There might have been an opportunity where you could steal some of your wife’s stuff because she was gone…but I wouldn't have been able to shave my legs. You can’t understand what a difference it is—I never could do that. Some of these people get upset at older people, they shouldn't get upset! It was a different era they came up in. Just as I came up in a different era and you've gotta cut me some slack—because, now you young people. It’s a totally different ballgame for you. Every once in a while we get a couple of young girls that come for a meeting and —its like, oh you're too old, too boring, you're too conservative, you don’t go out, you don’t do this. They've got so many places, they are so accepted. They’ve probably got girls that accept them. Do you know how many of us would kill to have the right woman to accept us? (laughter). The young people, you've got a choice now. You got a choice before you make commitments to somebody else. You've got a choice in finding yourself in the world. You've got a choice where you can actually go to work, and you can be either/or and nobody is going to say anything”

Another theme that was present in all of these interviews is the notion of activism and taking on a role in the LGBTQ community to make a difference and possibly change and improve the connections which bind people together. Audry mentioned in her interview: “I’m getting older and I’m going to die at some point—and I’m going to have an obituary, and somewhere in that obituary I want it to say “trans-activist” because that is who I want to be.” For many, being involved in the community and bringing their own personal experiences and history in to the present social and political discourse is incredibly important. Katie noted, “40 girls are murdered every year, primarily because they're trans—people put animals to death more humanely than what happens to our people. Kaitlyn Jenner, like her or don’t like her, she did such a service by bringing it out there, as did Jenna Mock from Chicago. [she has] also been out and open and outspoken.” This is something that is present in discussions with older and younger community members. Tyler commented at length on the current political discussion on gender-neutral and transgender use of “gendered” bathrooms: 

“If you're like actually trans, because sometimes I feel like an issue would be like faking it, so they can change in the opposite sex restroom and get a peep at like, whatever, but if you are like ACTUALLY trans, and this is how you identify, this is who you are, you should be allowed to change wherever you feel comfortable and it shouldn’t be an issue. Allowing things like the privacy stalls—that’s just allowing segregation to continue, because it scares everybody—like oh they are changing behind a stall there must be something wrong with them. If people are allowed to just change with everyone else, people would see that it’s not something to be afraid of. I think it would just—not end the segregation, but, it wouldn’t be as scary for people, and it would end ignorance, in a way.”

Chicago has come a long way since the establishment of the first “gay village” in Old Town in 1920. There have been several steps froward in openly advocating for and accepting LGBTQ members of our city, yet through these interviews, we can see that there is still a lot of progress to be made in order to impact lives which are marginalized because of gender identity. Historical context and the connections which bind individuals, of different generations, different sexualities, different gender identities, different race/ethnicities, different socioeconomic statues together can also equally separate them or make them feel distant. 

 

By: Megan Melissa Machamer

MA Social Science, University of Chicago
BA Sociocultural Anthropology, UC San Diego

Megan Machamer is a sociocultural anthropologist who develops creative commentary for the Jimmy Fishbein photography blog. Her perspective as a social scientist contributes additional dialogue to stand-along photography and serves as one perspective to evoke thought and conversation upon viewing these photos.

Homeless Circumstances and Visual Depictions of Struggling Subjects

Photography, film, and other forms of visual art have supported a fascination with capturing struggling subjects. While it presents the world in all its variety, depicting human conditions not always visible to those in the most privileged of situations, it has also been critiqued for exploitation and exoticization of “the Other.” By acknowledging this critique we are allowing for a deeper exploration of why this photography carries meaning to both the photographers that take these pictures and present them to the world, and the way this media is consumed by the viewer. Homeless photography is one of many forms which use imagery to show the life circumstances of subjects in a particular walk of life. By briefly examining the situation of homelessness in the United States, photography projects that have focused on it, and opinions of this art form—we can discuss the critique more fully and begin to unpack the ways these photos depict subjects as a form of conscious social representation.  

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

Homelessness is a social occurrence that is multifaceted and difficult to associate with any one causal factor. Simply put, homelessness occurs when a household is not able to acquire or maintain housing, and this can occur for many reasons. Some of the most common reasons include financial hardship, disability, medical conditions, drug/alcohol addiction, and personal choice—among many others. In places where homelessness is most common, such as urban spaces, the social phenomenon is closely related to the cost of living, and the overall ability to acquire housing. According to the National Alliance to end Homelessness, as of January 2015, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States. Approximately 37% of these individuals were considered apart of a family group, while 63% were alone. As such, many national homelessness projects are focused on family, youth, and those with Veteran status. 

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

Many photography projects have focused on homelessness in the United States, such as Chuck Jine’s work on the Chicago HomelessSteve Huff’s series entitled “My Homeless Project,” Martin Schoeller’s photography of LA’s homeless population, or unbelievable “I Photograph the Homeless by Becoming One Of Them” by Lee Jeffries. Just as these incredible photographers decided to focus their attention on photographing homeless populations in the United States, so too did Jimmy Fishbein undertake this project as a photography student in Santa Barbra—one of the first “out of the box” social photography projects that he did in his career. 

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

When Fishbein was in Santa Barbara for photography school, it was really the first time he was living and experiencing life outside of the Midwest, and as a part of a school-related project he became immediately interested in the homeless community within this pristine beach-front city. He claims that he was taken-back at the sheer number of homeless individuals in this space—in a large city, it is easier to understand that there would be a significant homeless population (like I mentioned above, the pricing of housing and poverty/unemployment rates alone can be enough to influence this). However, he realized during the execution of this personal project that the environment is much fairer than somewhere like Chicago in winter, for those living without a home. Many homeless individuals do try to live in these small beach cities for environmental reasons.

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

Fishbein interviewed people old and young, and stated that the circumstances of the homelessness itself varied greatly. He spoke with many different individuals and took photos over the course of several months, from young people who claimed they just wanted to “live freely”, to older adults who were disabled veterans. Like most of the photography projects I mentioned above, Fishbein claims that “you have to be in it” spending time in the communities you work in, and really developing a sense of what life is like for these individuals—trying to capture their story, visually. Thus, it might be said that photography projects, which depict struggling subjects, can be divided into two categories: projects that listen to the participant’s life stories and try to capture the realities of everyday life, and those that purely use the subject for artistic interest. One is a social project, and one is a project which, intentionally or unintentionally, exploits the subject without consent—without true understanding.

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

Photography helps to demonstrate the struggles, characters, and emotions of individuals who are living on the streets. Some of these projects develop out of activism, while others develop out of independent interest and the desire to tell a story. Regardless of how it emerges, one thing is for sure; looking at these portraits creates a reaction and evokes a desire to assign value or meaning within the viewer.

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

Indyweek.com put out an article a few years back on how people “react” to seeing homeless individuals on the street. The author took a photo of a homeless individual, asleep, and then wrote about her ethical dilemma regarding whether or not to post and develop content around it. As an anthropologist, I feel strongly that participants in research, photography, or other projects of representation should absolutely give informed consent before they are used as a “subject.” Most of the photographers I’ve cited in this piece, Fishbein included, did gain consent from their photography participants—since they were awake and engaged in the act of being photographed. Many of these photographers also spent a great deal of time in the communities they worked. The author, Lisa Sorg, does mention that legally individuals can be photographed in public spaces without consent (whether or not this should be the case is up for discussion), and that her intent was to capture an image that would promote social justice:

People need to be reminded that the homeless live among us; they are among society's the most vulnerable people. The way this man was sitting, his arms tucked inside his sweatshirt, his knees together and legs splayed—and the fact that he was sleeping—shows that vulnerability. From an artistic standpoint, I found him beautiful. I did not want to exoticize or romanticize him, just to show him honestly. Most people are beautiful when they're sleeping, and he is no different.” 

It is not my goal to pass a value judgment here, although I personally would not support taking photos of sleeping individuals without consent as a researcher. Sorg does make a reasonable point about giving the “unseen” visibility, or creating visual depictions of vulnerable subjects for the world to see. Yet, his vulnerability was not something he agreed to have captured or put on display for the world to see. Unlike awake and consenting participants in these other projects, he is purely the object of display, with the artist’s meaning placed onto his image. His own perspective as a subject is not considered. It is possible that he did not feel vulnerable sleeping in that position whatsoever, and that rather, it was his nightly routine which has become so commonplace that he actually experiences a certain amount of comfort. I am speculating here, but without speaking to him and telling his story, we can never really know what is truly being depicted in this photograph.

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

The final question I want to provoke is, what do these images do? Why are we captivated by suffering, struggle, and human experience in photography? It cannot be purely for activist goals—but perhaps to display a range of human possibilities and conditions. In the online environment, photography websites and blogs have the ability to gain more attention than ever, so what does showing a homeless series do? Ultimately, series like these have the ability to display circumstances of the “subject.” Human experiences, however far removed we may be from them, can evoke emotion, and these feelings are embodied in the way we go and treat others in the world. So perhaps all of these projects, sleeping or awake, young or old, urban or beach-town, do have something in common after all—they provide visual depictions of human experience. They show homeless circumstances by capturing refined details of the subjects themselves. These images shine light on places often ignored or unseen, and this can actually allow viewers to acknowledge our connectedness to the world of individuals around us, regardless of condition or location. 

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996

c. Jimmy Fishbein, 1996



By: Megan Melissa Machamer

MA Social Science, University of Chicago
BA Sociocultural Anthropology, UC San Diego

Megan Machamer is a sociocultural anthropologist who develops creative commentary for the Jimmy Fishbein photography blog. Her perspective as a social scientist contributes additional dialogue to stand-along photography and serves as one perspective to evoke thought and conversation upon viewing these photos.

On Prison Photography: Capturing a World Behind Bars

Let me start out by putting this piece into the cultural context of the United States. Incarceration has achieved all-time high levels in terms of our own history, and in a global context as well. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (in 2013 reports): 2,220,300 adults were incarcerated in US federal prisons, state prisons, and county jails–which constitutes about 0.91% of adults (1 in 110) in the U.S. resident population. This number is truly astronomical, and there is no doubt that the structure of the system itself has been questioned by many. One way we begin to better understand the issues, doubts, politics, and realities of the U.S. prison system is through looking at artists, scholars, and activists who have attempted to capture life behind bars, and report back from the field. 

 

Jimmy Fishbein captured life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary as a part of his personal photography series. To give a little background, LSP, which is also known as “Angola,” is a maximum security penitentiary in Louisiana. It also happens to be the largest maximum security prison in the U.S. to-date, with approximately 6,300 prisoners. The property is a massive 18,000 acres—and is named after the former property, “Angola Plantations”, that used to sit upon it (named Angola, for the country the slaves who worked on it originated from). Over 85% of the prisoners at LSP are serving life sentences

"I hate the way men become useless over time in prison" --Jerry Brown (LSP inmate) 

Fishbein’s project is one of many that uses photography to capture the lives of inmates, especially those sentenced to life without parole—or rather, sentenced to death. In fact, LSP has been the subject of many photographer’s personal projects. Benjamin D. Weber, an Adjunct Professor at the University of New Orleans, collected stories from prisoners at LSP who had lost a loved one during their time in prison, and created a website which documented these stories using both text letters, photographs, and maps to depict memories these inmates wanted to share with the world—he entitled his project, “Stories from Prison / Honoring Ancestors.” Weber and his undergraduate students actually performed the commemorations that the prisoners requested, to honor the lives of their ancestors when they could not themselves. 

Others, like Pete Brook, who has started a project on prison photography, derived their interest from scholarly pursuits. Achieving his master’s in museum studies at the University of Manchester and then moving to California, Brook became interested in prisons and prison culture after moving to the United States. His work has taken a historical, cultural, and artistic approach—looking first at the expansion and emergence of prisons in the United States and then traveling across the country himself looking at photographers who were working with prison inmates as portrait subjects. A subsequent project (other than his primary academic interest) was developing a Prison Photography blog, where he has documented the interest of other photographers in capturing life in prison, and explored what these kind of projects actually do in popular media and social sharing. In speaking with LENS, a photography segment of the New York times, Brook claimed: 

“It fascinates me that there is a prison system with 2.3 million people in it and no one seems to see that as a problem. At what point was that normalized? After the prison population was quadrupled in 30 years, when did everyone accept that as O.K.? At what point did the alternatives not matter and not get to the table?”

From: prisonphotography.org; Pete Brook's Prison Photography Blog 

From: prisonphotography.org; Pete Brook's Prison Photography Blog 

Photography projects have emerged alongside of a desire to understand and perhaps advocate for the transformation of the criminal justice system, it is a subject gaining a great deal of attention in academic circles and beyond. Dr. James Kilgore, a professor based at the University of Illinois, argues that legislative action ultimately holds the key to change in this system—and that this can be achieved with bipartisan efforts. His recent book Understanding Mass Incarceration A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time has been called a “An excellent, much-needed introduction to the racial, political, and economic dimensions of mass incarceration” by Michelle Alexander (an associate professor of law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; a civil rights advocate and writer). This text is ground-breaking in the sense that it describes and problematizes the criminal justice system in an accessible way—something not just intended for an academic audience, while still maintaining scholarly rigor and a deep exploration into this convoluted cultural phenomenon. 

When asked about prison photography, and why these projects have worth and impact, Pete Brook told the New York Times:

“Well, a lot of people don’t want to talk about prisons. There’s no incentive for anyone in society to look at prisons for the failure that they are. Politicians don’t win if they appear to be soft on crime. And then you have the media, which is after ratings. It wins by stoking up emotions. With ‘American Idol,’ it’s making people sentimental. With politics, it’s making people divided and angry. And with crime, it’s making people afraid”.

Of course, different photographers who take on these prison-based projects have different motivators that inspire, and they hold different stakes. Deborah Luster took portraits of Louisiana State prisoners for their loved ones,to capture themselves as they would like to be portrayed—in the setting, with the object, or using the expression that they personally felt represented their own bodies and circumstances, as an act of both communication and explanation. Each prisoner also chose what supplementary information they wanted used alongside their portrait, such as their inmate number, date of entrance, place of birth, tattoos, birth date, sentence, or whether or not they had children. Luster left this up for them to decide. Jamel Shabazz, who is thought of as an icon in New York, and has achieved major commercial success, actually worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island for 20 years. In one of his more famous prison photographs, “Lock Down” Shabazz places himself in a cell with a defendant who was awaiting a court hearing. As someone who worked so closely with the prison system, his photographs take on a unique perspective:  

From: Deborah Luster's Photography Website

From: Deborah Luster's Photography Website

From Casimir's Website

From Casimir's Website

“Throughout my career I would often place myself in this same cell to be reminded of how my life could have been drastically different if I had not made the right choices.” —Jamel Shabazz 

These are just a few of the many projects that have been grounded on an interest in criminal justice space—whether for advocacy, art, capturing subjectivity, or social awareness. Just as these photographers capture a certain dimension of life in prison, so to does Jimmy Fishbein capture individuality in portraits of inmates in the LSP. After his shoot at the LSP Fishbein finds prison to be a surreal experience. In speaking with me about the shoot he stated that these prisoners:

“Fucked up at one moment and now they are paying their entire lives. It bewilders me. I don’t know why I feel that way but, one mistake changed their entire lives”

In addition to capturing portraits of some of the male LSP prisoners, Fishbein also had a chance to attend and photograph the rodeo which is held once a year. It is one day out of the year that prisoners get to let loose, get out, and be apart of the local community. Only the prisoners with the best record are allowed to participate—that means a clean record for a year gets an inmate one day to participate and be a part of a community event. It allows for a certain amount of release for these individuals, a moment to play and feel a sense of freedom. Fishbein noted that these individuals wore no helmets and no protection, and that he felt it gave these men the opportunity to feel real, physical pain. 

"The rodeo is an escape from the same drudgery day-in and day-out. The rodeo makes me feel like I'm still alive and have some kind of control of my surroundings again, even if only for a few seconds. I choose to do that. I'm not told by someone wearing a badge to do it." --Bernard Denham (LSP Inmate) 

"The rodeo is an escape from the same drudgery day-in and day-out. The rodeo makes me feel like I'm still alive and have some kind of control of my surroundings again, even if only for a few seconds. I choose to do that. I'm not told by someone wearing a badge to do it." --Bernard Denham (LSP Inmate) 

 

Behind bars, 2,220,300 American adults are living their lives--which is nearly 1% of our country’s residential population. That prodigious number has certainly inspired a close look into our criminal justice system by academics, journalists, photographers, artists, and popular media. Often, inmates are cloaked in a veil that does not allow them to be seen. They are criminals removed and segmented from society at large. Truthfully, this veil serves many purposes: an illusion of safety, a system of law and consequential social order which does not need to be seen or discussed by the law-abiding, and, of recent interest, inmate labor and production. However, even if just for a moment in time, prison photography creates a window on behalf of those behind the curtain to shine a light on the lives that are being lived behind bars. 


By: Megan Melissa Machamer
MA Social Science, University of Chicago
BA Sociocultural Anthropology, UC San Diego

Megan Machamer is a sociocultural anthropologist who develops creative commentary for the Jimmy Fishbein photography blog. Her perspective as a social scientist contributes additional dialogue to stand-along photography and serves as one perspective to evoke thought and conversation upon viewing these photos.


On Four Transgender Women’s Portraits and Historical Transformation

Portraits, much like stories, are unique and filled with individual perspectives, expressions, and positions. It is hard to begin to tie together the multitude of experiences and differences that characterize Jimmy Fishbein’s Transgender Portraits series, but here, I am going to try. Four of the transgender women that were photographed and interviewed for the project have many shared experiences, not only because of some similar aspects of gender identity, but also because the four subjects I am choosing to discuss in this post also are over the age of 50. This age cohort grew up and discovered themselves in a time where being transgender was not only much more socially stigmatized, but also not discussed in media, a part of public discourse, and information was just not available generally for those who were discovering this facet of themselves early in life. 

This post looks at 4 portrait subjects: Katie (age 77), Susan (age 60), Rachel (age 53), and Audry, Age 65. It attempts to unpack the issues surrounding historical transformation and change for transgender individuals over the course of a few generations—it also looks at themes surrounding coming to terms with identity, and how that itself is related to time and space. 

Katie, Age 77

Katie, Age 77

Susan, Age 60

Susan, Age 60

Rachel, Age 53

Rachel, Age 53

Audry, Age 65

Audry, Age 65

I think it is also important to note upfront that all four of these individuals either have life-long partners of the opposite sex (i.e, female wives that identify as female), or were previously married for an extensive length of time. This is important to mention because their gender identities do not necessarily correlate in any particular way with their sexual preferences. Many of the participants in this project have expressed being fortunate to have a partner who has stuck by them through all of their changes and expressions of their identity over the life course. Of course, this is not always the case, but it is important to conceptualize that many born in this era who have come out as trans have had support in their home and through closer personal networks, when it did not exist for them in the world at large. In discussion of Katie’s transition, her wife was asked about her feelings and her desire to continue being with her after she came out as trans,  all she replied was: “Why not? I loved him very very much”. This speaks volumes to the love and admiration of an individual, regardless of identity expression. So while the transgender community did not have the external support that it does today, many had support that was invaluable in their personal lives—these individuals deserve immense recognition. 

Further, various organizations came up in the interviews as networks of support for the transgender community in Chicago over the years—notably, The Chicago Gender Society, The Human Rights Campaign, P-FLAG, and other Chicagoland LGBTQ service centers. It is unfortunate to note that in the first 8 months of 2016 19-transgender deaths have been reported. Last year, 21 trans-women were killed—with 7 killed in the first 7 weeks of the year.  The four interviewees also brought up the high rates of suicide in the community today as well. Thus, while many of the struggles that the four interviewees discussed in this post highlight the positive changes for today’s transgender youth, there is still great concern for the safety of LGBTQ community members—and it is a concern that all of us should take as incredibly important and relevant. 

 

I’m getting older and I’m going to die at some point—and I’m going to have an obituary, and somewhere in that obituary I want it to say “trans-activist” because that is who I want to be.
— Audry

 

Discovering One’s Identity

Identity formation begins to happen early-on in an individual’s life. All four of these interviewees told stories of identity and coming to be the person they are today—and all four expressed a desire to explore their own gender identity at an early point of childhood. In discussion with Katie about discovering herself at a young age, in the early 1940’s, she claimed that at 4-5 years old,“I knew it. I knew I wanted to be a girl. I didn’t know why, I didn’t even know the plumbing was any different at that point because I don’t have any sisters. I’d see little girls and think, that’s what I want to be—Not to be dramatic but I remember blowing out my birthday candles around five and thinking, I wish I was a girl—then I remember my mom asking me, ‘oh what did you wish for?’ and I said a bike…” 

As Katie aged, she began to come to terms with her gender fluidity, and began to dress as a woman from time to time,“My mom caught me a couple times, but being good Catholics I just made a novena and it all went away…[laughter]…no—really it just made me go deeper in the closet.” All four individuals expressed that they knew quite early-on that they identified, in-part, as female. Susan explained, “I’ve probably always been like this since I can remember, we’re talking all the way back in grammar school…I’ve always had this feeling. I got to do a little here, a little there, but it sure wasn’t accepted way back when.” Audry similarly expressed the early expression of curiosity and gender exploration, “With rare opportunities living in my parents home, I had a sister, and I would borrow her clothes and, do just really quick dress-up things. Of course there was a lot of shame and confusion, because I was like the only person in the world who had this problem. Right now, people have the internet, back then I just had me—and I’m certainly not going to go to my parents and tell them I have this!” Discovery really began for these individuals with the opportunity to dress a certain way—even if it was in secret. This act of dressing in a feminine way began as early as the opportunity presented itself for these individuals, and even if it was a confusing action at the time, it played a central role in discovering their identity and personhood. 

Generational Differences for Transgender Individuals

One of the reoccurring themes of these four interviews was differences for young people in the community now, compared to when they were growing up and constructing their own identities as trans-women. Susan discussed this at length, and it is worth highlighting her specific thoughts and opinions here: 

“I’m so jealous of these young people, not in a bad way, but—they don’t realize how easy they got it. They don’t realize how difficult things were. There was no information and if you tried to get information, you were deemed weird—a pervert—you were sick. Work, I mean, they would have crucified you. They would have just fired you. They would have found a reason to fire and get rid of you! You really had to do a lot of burying. There might have been an opportunity where you could steal some of your wife’s stuff because she was gone…but I wouldn't have been able to shave my legs. You can’t understand what a difference it is—I never could do that” 

“Some of these people get upset at older people, they shouldn't get upset! It was a different era they came up in. Just as I came up in a different era and you've gotta cut me some slack—because, now you young people. It’s a totally different ballgame for you. Every once in a while we get a couple of young girls that come for a meeting and —its like, oh you're too old, too boring, you're too conservative, you don’t go out, you don’t do this. They've got so many places, they are so accepted. They’ve probably got girls that accept them. Do you know how many of us would kill to have the right woman to accept us?” 

“The young people, you've got a choice now. You got a choice before you make commitments to somebody else. You've got a choice in finding yourself in the world. You've got a choice where you can actually go to work, and you can be either/or and nobody is going to say anything”—Susan

It is clear that there are some generational differences in being transgender in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and being transgender in 2016, yet, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, transgender deaths are still a reality and safety is an ongoing concern. While there may be heightened awareness, many more resources, acceptance, and advocacy for the transgender community, we also don't want to over glorify the “easiness” for the transgender youth of today—it is still an incredibly difficult and brave transformation to make in one’s life and I am certain all four of the transgender women in this article would agree. 

People put animals to death more humanely than what happens to our people—Caitlyn Jenner, like her or don’t like her, she did such a service by bringing it out there” —Katie 

Katie has been involved in bringing awareness to the transgender community for a long time, speaking at top universities as a guest lecturer and even being featured in the Chicago Reader. While Katie’s wife and children know about her being transgender, many of her lifelong friends do not know, "My kids know about me, but my grandkids don’t need to—at our age. It works fine.” Similarly, Susan’s grandchildren also do not know about her transgender identity “grandpa as grandma, can you imagine?”. These four transgender women only dress up for certain occasions going out, and spend part of the time with their family or old friends as men. Katie, Susan, Rachel, and Audry all lead lives in-part as men, especially around family and longterm friends. This was something that they all linked to the era that they grew up in, linking it to “acceptance” of identity and gender fluidity now compared to when they were discovering their own individuality during formative years.

Audry commented, “There is no possibility that people are going to throw me a party for telling them…People aren't going to be happy, people are going to have to get educated, and—yes, it’s going to hurt—there is going to be loss, there is always loss when this happens, some people just won’t be able to deal with it. The important thing for me is that, I’ve stopped hiding it, this is who I am.”

Historical Transformation

These interviews highlight that change has certainly taken place over the past 50+ years for the transgender community. There are many more organizations, online resources, social agents, and public representations than there were a short time ago. While this community exposure and advocacy has done wonderful things for transgender individuals, we are no where near close to the end of the fight for equality and safety for these community members. Acceptance and comfort with identity starts first in the home with one’s self and the closest people around—but it is important that safe spaces exist outside of that. The transformation that these four individuals have endured over their lifetime has contributed to their own desire for advocacy and involvement in the city of Chicago. Jimmy is thrilled to have photographed their portraits, and consequently, we are excited to make a small contribution for the advocacy of this community through the Transgender Portrait Blog series. 


 

By: Megan Melissa Machamer
MA Social Science, University of Chicago
BA Sociocultural Anthropology, UC San Diego

Megan Machamer is a sociocultural anthropologist who develops creative commentary for the Jimmy Fishbein photography blog. Her perspective as a social scientist contributes additional dialogue to stand-along photography and serves as one perspective to evoke thought and conversation upon viewing these photos.