Zach Oren’s Ides of Gender
by Rebecca M. Alvin
Top Image: 69-year-old Abigale of Provincetown, Mass. Part of The Ides of Gender series by Zach Oren.
It’s a heavy responsibility to tell someone else’s story. It doesn’t matter if your identity markers match their identity markers, it’s still someone else’s story. For journalists, documentary filmmakers, biographers, and photojournalists, the job is a peculiar amalgam of creative impulses and expression and adherence to someone else’s truth, even if it conflicts with their own. For photographer Zach Oren, the reality of capturing the lives he’s captured is not only weighted down with responsibility, however. It is also imbued with the beauty of human connection, a way to communicate and share deeply personal things with strangers, a gift not everyone has access to.
When he began his latest project, The Ides of Gender, a portion of which will be on view at Cusp Gallery September 15 – October 3, Oren thought he would be spending a few months documenting transgender individuals in the United States. But as he photographed, he became more and more engaged in the often misunderstood and generally misrepresented lives of his subjects, and months turned into years. With each person Oren met, he realized the diversity of this community and found he needed to capture it from as many angles as possible. To date, he has documented 439 individuals in 49 states, including a shoot done here in Provincetown. (Hawaii is the only state he’s not photographed in and that was because the governor has asked people to stop coming there as the state struggles to maintain enough resources for their residents during this time of extreme weather and pandemic conditions.) But the collection of work reveals a tapestry of transgender experiences in this country, rather than seeking to define one coherent experience.
“I’m documenting them representing themselves,” he clarifies.
Oren, who lives in Los Angeles and is an Israeli immigrant and a gay man, recognized that while he has friends who are transgender, and he connects to the trans community through their common experience of being queer, the range of trans experiences is beyond his own and even beyond the experiences of those transgender friends in his community.
“I realized I don’t know too much about the trans community, as far as what does that look like in Mississippi or in Colorado,” he admits. “And it felt irresponsible to say this is what it looks like through my lens.. without trying to look at every aspect. What does [being transgender] look like in rural places, in the mountains? What does it look like when you’re in your seventies or when you’re 9 years old?”
In the beginning, he says there was some pushback, with potential subjects saying “we don’t need some cis, gay guy telling our story.” But, he says more often than that, his interest was welcomed, and in conversations with his transgender friends, Oren says just as Steven Spielberg made an important film with The Color Purple, even though he’s not female or Black, he was encouraged to continue his work.
“With that push back it actually made me much more educated, and I tried to be as inclusive as possible, to include everyone, whether binary or nonbinary. It definitely forced me to be extra aware of my privilege and to do it with specificity and being responsible. Because I am an immigrant and I am queer, all these intersectionalities made it pivotal to capture every intersectionality in their community,” he says.
And his methods for interviewing subjects and collaborating with them on how they would represent themselves reveal a solid understanding of the responsibility, but also a symbiosis. Oren did not just interview, he also opened up about himself, engaged in more of a conversation, and allowed the individuals to take the discussion in the direction they wanted it to go.
“I try not to ask 21 questions,” he says, explaining that he prefers the conversation to unfold according to the subject’s interests. “If you talk a little bit and you talk about being more comfortable in your skin and you identify as trans-feminine, then I’m going to ask what’s your relationship to femininity. It’s specific enough that you give me these sides I wouldn’t have thought to ask,” he says.
Because the subjects give him such openness and share with him such personal experiences and revelations, Oren says it validates his own queerness, and while he does not share the same exact experience with them, there are parallels that one can empathize with. He returns the beautiful gift he says he’s being given by them with his own honesty, sharing his story of what it was like to be an undocumented, gay, Jewish Middle-Easterner growing up in the United States.
His photographs are all taken with available light so as not to disrupt the personal connections he’s worked to foster and also to keep the images authentic, the very opposite of the kind of photography Oren used to do professionally, the kind he hated, the kind that made him quit photography for over a decade: commercial photography. He found his way back to photography, something he’s loved since he was a little boy, through working on a friend’s project on immigrants in America, then did his own personal projects, one documenting his mother and another documenting a gay couple in their seventies. But this project feels like a life’s work to the 42-year-old photographer, who has funded the project himself, focusing entirely on it for the past four years and striving to include as diverse a range of subjects as possible, treating everyone the same, whether they are a sex worker or a university professor.
“As long as people allow me into their homes and allow me into their space, I will show up every god-damned time,” he says. “I haven’t said no yet.”
The Ides of Gender is on view September 15 – October 3 at Cusp Gallery, 115 Bradford St., Provincetown. There will be an opening reception Thursday, September 16, 6 – 8:30 p.m. that Oren is expected to attend. For more information email [email protected] or visit cuspgallery.com.