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“BJ and I fell in love the first time we took the pictures,” says New York City-based photographer Lissa Rivera of her bond with her partner and muse. BJ, who identifies as genderqueer, first confided in the photographer about their relationship with femininity on the train home from a night out. They had worn women’s clothing years earlier, but had since felt pressured to dress differently for fear of prejudice.

Over time, Rivera and BJ found themselves absorbed in conversations about their perception of masculinity and femininity; they poured over iconic films and images picturing women and defining womanhood, and together, they constructed a fanciful, ephemeral stage on which BJ could play out all that they imagined.

Each image in Rivera’s Beautiful Boy is a collaboration. She feels the weight of the confidence BJ has placed in her hands, and in turn, BJ feels entirely safe with her: “From the first moment we met I trusted Lissa. It’s weird, but it wasn’t something that had to be gained.”

When Rivera first introduced the photographs publicly, she admits, “some people discouraged me, suggesting that there were ‘too many artists exploring gender,’” but she was simply unable to stop making pictures with BJ. This story was one that could not be told by anyone else but the two of them, and the mere thought of leaving everything unsaid was “too painful” for the photographer.

With BJ, Rivera has discovered a way to circumvent the “male gaze” that so often defines the photographer-muse relationship. She never fully possesses BJ in the way artists are expected to seize upon their subject. Instead, they become an elusive and almost mythical figure, like the Greek god Dionysus, who when turning his back, confounded mortals, rendering them unable to discern whether he was female or male.

Since embarking on the project, BJ has become more confident stepping out in women’s clothing, though cultural pressures and expectations remain a true burden, and they do not feel completely comfortable when it comes to entering public restrooms. For now, the space in front of Rivera’s camera remains the single place in which they are permitted “to explore and indulge their every feminine fantasy.” It’s a realm that belongs only to the two of them, where the rest of us are allowed only occasional, precious glimpses.

Lissa Rivera is a winner of the Second Annual Feature Shoot Emerging Photography Awards, and selected images from Beautiful Boy will be on view at United Photo Industries in DUMBO, Brooklyn as part of the exhibition Developed: Five Emerging Photographers.

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All images © Lissa Rivera

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