After her child came out as queer, transgender, and non-binary at the age of 28, photographer Sandra Chen Weinstein discovered her own surprise at this revelation of their identity. Chen’s work, which has long used documentary photography to explore issues of social identity, culture, and minorities, became the perfect space in which she and her child could collaborate and explore the bonds of family, natural or chosen.
The resulting project, Transcend, which recently won first place at the 2020 Center Director’s Choice Award, is series of 30 portraits and stories of LGBTQ people and their loved ones, including their own, that can be used as a tool to fight against the stereotypes and stigmas that have surrounded the community for far too long.
Transcend is Chen’s most personal work to date. She has previously worked on long-term projects on the lives of women, LGBTQ community, refugees, and American pop culture. As both photographer and subject, Chen’s unique vantage point provides intimate understanding of those who stand before her camera, open and willing to explore the bonds that unite people for better or worse, in sickness and in health, so long as they both shall live.
Chen’s work centers the struggles of the family along their journey to acceptance, and the transformative power of love to reach across the divide and unite one another in mutual understanding and respect. Chen began Transcend in 2016, meeting subjects through word of mouth and allowing them to tell their stories on their own terms.
The portrait of Alejandro and Alexander, a couple posing in bed, is accompanied by Alexander’s words, which reveal, “At 18 years old I was outed Kicked out of home same day. Didn’t talk to my dad for years. Struggled with abandonment. Lived recklessly for a few years. Made it out of the struggle. Found a man that I made my husband. Family came to wedding (progress). Still struggle, but have a therapist. Here I am – GAY. I made it — I am here and still a second class citizen.”
Each of Chen’s portraits shares a noble truth: freedom is not granted but taken. One must be fearless in being who they are and fight for survival. That they have or find family is perhaps the greatest gift that life could ever bear, for love and support are not promised in this world. For every LGBTQ person Chen depicts, we are reminded of those who have none other than themselves.
In the portrait of Ethan and Cami, Ethan says, “A large part of my identity revolves around being transgender: it impacts every aspect of my life. Every day when I get dressed, I am making a statement about who I am. My younger sister have always supported and loved me for who I am. But, my friends are also part of my chosen family when my biological family was not there for me.”
Cami adds, “Ethan and I have always been best friends growing up. His transition was a big part of not only his life, but mine as well. I look up to him because of his positive attitude about life, regardless of what he’s been through.”
All images: © Sandra Chen Weinstein