In Mia Nakano’s portrait of Kay Ulanday Barrett, the self-identified queer, trans, Pinay-American, disabled poet stares at the camera, glasses lightly propped upon the nose, short black hair styled into an edgy coif, and hands confidently clasped atop a cane in a stance of total assurance.
In the accompanying video interview, Ulanday Barrett describes a single immigrant mother working tirelessly to achieve the American dream, and her frustrations when confronting her child’s non-normative gender identity -- Ulanday Barrett uses the pronoun "they" -- yet another obstacle for them to overcome. After coming out to their mother, they had to come out to their church community, their martial arts community, their mother’s work community, extended family, and an endless list of others throughout their life, Ulanday Barett recalls.
“I’m coming out all the time,” Ulanday Barrett says in the video interview. “Every university, every classroom, every time I get a job application… I feel like I’ve been coming out since I was born, over and over and over again.”
Ulanday Barrett is one of more than 200 participants in Nakano’s photo documentation series The Visibility Project. Since founding the series in 2008, Nakano has visited 26 cities in 20 different states to photograph Asian American queer women, trans individuals, and gender non-conforming folks. The intention is, in part, to expand the Asian-American queer and trans narrative beyond the limited stereotypes presented in popular culture, and to work toward a world in which people like Ulanday Barrett can simply exist.
Nakano, a fourth-generation Japanese American queer woman, was the founding photo editor of AAPI-centered publication Hyphen Magazine until she decided to take a photo-journalism internship at the Kathmandu Post in Nepal in 2007. While there, she began taking photos of folks at the Blue Diamond Society, the first and most prominent LGBTQ non-profit in the country. Inspired by her time there, and by the grassroots work being done by Blue Diamond to build LGBTQ visibility, Nakano decided to return and start her own project to raise awareness stateside.
“When I was doing research, most of the stuff I found was either porn or just really stereotypical racist stuff about the queer Asian-American community,” she recalled. Her goal was to make more nuanced representations available, and in turn, to augment our collective imagination for possible Asian American identities.
Starting in San Francisco, she put out a call for subjects willing to answer a brief questionnaire about how they identify, sit for a portrait, and have it added to the project’s website. From there, she expanded to Los Angeles and New York, adding video interviews to the process. In the years following, she spent months traveling throughout the American South and Midwest (where it wasn’t as easy to find willing subjects). Often collaborating with LGBTQ-centered events and organizations in order to reach the right people, Nakano would also set up an Eventbrite page with possible time slots and simply wait to see who arrived.
The result is a massive archive of people digging into their identities, allowing themselves to fully be seen. There's Jayden Thai, the trans Vietnamese American from Washington, D.C.; Lolan Buhain Sevilla of Brooklyn, the Pinoy queer butch whose preferred pronoun is listed as "mam-sir"; and Un Jung, the Korean-American lesbian who identifies as an "alpha femme," among a spectrum of others. Earlier this month, Nakano also released Visible Resilience, the first Visibility Project book, which features 80 of her portraits since starting the project in 2009 -- as well as excerpts from video interviews, and even a syllabus for how to teach the Visibility Project in school and create safe spaces in classrooms while doing it. (Nakano decided to add this aspect, created in collaboration with Monna Wong and Tracy Ngyuen, after realizing that the project was already regularly being included on college syllabi.)
For Nakano, though, the collection of portraits is about much more than simply shifting the narrative -- it's about saving lives. “Not being visible is dangerous," she says. "Not seeing models or hearing stories or seeing reflections of yourself over time and being oppressed without visibility -- just that within itself takes its toll.”
As commonly cited, studies have shown that over 40 percent of transgender individuals have at some point attempted suicide, and transgender youth who are not supported by their family when coming out are 13 times more likely to attempt suicide.
“Theres a whole generation of people who are not here now because of AIDS," says Nakano. "And I think there’s a whole generation and demographic of people that we’re losing to violence and suicide.”
With this in mind, Nakano’s primary goal has always been making the affirming images and interviews accessible to as many people as possible. Although she is currently not actively photographing for the project, her next step is to have all of the interviews transcribed and translated into the language of each subject's ancestry. These translations will then inform an evolving multi-lingual glossary of terms that people can use to, say, come out to their relatives in a way that makes sense to them. As Nakano noted, this project has taught her that visibility doesn't always take the form of the image -- often, it's words.
“I think that visibility can be enacted in many, many different ways,” she says.
To view the Visibility Project and purchase a book, visit VisbilityProject.org.