When Amanda Picotte first began taking photographs, she treated her camera as a device for entertaining herself and exploring the rural terrain and wooded surroundings of her childhood home in Upstate New York. Since then, she has turned her photographic gaze onto matters that sit more deeply within personal experience and selfhood, as well as addressing wider social narratives around identity. She tells us: “It wasn’t until college, where I experienced some trauma, that I began to rely on photography as a way to communicate where words failed.”
Although Amanda’s studies focussed on critical and visual studies, looking at visuality from an analytic point of view, this theoretical stance came to greatly inform into her photography practice. As she says, the course “hit home for me the power of images and pop culture, and how these two things can be wielded as tools for social change.” Amanda’s recent project for Refinery29, upholding the beauty of trans women, harnesses this potency held by images in contemporary culture and uses it to promote positive visual representation for marginalised bodies.
The emphasis of the photographs is on inclusivity; they do not propound any single way of being a trans woman, nor do they sacrifice their subjects’ individual identities to a homogenous notion of what trans means and looks like. “The individual portraits,” Amanda says, are meant to make the subject feel like a beautiful queen, in control of her destiny, and shining her light on the world around her.” She continues: “My queer identity is very important to me, and I see photography as a tool to illuminate the wealth of diversity within that community. Queer bodies, differently sized bodies, and bodies of all ages and colours are often missing from pop culture, and that largely prevents us from seeing those bodies as human and beautiful.”
Describing how the project came to fruition, Amanda tells us: “I collaborated with my friend Khrystyana, who is a successful model and body positive advocate. She approached me with the idea of putting together a series where we’d give voice to a large group of trans women to speak about their experiences while creating images that were uplifting and glamorous.” Amanda’s low-angle shots lend an assertive power and strength to the women. Meanwhile, the pictures of the women sporting athletic attire, placed alongside a sequence of glamour-shots, in which the models wear opulent jewellery, long gloves and elegant dresses, invoke different spheres of experience and demonstrate that trans bodies are like any other human bodies – beautiful, powerful and versatile. Of the styling, Amanda says: “I draw upon the visual language of fashion photography, but I’d like my images to do more than sell a look. I want my subject to feel like they belong in all aspects of culture and for viewers to feel the same.”
While each woman in the series retains a distinctive voice, there is also a huge element of unity and collective, mutual affirmation. In Amanda’s words: “A big part of this project was enabling all these women to connect with one another and foster a sense of community on set. I really think that came through, and that these images work as a testament to how unique each woman is, but also to how formidable a community can be.” For Amanda, “the group shot of the women together in their TomboyX undies, I believe, is the perfect representation of the project. The image is both tender and powerful in that it shows these women in their simplest form, bound together in a unified group. Each woman is wholly unique from the other, and despite being represented as a group, each face demonstrates that there is no one way to be trans, and there is no one way to be beautiful. I wanted viewers who aren’t familiar with the trans community to see each of these humans as exactly that, but also to see them as neighbours, co-workers, and leaders. Trans women are murdered all the time for being seen as an ‘other’, as a degenerate part of society, for not being ‘real women’. And if it’s not physical violence they experience, then it’s often difficulty being hired and housed, which further pushes these women into the margins. I wanted to help counter this dangerous line of thinking by laying bare how very ‘normal’ and beautiful these individuals are and that they deserve love, just like the rest of humanity.”
Amanda places a great emphasis in her practice on creating an atmosphere in which her subjects feel comfortable, able to show themselves and connect with her on a personal level. For her, the power dynamic between photographer and sitter should be one that is equal and built on a mutual exchange of trust. She tells us: “The environment I create and the intentions I set with a subject are going to be what takes an image from being ordinary to really capturing something special. This is also why I believe it’s so important to hire queer, POC, and femme photographers to document those subjects, as the subject truly blooms when they feel seen and comfortable on set.”
The central message that Amanda hopes to convey by promoting affirmative visual representations of trans pride is this: “Trans is beautiful. I want the viewer to see beyond gender and understand that each human is beautiful and demands respect.”