Peter Bussian is an award-winning filmmaker and visual artist who specializes in documentary photography. He has worked internationally, documenting people in areas of conflict in order to foster empathy, bring understanding, and illuminate previously obscured issues. In his latest project, Trans New York: Photos and Stories of Transgender New Yorkers, Bussian photographs fifty different New Yorkers who identify as transgender or nonbinary.
Peter discussed with Honeysuckle the process of constructing this project, the wisdom he gained from his research into the trans community, and the importance of visibility and conversation to foster understanding and acceptance.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: I loved your book Trans New York. I thought it was such an incredible work of allyship. You allowed yourself to be the mirror for these individuals to tell their stories and you also didn’t distort the stories or the vision with your personal gaze. What were the challenges and requirements that came with maintaining this balance and examining your personal privilege while constructing this project?
PETER BUSSIAN: When I started this project, my intention was to create a showcase for trans people. I wanted them to tell their own stories. As you mentioned, it would be very presumptuous of me, as a non-trans person to forget for a moment that I’m a middle-aged white male.
I think it was an advantage for me not to be from that community and in fact not to even be from the LGBT community. So I was sort of like an alien who could come in and I didn’t have to deal with the internal politics. There was some resistance for sure, particularly in the beginning.
I’m very lucky and fortunate that I was embraced by a lot of people in that community and that community has ended up really supporting me. I’m primarily a photographer so it’s very important to me to get the photographs. They were all NY photographs, where you have [the people] but you also have the locations and that combination, which was what I was going for. But I wanted it to be something that a grandmother in Iowa can read and have it reach her heart and say, look, these stories are just real stories from real people, and ultimately that’s what I think is going to lead to greater acceptance for the trans community.
It was really striking to me that a lot of the answers to your last question–which was, what would you like people to know about yourself as a transgender person that might be very different from people’s ideas of trans people?–It was really striking to me that several individuals advocated for their basic humanity, their basic right to love and have a free and equal life. It was very evident that our heteronormative and binary society is failing them. I wonder if this struck you as a common answer: basic humanity. Or were there other commonalities that you found in the answers that you received?
Yeah, well there was a variation in the answers, but I think you hit it on the head there.. One of the quotes is, “You don’t have to understand us, but you have to respect us.” And that really stuck with me. Many religious people interpret their religion to be against trans people, I completely and totally disagree, and many religious scholars I’ve spoken with disagree with that, because it’s not in any of the Great Books. It’s not in the Bible, it’s not in the Qur’an, it’s not in Judaism, as Abby Stein wrote in the introduction; she used to be a rabbi.
But the liberal progressive people who pay lip service to being supportive of trans people–I think it’s important that they pay lip service, but I think it’s also important that they look deeper into their own personal acceptance of that. Maybe the biggest challenge of the trans movement right now is to integrate into that part of the progressive culture. There are movies coming out and TV shows and this and that and it’s in the media. But it hasn’t quite reached the acceptance that it needs to reach.
Right. Absolutely. That leads into my other question. I wonder going into this project if you felt like this collaboration with this amount of trans people would be complicated or insurmountable because of your lack of connection with this community? After reading this it just seems like a major solution to the lack of social acceptance of trans individuals just lies in visibility and conversation which is what happened in this project. Then it just seems incredibly simple. It’s just appealing to these people’s humanity and having conversations.
I approached it from a very direct, simple point of view as you mentioned. I was not by any means an expert on the trans community. I had to go out and discover it and find these influencers in the community and then realize that really they are so connected. They are connected but they are also disconnected.
By the way there were other trans people who were working on their own projects. And what I want to make very clear is that I do not consider this a definitive work on the trans community in any way. I approached it at the beginning like an objective journalist. They have these amazing stories from Iran and Mexico, little towns in America, and of course, New York. I became a trans advocate by getting to know trans people and developing friendships.
Are there any specific connections that you found between the trans experience and the human condition in general that you feel like we all could relate to?
For one thing, I was also interested in the project because of the whole question of gender. Gender, like many things, is a spectrum. People are on all kinds of places on that spectrum and one of the more interesting aspects was the non-binary people that I interviewed. They were not trans women or trans men, who were defining themselves somewhere on that spectrum. My own thinking about gender has evolved while doing this project.
I think that this narrative of men and women, which is to some degree biological for procreating our species, is a narrative that has largely been driven by the same forces that have created much of the other inequities and injustices that we’ve experienced. It’s the same thing that has suppressed women and Black people. It’s this hierarchy that has existed for a long time. So the trans [experience] in particular is sort of the perfect pinnacle of the triangle of all these other issues. And those issues are worldwide; it’s one of the reasons that the world is so screwed up right now. So it’s about liberation of not just trans people but people of color, women, even men! Liberating men from this box of what they’re supposed to do and be. Liberating human beings to just be free to be who they are.
Yeah, I completely agree. You could definitely see the intersections of all of these different issues that you mentioned based on the diversity of the trans individuals that you were interviewing; people from all over having several different experiences that all still amounted to some discrimination that they faced and then having to liberate themselves whether it was by their gender or sexual identity.
Yes, I think we have to single out trans women of color, who are, you know, persecuted and murdered left and right.
Right, absolutely. And then there’s the unfortunate irony of how it was trans women of color who led the way for a lot of the LGBTQ+ advancements in our society. Even in New York City. Unfortunately, even today, the statistics aren’t looking much better. But hopefully there’s more visibility in the media like you said, more influencers, and more people who can have careers and be openly trans and who can have free lives. But there still is a lot of vulnerability.
This is a big question but I wonder what did this entire process teach you as an artist, as a photographer, and as a human? And what do you hope to leave with people who get to experience your project?
Well, specifically to the trans issue, some of those I think I already discussed. In general, I will tell you right now, I’m actually designing a photography course at the moment based on how this project unfolded and what I would say is to people–photographers, writers, filmmakers, whatever it is, we live in consequential times. What you do right now is really important, much more important than it was ten years ago because we, in this country, we are experiencing a conflict and essentially a civil war. I have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and all over Africa and many countries where these kinds of things were going on ten or twenty years ago, but it’s going on here now.
And I think the stories here for people who are living here, are the most relevant thing they can do. For me, I encourage people to go out and find something, an issue, that you’re passionate about and that you believe can bring about whatever type of social change is in your heart and use whatever tools you have and do it. And I’m not even coming from any particular point of view. I’m not saying it should be politically any which way but whatever is in your heart, go out and create something using the tools that you have and the talents that you have and tell the stories.