Transgender Portraits Celebrate Courage and Community


From the series Transformational Project by Jen Rosenstein.

Jen Rosenstein will never forget the first time she met a transgender person. A lesbian and, at the time, a student at Art Center College of Design, Rosenstein was curious. But her curiosity backfired. “I had so many questions for him, and he took it wrong,” says the 2008 Photography and Imaging graduate. “He misunderstood my intention.”

Still, Rosenstein and her new friend Mir kept talking and later he invited her to visit his home in West Hollywood. There she set up an impromptu studio to photograph Mir and some of his friends — the first portraits in what would become the series Transformational Project. “I went back to his house every weekend for several months,” she recalls, “and people were literally lining up to have their portraits taken.”

Five years on, Rosenstein has made nearly 70 portraits of trans men and women in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. The ever-expanding series, “a platform for the trans community to express themselves any way they want,” has been featured by ABC News and presented in a gallery show at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. On Saturday, June 22, her roving portrait studio returns to LAGLC’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza in Hollywood, and she has put out an open call to the trans community to come and be photographed there.

“Each shoot with each individual that walks in brings me more hope, love and understanding. The vulnerability that each person allows themselves to reach with me is powerful,” says Rosenstein. “Understanding that the LGBT community as a whole has limitations in accepting diversity within the community prompted me to question why we as individuals discriminate against the subcultures within our own subculture. ‘Liberating’ was the word I kept hearing to describe the experience of being open enough to shed layers in front of my lens.”


From the series Transformational Project by Jen Rosenstein.

Subcultures are an ongoing focus of Rosenstein’s work and she says Art Center instructor Ken Merfeld’s class in experimental portraiture was pivotal to her artistic development. “Ken likes to push his students — our thinking, our minds, our work. He was very open to this project and really nurtured it. He and the other Photo faculty — Dennis [Keeley], Everard [Williams], Steve [LaVoie] — have all been great mentors. They still are today. I still keep in touch with them.”

Graduating just as the recession hit, Rosenstein struggled at first. “It was a trying time. I don’t come from money. I have student loans. I had to figure out how to survive in this economy.” She worked as an assistant when she could, and for a while took a job at a rehabilitation center.

Today she works full-time as a photographer, director and artist, often on projects involving her wide and mutually supportive network of fellow Art Center alums, including Max Wang ’12 (Advertising), an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi, and Photography and Imaging grads Tim Bailey ’08, Drew Barillas ’09 and Jeremiah Hadjian ’08.

In addition to her work on commercial shoots with stars like Jennifer Hudson and Charles Barkley for brands like Toyota and Weight Watchers, Rosenstein is singer-songwriter Jason Mraz’s photographer and often travels with him. She and Mraz collaborated on STOP THE BULL*HIT, an anti-bullying video PSA fueled in part by their own experiences growing up. “I was really tomboyish and was severely bullied as a kid, got called names,” and the bullying left her feeling lonely, says Rosenstein.

“Bullying isn’t just about being gay,” she adds, “and because of social media, it’s even harder today. That’s a big way that kids are being abused. And in the worst cases they kill themselves.”

Rosenstein directed the PSA with lots of help from her friends. A range of voices in the three-minute video reminds kids they are beautiful just the way they are, and urges them to talk to an adult or older sibling if they’re being bullied. It was shot at Culver City’s Smashbox Studios which generously donated its facilities for the one-day shoot. An Art Center alum who works at Smashbox, Corey Seeholzer ’06 (Photography and Imaging), also lent a hand.

The goal of all her projects, says Rosenstein, is to educate people and inspire action. Next up is a book she’s been developing, guided by her mentor, L.A. gallerist David Fahey, that will bring together work from Transformational Project and her other subcultural series — including a desolate town in upstate New York, a Louisiana community confronted by the Gulf oil spill, a surf community and the music world. Beyond that she’d like to “tell the [trans] story in a global way” and hopes to someday photograph members of the trans community in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Meanwhile her work continues here in Los Angeles, where one of her first trans portrait subjects died last year of AIDS. “I learned so much from Alexis,” says Rosenstein, “the journey that she and others have come through, the courage. It’s really inspiring.”

To honor her friend Alexis, Rosenstein plans to donate proceeds from Transformational Project to a local transgender youth organization.

– Sylvia Sukop


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