For the last six years, photographer Chloe Aftel has captured portraits of gender-nonbinary communities across the country, documenting the lives of those who do not necessarily see themselves as specifically male or female. Each image is made in space that feels comfortable to her subjects — from old family homes to public parks, these are places of acceptance, learning, and understanding.
Her new book, Outside and In Between, brings together this emotional body of work and is accompanied by her subject's own stories of the obstacles they've overcome and the communities that have helped to support them in their journey towards self-realization.
Here, Aftel recounts her experience in making Outside and In Between and shares with BuzzFeed News a selection of portraits and text from her new book:
The project truly began after I was assigned to photograph Sasha Fleischman in 2014 as part of visual essay on the genderqueer community for San Francisco magazine.
Fleischman was riding a bus in Oakland, California, wearing a skirt and a men’s dress shirt. A kid thought it would be funny to light Fleischman’s skirt on fire. As I understand it, the skirt was highly flammable and severely burned the majority of Sasha’s body. It was a terrible, frightening, and ugly thing that occurred.
After photographing Sasha, more people wanted to be part of the series. I put out the word on social media, to friends, and through any avenue that I could find. I then asked people to choose a place that felt like home as it was very important to me that subjects felt safe during the session. I didn’t want the images to be anything but intimate and beautiful.
There is something powerful in seeing people as who they really are, especially when they've had to pay a heavy price for it. One of the big emotional takeaways for me is how important it is to be honest about who you are and to find the places that support that. Anyone who is willing to really share this part of your life with you, changes how you see things.
I’m very grateful to all the people who let me truly see them. Each person in the book has a compelling, moving, transformative story. I was just very lucky to shoot them all. I believe it’s really important for all of us to let people be themselves without reprisal and also understand that being queer is beautiful.
”When I did the photo shoot, I was really coming into my own newness of identifying as GNC [gender-nonconforming]. It was so liberating because it was at my apartment and up until then I hadn’t really allowed myself to embrace the true me — even in my own home.” —Abby
“We first shot together in Rockridge at my husband’s parents’ house. [...] That’s where I had the first opportunity to get to know my husband’s family. I have memories in that house from both sides of my transition, and within those walls I always felt affirmed and respected.” —Edie
“I am still discovering my gender identity, but I do identify as an alien prince. I came to understand that gender is a spectrum that I can travel with, or I can be outside of it. Most of the time, I show up as a feminine person or a woman... which I hate, but I don’t say anything out of fear and rejection.” —Prince Bri
“I chose my roller derby league’s warehouse practice space for this shoot for a few reasons. For many years, over different relationships, job changes and apartment moves, roller derby was my constant. Not only was it where I discovered that I am an athlete, a member of a team, a leader, but roller derby was also the first community where I felt free and supported being out as a non-binary transperson.” —Teasley
“It has been a difficult and frightening journey trying to be who i really am. We are all human. We are all fragile. I understand people’s concepts and ideas regarding man or woman. The many shades of gray do not define or help to ease an issue that has been problematic for thousands of years.” —Willow
Left: “Home is where I wait for my postal worker to deliver packages, with slicked-back hair and house music blaring from his white van. [...] It’s where friends with spare keys come up without calling, always there to pick me up when I need it most. Home is all of these things, beautiful, and painfully complex.” —Pidgeon
Right: “‘Home’ is to be at once comfortable and excited in one’s own skin. Calm yet energized and ready to be here, right now.” —Viola
“I identify as a lot of things. These days, there are more and more identity terms that feel good to me — gender nonconforming, non-binary, genderqueer, trans, genderfluid, gay, queer, princess, unicorn, faggot, goddess — they all work to describe a different facet of my experience.” —Jacob
“I frequently go to Miller Knox Park in Richmond with my dog. It is my go-to place to relax and take in the beauty that exists in the area. I consider it my home because I feel a sense of happiness, calm, and gratitude when I visit.” —Aiden
“Here I feel like I can be myself and express myself without being self-conscious. I no longer wear a disguise. It’s like coming up for a breath of air after diving.” —Chris
it will be sad to leave this place.
the memories of my pets sleeping
in the migrating sun spots,
the places i have painted secrets into the walls.
this temporary lease has become
an extension of me,
a record of my breathing.
“During the summer, the local teen center would meet there, and that’s where I would strengthen bonds and form new ones. Now that I am a city employee, I work the events held at the park. It holds many memories of experiences that have aided in my growth as a person.” —Kim H.