Living Up to Her Name:
Photographer B. Proud
I magine you’re a queer artist. Perhaps even one who is working on a project designed to help LGBTQ/gender-nonconforming couples be seen as themselves. You want to choose a name for yourself that telegraphs all this. I’ve got it! “B. Proud.” But then suppose your last name actually is “Proud” and your first name is…Barbara.
You’d think I could stop there, but to this you must add extraordinary artistic talent and an unusual superpower: empathy. Meet the award-winning commercial and fine art photographer B. Proud.
The people Barbara photographs must sense that empathy. One look at their faces and you can see the trust, confidence, and empowerment she has enabled in them. These strikingly intimate portraits capture each couple’s spirit.
“It’s the conversation and the energy we create together that makes it happen,” Barbara says. “Spending the time with them to collaborate on a portrait that embodies what their relationships mean is very important to me, so it’s not just a snapshot…it’s something that’s going to resonate with them, that they’re going to be very proud of and really illustrates their beauty.”
Barbara’s work has been featured in solo and group shows nationally and internationally, and her photographs are in museum and private collections. She has photographed food, wine, and famous people ranging from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and civil rights activist John Lewis to Elton John and the cast of Law & Order SVU. A career highlight was photographing President Barack Obama and Lady Gaga on the same day.
Barbara is also an adjunct professor in the Photography Department at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, and on the faculty of the International Center of Photography in New York. She lives in Wilmington with her wife, Allison, and two dogs, Soleil and Cosette, and owns a home in Rehoboth Beach.
In 2009, Proposition 8, outlawing LGBTQ marriages in California, had been passed and The Defense of Marriage Act was the law of the land. That March, Barbara was inspired to begin a project focusing on LGBTQ couples in long-term relationships: First Comes Love. It became a traveling exhibition of photographs, stories, and videos. She later published a book of the photographs and accompanying stories.
The success of First Comes Love led Barbara to the idea of focusing on transgender and gender-nonconforming couples for her next project. Now a traveling exhibition, Transcending Love was recently displayed at the Delaware Division of the Arts’ Mezzanine Gallery in Wilmington. Pieces from this project are also on display at the Biggs Museum of American Art and the state office building in Dover. Barbara is particularly pleased that her work is in a government building. “People are going to see it who would never make the effort to go to an LGBTQ center or a gallery. They’re going to walk past it and say, ‘what’s this?’”
Barbara wanted to create portraits that would make observers really look at who the people are, which is why many of the subjects are gazing directly at the viewer. As with First Comes Love, she provided biographical stories to accompany the photos. The stories provide a sense of what it has taken for the couple to get where they are and take the viewer deeper into a level of understanding and compassion. Barbara says that, although each story is unique, “the most common thread is that people just want to be able to live their best life as their true, authentic selves.”
While traveling to 25 states for the project, Barbara also visited and photographed sites where transgender people have been murdered. She calls this project Say Their Names. While she feels it’s essential to show the positivity of the families she photographs, she doesn’t want to ignore the ever-present danger those families face. “I don’t just walk over and take a picture,” she says of her experiences documenting these locations. “I reflect and think about who that person was and ask the universe for more protection, and I have a moment there before I take a photograph. I also try to speak to people who knew these victims to make it even more personal…to have somebody talk about them as a human being.”
B. Proud isn’t sure what she wants her legacy to be, but she says, “I try to live up to my name…I’m trying to make a difference. I want to be seen as someone who has really tried to document our culture at this time in history in a way that touches people’s lives.”
Excerpts from the Stories by B. Proud
Adriana & Marli ♦ Making a portrait along the banks of the Choptank River in Maryland held special significance to Adriana and Marli. This area is Native American land and close to one of the stops on the Underground Railroad near the actual home of Harriet Tubman’s parents. For Marli, whose family is Ecuadorian and Black, and Adriana, whose family is Mexican and Black, this land speaks to their core.
The couple met at a gym at a time when Marli was struggling with his gender identity and considered himself non-binary. As they got to know each other, Adriana noticed that there was something a little different about Marli but never felt the need to ask him to explain his gender identity. As their relationship grew and they started to date, she was comfortable being on the journey as he let his true self evolve and begin his transition. “With Marli, it was really natural for me to enjoy his company and feel like my absolute self around him. So, who wouldn’t want to be with someone that they can be themselves around?”
Marli confides that in his search for his true self, he struggled with substance abuse and Adriana was there to support him. He admits, “When we weren’t together, I wasn’t making the best decisions, and being with her helped me realize that I could transition and be accepted.”
Adriana believes there is something very special about each of them as individuals but even more special as a couple. She says, “The relationship strength will always be there no matter what gender someone is. Things don’t have to end because things change. They can actually evolve.”
Jonah & Deejay ♦ Jonah and Deejay met in a nightclub in Las Vegas. As a not-so-tall transgender man, Deejay is used to drag queens towering over him. But when Jonah, aka Alei’Aloha Savage, walked by, Deejay was struck by his beauty, small stature, and the fact that he had a turtle tattoo on his shoulder, indicating that he was Hawaiian. As Deejay describes him, “Jonah happens to be small and very pretty. He looks like a woman. I happen to like female energy, but I still favor another man.”
They had not intended to start a family, but fate had other plans. Many transgender men and women sometimes struggle to afford health insurance and/or hormone treatments. Not only could Deejay not afford any gender-affirming surgeries, but life circumstances also forced him to be off his hormones for five years. During that time, he and Jonah began their relationship. After a shared celebration of their birthdays, which were only eight days apart, they found themselves pregnant with a daughter, Anuhea.
As a transgender man, Deejay described how carrying a baby was psychologically and physically challenging. He did not even want to be referred to as being pregnant. He preferred to say that “he was the incubator for the baby.”
Deejay claims that he just didn’t know how to be a female. “I’ve always dressed as a male. I know what it’s like to be a male with different genitalia than a bio male.” And he certainly knows how to be a loving father. Jonah and Deejay have a daughter that they adore.
Jonah and Deejay hope to represent their entire community by showing what a diverse and loving family looks like. “We have white in our family, Black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Hawaiian, everything.” They want to be out and proud and visible role models for the entire community.
Jonah says, “I feel like people should know that we’re no different than anybody else…We might not be what you picture with the white picket fence, but this is my white picket fence. You have a dream to be a police officer. I have a dream to be the next drag superstar. But who am I to judge you, so who are you to judge me?”
Owen & Blue ♦ The excitement and anticipation of the birth of their child just days away made this portrait session with Owen and Blue an unforgettable experience.
For two transgender men, the decision to go through a pregnancy is a very personal one, one that many, including other trans men, question. “Why transition to a man if you want to carry a baby?” Owen and Blue knew they wanted a family. They discussed adoption, but with a willing donor, for them, “self-carry” seemed the best course. Any discomfort from the feminine changes in Owen’s body was their logical means to an end. It was thoughtfully planned that it would be a spring birth, thereby giving Owen the convenience of being able to wear large hoodies and shirts through the colder months in an attempt to camouflage his baby bump, primarily for safety reasons.
Baby Finley arrived to fathers whose parenting philosophy is “gender-neutral,” empowering Fin to make choices for themself. Their birth certificate has an “X” for gender, the first in Nevada. The fathers adhere to the concept that it is their job to expose Finley to as many different things as possible and they choose what they like and dislike.
Blue explained, “for us to be trans and be able to have any sort of a family, period, no matter how we got it, is a miracle in itself.” He considers his most important role in life is being a father and a husband. Pointing at his child, he continued, “That is the biggest joy in my life, this little one right here.” They both encourage other couples in the transgender community who wish to have families to do whatever is necessary to bring that to fruition. There are so many options, and they should choose what is best for them and not let anyone tell them it’s wrong.
Owen says, “Every family is valid. Whether it’s chosen or blood, there’s one thing involved. Love.”
B. Proud’s work can be seen at bproudphoto.com and transcendinglove.org. To make a tax-deductible donation or be photographed by B. Proud, visit firstcomeslove.org. ▼
Nancy Sakaduski is an award-winning writer and editor who owns Cat & Mouse Press in Lewes, Delaware.
Credit photos and story excerpts: B. Proud for Transcending Love.