by Kristin Kurens
Just stepping into April Hartford’s studio and exhibition in Santa Fe, NM can knock the emotion out of you.
The Maine native opened the space in July 2017 with her show, Transgender: One Person’s Journey.
The exhibition chronicles the black-and-white photographer’s transition from Justin Hartford to April Hartford, from running a family insurance business with her brother to casting off her clothes in some of the harshest environments for self-portraits. I’m instantly in love with the work, but pause at the entrance to let the emotional reaction, the welling up that hits me immediately, subside.
“Transgender – One Person’s Journey is about the inner process of transition from beginning to end. About the pain of hiding, the disclosure of the body’s secrets, the relief and redemption of living as an authentic self…. This exhibition deals with difficult issues such as suicide and hate crimes and also shows the human body in its natural state without clothing.”
That’s just the welcome sign.
Her photos are brilliantly executed, ranging from starker lighting and harsh landscapes to softer compositions with bright exposures. The viewer journeys with Hartford as she transitions to her true self, as a woman and an artist. Mannequins punctuate Hartford’s space, some plastered with more casual photos from her life as Justin and through her transition.
The show is deeply personal; some images evoke suicidal tendencies. It’s a chronicle of her bleaker moments and her emergence, shining a light on the dark corners of her psyche. She’s cautious about triggering others; there are reminders throughout the exhibit of who to contact in case of suicidal thoughts. The sentiment is echoed on her website.
Hartford’s show is also quite educational. She includes plenty of notes throughout meant to inform the everyday person about trans—everything from bathroom controversy to gender dissonance to “passing” (being generally recognized as one’s identified gender) and beyond.
Hartford’s not just interested in sharing her art; she’s invested in educating anyone who sees her exhibit and her website on the reality of trans. Her exhibition includes educational posters, which include statistics, facts, and etiquette.
Here are just a few: Seventy-six percent of trans people have had hormone therapy. Bottom surgery (sex reassignment) rates are vastly different for trans men (one to three percent) versus trans women (twenty-three percent).
It’s a thorough and thoughtfully composed journey through the world of transgender, including how to support the trans individuals in your life and dos (use the pronoun they prefer) and don’ts (never assume sexual orientation).
Hartford graciously agreed to an interview, and she and I sat down recently to talk about her show, her work, and her transition. She’s bright, warm, funny, kind, thoughtful, frank, and willing to talk about almost anything.
Growing up in rural Maine in the ‘70s didn’t give Hartford much context for what she felt at an early age. “It's not the most progressive place in the world and not necessarily the most progressive time. Around four or five years old, I knew something was different. I knew something was up. And it's a really hard thing to describe when you're that young—how you know that,” she tells me.
Hartford used to dress up in her mother’s clothes as a kid. “I knew early enough that I was too old for that to be considered okay. I didn't do that in front of them. You find your times as a kid to do that. You become very good at planning….
“Nobody's home between these times, or mom's out cooking a big dinner. I can deal with this, and as long as I'm smart about it I can figure out how to do this. Whether it's mom, a friend's sisters, or any female who's in your realm, you figure out how to do that. It's very little when you're a kid, that doesn't encompass much of your life. But it's definitely there, and it's a part of it. It's a thing you think of all the time.”
When Hartford was in her early twenties, her gender dissonance started coming up. She knew she wasn’t gay: “There's no way, because I like women way too much.
“Right around twenty or so I started figuring it out and putting two and two together. When I kind of really knew I needed to pay attention to it was back in probably 2004–2005. That was when it was really starting to come to a head for me, like ‘I'm having some big gender issues and I need to deal with these things.”
That was manifesting pretty classically, Hartford says. “Cross-dressing. Going through sections of cross-dressing in private and feeling all sorts of bad about it, like it's wrong. But knowing that it feels so great, and it's kind of how you want to be.
“So, you go through purges and get rid of any clothes that accumulated and that worked for not much time.”
Hartford was married when her gender issues came to a head, to a woman who she won’t go so far as to say was a gold-digger. But when Hartford confessed what was going on, her now ex-wife admitted she enjoyed the lifestyle Hartford could provide—and left shortly thereafter, within a week or two.
“That one hurt for a while,” Hartford confesses. “She left pretty abruptly after I’m like, ‘Hey I have some things and I don't know what to do with them… kinda need your support and need some counseling.’
“A week and a half later, she was gone. On the other hand, it was nice because I have that freedom at that point to not worry about it—it was done. Just me and the business, and I was getting fed up with the business too. I had been there for ten to twelve years or so.”
Hartford confronted her brother about her waning interest in the business, which he had apparently seen coming for some time. She left the business and Maine and moved to the Washington D.C. area and took up studying graphic design, all with her brother’s support and blessing.
She interned for about six months, thinking, “Maybe I can do some wedding photography… Six months in that's not what I want at all.”
The art factor grew tremendously for Hartford in her early thirties. “I love the creative side of this,” she tells me. “I was very creative as a kid, then wiped that out of myself for a long time. When I got back into it, it was very quick for me to find I like fine art. It grew from there.”
Her time spent as an athlete (Alpine ski racing and iron-distance triathlons) served her well. She often hikes with her cameras, taking full advantage of natural lighting, “whatever the sky gives me.”
Many images are composites, and her shoots often take several outings to study lighting conditions and how she wants to be viewed in the landscape.
Her exhibition images are all black-and-white and cover her transition starting in 2007 through December 2016. The Snow White Queen images are the latest, which she took in Colorado. Hartford planned the shots for about two months.
She trekked from a small cabin she owns to the location for the shoot at an altitude of 12,200 feet. And, of course, as in all of her self-portraits, she’s naked. “It was about five below Fahrenheit, not Celsius. The wind was blowing, about thirty-to-forty mile per hour winds that day, and it snowed about a foot and a half.
“I was really happy when I got those. I say, ‘when I got them.’ When I got them I was really happy to get back into heat,” she laughs. “It was really bad, really freaking cold.” It took her three treks to get those images, while wearing a onesie she could quickly zip out of and back into.
“I was naked… just hanging out until I got it. It was really hanging out until I felt like I was freezing my ass off. But I need to feel that. Finally when I was at the point of ‘ok I'm going to need to zip this up and go in really quick,’ then I was finally able to take the images.”
Those images were inspired by photographer Joyce Tenneson, who Hartford lists as an influence. “I wanted to replicate something like what she had done. So but I wanted to do a series leading up to it. It worked,” she says.
That’s a perfect lead-in to talk about Hartford’s influences. “Certainly the biggest influence is my mentor John Paul Caponigro. He lives in Maine,” she says. “I found him when he was there, when I was just picking up a camera essentially. He's been my mentor the whole time through.
“He is probably one of the most gentle, kind, amazing people you will ever meet in life and an incredibly well-known photographer. I've lived with him and his images since the beginning and his way of doing things, which is just that you are making a choice with everything you make.
“Make that choice of what you're doing. It doesn't matter if you're doing straight photography or compositing. Just know what you're doing and be honest about it. Make the choices in how you're presenting them in what you're doing. He's been great as far as leading me down to find my own way and how I wanted to do things.”
That clicked for Hartford. She has no interest in the “perfect” photo. As Hartford explains, “It's building on something; taking something and using it to build what I want to do.
“The self-portrait artist I really like is Arno Rafael Minkkinen. He's great in the fact that he does a lot of black-and-white stuff—all in-camera because he does film work. He doesn't have the emotional content that I strive to have.
“His is very much a technical show and trying to fit certain body parts into the environment or an entire body in a certain way. I like it because it's a very clean way to show things. It's very intelligent in the way that he approaches the subject, whether it's him or somebody else. It helps take some of the emotionality out of it in a way and ground it in some basic photograph concepts.
Paul Caponigro (John Paul’s father) who lived in Santa Fe for a long time is a classic black-and-white landscape photographer who has influenced Hartford. Ansel Adams is another.
Hartford elaborates, “Your classic black-and-white landscape photographers certainly have a big impact in what I do. I've chosen black-and-white and nature because it really makes the subject approachable. It grounds it in some classic techniques that people can really relate to.
“And then by fitting my body in there somehow, it just is a lot more approachable. People can enter those images, especially people who may not otherwise want to see an exhibition about being transgender. It makes it more approachable.”
Hartford tells me she tried color initially in her self-portraits, but it just didn’t work. Neither did clothing.
“I never thought that I wanted to have clothes on. I was in a workshop with my mentor; there were probably fifteen of us at that time, and one of them looked at me and said, ‘You really need to try self-portraiture.’
“That was probably on the last day we were together. So I left and was on a road trip in California, in the Sierras somewhere, some deserted highway. And I saw this place, thinking, I could try photography there, try taking a picture of myself. So I got my camera out and set it up. I never thought once that I should have clothes on,” she laughs. “I don't know why. It just never entered my mind.”
The reaction from her group and mentor was memorable. “I posted the pictures to our group. My mentor asks, ‘Is that you all nude and shit? I didn't say you had to be nude.’ At that moment, I'm thinking, well, okay… but how else would I do that?”
She's still in the beginning stages of her transition at this point, venturing into self-portraiture, and doesn’t bat an eye at exposing herself.
Hartford explains it easily. “It kind of started slow. I was at the beginning stages of dealing with gender issues. In the back of my head I knew where I was going with it, but couldn't really face that head-on at the time. It was a passive decision in a way.
“If I want this to be taken well, I've got to be honest about it; go whole-hog essentially, lay everything out there because I don't have to show anybody. You can't go back in time; you can't take more images of me when I was male, when I was in between in the transition. So in those times I took a tremendous amount of images of myself. Just so that I could have them and use them later.”
It was something she saw lacking in the trans community from those who were documenting their transitions. “People who are documenting their transitions have before pictures: front, back, often in clothes. It's very stark and has its interest in a way.
“It's certainly interesting to see how anybody changes over time, but it really doesn't tell the story either. It really strips away any emotional content when you do that.”
gender identity disorder
A letter in Hartford’s show catches my eye: it’s to her grandfather explaining that she is no longer Justin, that she’s been diagnosed with gender identity disorder. Hartford gracefully explains, “He was the last person I told. It's my grandfather. I love him. I've gone through so much with him. How do I tell this man who's health is failing completely that his grandson is going to be his granddaughter?
“At that point I had gotten past all of the terminology, and I think too many transgender people are way caught up on the terminology and words, which is odd coming from a group that doesn't want to be defined by words,” she says laughing, “however that happens.
“It's a bi-product of our society and that's okay. I think it's a way especially for somebody like my grandfather, who at that point was in his early nineties. He died about two years after that.
“Part of it is quantifying it as it's been diagnosed: Doctors have said this is an issue and it happens. Maybe that makes it a little easier for him.
“I suppose a guy who's gone through World War II, doing counter-intelligence work, he's seen a lot in his life. I thought at a point, he loves me. He's always said he loves me. Why is this going to really be an issue for him? And it wasn't. He never screwed up pronouns, never screwed up my name from that point on. He treated me like his granddaughters."
Hartford admits she’s blessed with the people in her life. Her family has been supportive through her transition, as have the bulk of her friends from rural Maine. She says, “Everyone has been really supportive. Some people have fallen off the sides, but none of my friends that I've had forever who really count as friends, none of them batted an eye at it to speak of.
“When I was living in Virginia… it's saturated with military and department of defense people. I never had one issue with anybody who was a veteran or in the military. The only thing I can go back to is that they're there to protect the freedoms that we all have and enjoy, and they don't agree with everything. I know some of them don't agree with everything, but they're like, ‘Hey, this is your choice…. You go for it. They're there to support you and that's that.”
the intricacies of trans
Hartford explains what it’s like during transition when it comes to using the bathroom, something that’s been a bit of an issue lately. “I had facial feminization surgery, as well as bottom surgery. I've never been taken as anything but female in any situation that would be problematic. In fact, my partner has been picked out of the bathroom to be said she's male, and she's not ever been a male.
“People have actually talked to me in line for the bathroom. Something was going on with trans people in bathrooms and this person said, ‘We've gotta watch out for men in the bathroom.’ I guess and she didn't expect my response. I said, ‘We're not men. I'm a female, and you might wanna shut your fuckin’ face, because trans people... we're all around you.’
“The problems when I first started going down the path…. I had a counselor back in Maine. I'd go down to her place in the middle of downtown Portland, Maine. She told me, ‘Our building is open all of the time. If you're down here and you need to go to the bathroom, if you're not comfortable going anywhere else, just come in here. They're all private bathrooms and they're open.’
“There's a lot of that and people use that. It's kind of scary. You don't really pass as a female quite that well. You may get called out. You may create some issues, and all you want to do is exist as yourself. You don't want problems.
“You just wanna go somewhere and relieve yourself. I mean, that's all there is to it."
I ask Hartford about the lack of visibility of trans and how that plays into people having such a difficult time differentiating transgender and sexual orientation.
“I think it's an education issue,” she says. “And that's something that I really made a conscious decision on, going through my transition, which came into the exhibition.”
The reality is that if you're not trans or you don't have somebody very close in your life who is, you’re likely in the dark about the intricacies of being and living as trans.
Hartford agrees. “When I was going through it, I made this decision. Most of my friends don't know anything about this. I don't know how much I know about this. So, I'm very emotionally stable generally,” she says laughing, “I'm in a good place.
“I've had as easy of a transition as you could ever expect out of anybody. It still sucked in many ways. It had its difficult times, but I made that decision that if any of my friends have any questions, I'm going to answer all their questions. As long as they're respectful, I'll answer whatever. The more people that know about it, the better it is for them, for me, and for other trans people.
“And it went really well. I had a lot of dialogue with a lot of people, answering a lot of questions. I think people who have never been exposed to it or have been exposed only to what they see in the media or the nightly news, they have a lot of questions.”
It’s natural that anyone in unfamiliar territory would have questions. Demystifying the process, the details can help bring the focus back to the person. Being open and honest can go a long way. Hartford has learned that lesson along the way, by doing so. When she spoke to an old friend about her transition and her expectations that she would have more issues, her friend seemed surprised.
Hartford was open and okay with herself and her transition. It would be hard for anyone who knew and supported her to argue with her. It’s not always the case. But Hartford also concedes that it’s a two-way street. Just as those who are lacking in trans knowledge should be respectful, trans people have to extend the same courtesy.
“Trans people really need to be, in general, a little more compassionate to other people who don't know and may not say things politically correct—but their intentions are good. And that's the biggest thing. If somebody's intentions are good, you can look past a lot of the language. You can use that as educational opportunity, and that's why I have the educational stuff up. The more people who can look at this and see and get some basic information, the better. And there is a lack of that.
“I almost feel bad for Caitlyn Jenner; everybody gets on her about not being feminist enough, not being this enough, not being that enough. You can't win. It does take a long time. Here’s somebody who was identifying as a really, really male athlete and Republican for so long. You've got to give that person time to change and figure things out. They come from a different perspective, and that's great.”
No discussion of trans would be complete if we didn’t touch on nondiscrimination laws. It’s no mystery that legislation doesn’t equate to immediate change. Case in point: the Civil Rights movement, abolishing slavery.
As Hartford explains, “It's hard to legislate people's actions, especially the actions of groups of people. Some of the most conservative places—even if they have laws protecting transgender people—the culture can be different.
“When African-Americans are dealing with issues like equality, you can have a president say, ‘Hey, this is okay. This is great.’ But if the people in that area don't believe that, you get a mob mentality. And hey, they can burn you at the stake. There are plenty of issues with violence against transgender people, and there are also areas in the U.S. where it's not a problem."
It takes years, decades, centuries, or longer to sway some minds. And laws can certainly move things in the right direction.
“Legislation is a step in the right direction. When you have the law on your side, it certainly helps a lot and helps change a lot of people's views. Generally it doesn’t change the violent people's views, but it does help get more people in a protective mode I suppose.”
There’s some power in legislation, which can translate to power in numbers.
“The more people that know the law states this, the more people are willing to take a stand or see that a situation is wrong. The biggest thing is for minorities or targeted groups. You've got to know that and you've got to be vigilant about it,” she says.
Hartford learned that in therapy. “My therapist was very concerned; she made sure that all her transgender patients had these discussions with her. Not in just one session—many sessions—how to protect yourself, how to be vigilant. You have to be aware. You have to know the situations you're getting into. Stay away from areas that can be of concern.”
In terms of transgender rights, Hartford sees a change for the better, even if it’s small and incremental.
“It’s now less of becoming visible and saying ‘Hey, we're here.’ It's more ‘Hey, we need to be included in health-care issues. There are some big health-care issues that we need to have addressed that aren't. And no, they don’t cost more than Viagra. Some of them are really basic things.”
Hormone therapy is one of those things. “It's very cheap,” Hartford says. “And a lot of people who are transgender are on the lower spectrum of the income scale. It's hard for them to get access to that, but give them access to that and you'll have a much happier person, a much better adjusted person and someone who can give to society more.”
She can speak to that experience directly: “When I started taking hormones, within a few days I was like, Hey, life is great again,” Hartford laughs, “I'm really enjoying it. It's really that stark: The sky is bluer, the grass is greener, the snow is whiter, and I'm pretty happy.
“I think we're beyond just the visibility issue and into Hey, we need some fucking rights here. We need to be given equal treatment to what everybody else is afforded. Sadly, we're still arguing over bathrooms, which I kind of get it. It's a very personal place for everybody. But people need to learn we're not going in there to look at anybody, nobody does. Just going in there to pee.
“The health-care issue is another issue of Hey, we need some basic protections. No, I don't expect my facial feminization surgery to be covered; that's not a medically necessary procedure. But hormone therapy is a huge issue.”
The heart of the issue is treating people like humans—across the board. I ask her if she has any advice for parents of trans kids.
Her reply is simple and eloquent: “It starts with the same basics that any person should start with in any situation; you need to be kind and compassionate to any other human soul.
“Parents, you need to be kind and compassionate to your kids. Listen to them, help them how you can, and don't dismiss their feeling because they're kids. And again, that's not confined to having a transgender child; it's any child.”
Given the heavy nature of Hartford’s show, she’s cautious not to become too entrenched in the trans world. “I'm dealing with the exhibition and my stuff all the time,” she says. “I can come in here most days and look right past the images of me holding a knife to my wrist. It builds up and some days it gets to me.
“I've also found it's much harder for me to see other people's stories, whether it's history or celebrity, even everyday people on the internet. When I see somebody else, I consider what they've been through and have to think about it.
“My mind goes into overdrive—it's not good. It can lead me to places that are not fun. If I'm in a really good mood, I'll look at it. If I'm in a really good space and have been for a few days, I'll look at it.
“It’s not that I don't respect or want to know about some people. It’s just some days, it gets way too tough for me. I deal with too much of my own stuff. It's not hard for me necessarily—I got past that a while ago. But I deal with it every day and some days that's rough, and I've got to protect myself. You’ve got to look out for yourself.”
By and large, it’s a better time for trans. Access to hormone therapy, feminization or masculinization surgeries, bottom surgery, hair removal, breast augmentation, finding communities through the internet, access to clothing, and more is making it easier for trans people to not just pass, but find the people who will accept and support them.
Hartford urges everyone to find their people, their place. “Find a space in the world where you can be accepted and be okay and be yourself …. I think it probably has a bigger impact than any of us realize on trans suicide—rights and things of that nature.
“There's always that thing with trans suicide of we don't always know if people are trans. And if they're dealing with their own gender issues and killing themselves because of that but have never said they're trans or understood that they're even trans, they're not counted in that. I think today that's less of an issue.”
I mention to Hartford that it seems like genitalia is still a big hang-up for a lot of people, and she agrees.
“The ‘rule’ is if you have a penis you're a man,” I say. “But you could identify as a woman and keep your penis if you want to and that's fine.”
“It is fine,” Hartford says. “And a lot of people have to do that. A lot of people can't go through surgery like that for whatever reason. I'm sure there's a gazillion reasons.”
For one, it can be costly.
“I doubt you can get it for much less than fifteen grand,” Hartford says. “I had a double-stage where they do a basic surgery, then go back in and ‘pretty it up’—that’s what I call it. They can do a single stage where they do it and pretty it up, but because there's so much swelling going on, you may not be as pretty. So I went for the two-stage where you do it and then pretty it up.
“I had the money available to me, and I made that choice. But I guess that's the thing—once I had my facial feminization I was happy. That was the weight of the world lifted off of me. I really felt like if this is all I ever do, if everything disappears after this, all my money, all my friends… I'm happy because I can go out in public and be confident. And I didn't really have much of a problem going out and being accepted as a woman before that, but…
“I know all of those little things that could be issues, that I have to cover up with makeup or cover up with clothing or hair style, whatever, they’re gone. It's a different comfort level, and I think the first time I had bottom surgery it was less dramatic of a change but still more than I expected. I expected it to be very anti-climactic because a lot of people said it's not as big of a deal. It's not a visible outside thing you show the world.
“But it was a huge thing; it's that thing to yourself. ‘Hey, I really am a woman, I got the vagina now, it's the right part that goes with me.’ But it's also that I know I'm one of the people who is on the more extreme side of that. I really, really want to be a woman.”
I ask Hartford a fairly big question, and one that as an artist myself, I understand might be a bit vexing.
“How can we ensure your art becomes legacy?”
She pauses a bit, “Things like that are not things I’m in control of.” She continues, “When I was thinking of doing this I realized a lot of it, most of it was for me to get through my transition to be able to deal with myself.
“I always said, ‘Once I get this all up, once I put this exhibition together and see it and sit in my space and exist in my space for a little bit and have a drink… When I leave that night, if everything burns down, I'm okay in life.’”
She continues on, laughing. “You know what? I've done what I need to for me, and it's done. I did change the last couple of months that I've been putting it up. I changed for that because I saw it's meant a lot to a lot of people.
“I see that it means a lot more to people and I want to give it the time and the space to be what it needs to be for whoever needs to see it and experience it. That's what I'm working on now, is having the online piece for people who can't see it in person. Whether it goes beyond here or not—out of my control.
“I’m more than willing for anything to happen with it. I'll follow it. I'll take care of it. I'll do what I can, but when you talk about legacies and things like that... yeah that's not my choice. That's a whole bunch of other people; that's their deal."
Help is available if you need it. If you are a transgender person in trouble, call the Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860.
*Special thanks to Lisa VanDyke Brown and Ronnie Reynolds for their contributions to this article.
Kristin Kurens is a writer, editor, and artist. She thrives on words, music, art, and aiding the verbally challenged. In her free time she writes fiction, paints, travels, imbibes—always in pursuit of the authentic and strange.