Centering trans youth: Boston photographer’s ‘Are you OK?’ project to stop in Northampton next month


Staff Writer

Published: 09-03-2023 4:25 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When she was in first grade, Kristal, a transgender girl, was pushed down a rocky hill by a schoolmate while playing basketball, leaving her with a large scar on her back. Another time, a classmate pushed her down in gym class, causing a wiggly tooth.

When she first came out as trans, Kristal’s grandmother wouldn’t even use her name, instead referring to her as “it” and “that child.” She told her she was a disruption to the world around her.

But despite all the hate she has endured growing up as a trans girl, at 10 years old, Kristal said, “I think trans kids should just be who they are and try to come out to their friends or teachers or grandparents… I think being supported by at least someone would make them feel happier.”

Kristal shared those words with Jesse Freidin, a Boston photographer who has given not only Kristal, but 130 other trans and nonbinary youth across the United States, a space to share their stories in his project “Are You OK?” which will be coming to Northampton this fall.

Freidin takes portraits and records oral histories to document the lived experiences of trans and nonbinary people under the age of 24, and has so far traveled 26 states doing so.

“The goal is to create change and to help these kids know that it’s hard, but that they can get through it, and there’s people out there that love them, even if they don’t, and I see that happening,” said Freidin.

Stopping in Northampton

Northampton is his next stop, where he has partnered with Arts Equity Group to schedule a photography session for Oct. 14. He has also received funding in part from the Northampton Arts Council.

“Freidin is building a remarkable photo archive and repository of personal stories,” said Danielle Amodeo, director of Arts Equity Group. “By doing so, he not only affirms trans youth experiences in the present but also strives to correct the mistakes of history and ensure that future generations have access to a comprehensive and authentic archive of trans experiences.”

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This winter, selections from Freidin’s project will be on display at Holyoke’s Paper City Clothing Gallery in the upcoming exhibition “Are We OK?”, with dates still to be determined.

The exhibition draws its title from Freidin’s project and will address themes of bodily autonomy in the face of anti-trans, anti-abortion and anti-environment legislation.

Data by the American Civil Liberties Union lists 492 proposed U.S. laws targeting LGBTQ rights that were introduced in the 2023 legislative session. That compares to around 150 proposed laws last year.

And the Human Rights Campaign cites a record 70 anti-LGBTQ laws enacted this year as of May 2023. Among them are laws banning gender-affirming care for trans youth, laws allowing or requiring the misgendering of trans students, and laws targeting drag performances.

“Once the anti-trans laws really started picking up more right around three years ago, before the pandemic, I finally got angry enough to close my photography studio and see if I could tell a compelling story about who is being harmed by these laws,” said Freidin, who has an extensive background in professional photography, with his work featured in The New York Times, NPR and Cosmopolitan, to name a few.

“This is personal for me,” said Freidin, a trans man. “This is my community, and I want to create change.”

Each photography session, ranging from big cities to small town Tennessee, involves photographing between one and 10 kids and their families. The portraits center the youth, with families standing behind them just out of the frame.

The sessions always take place at a private location outside with natural light. Trans and nonbinary people ages 5 to 24 and their families are informed prior to the session about the pros and cons of getting involved in the project, what it means to be public, and who Freidin is.

“They all have many chances to have an active agreement to participate,” Freidin said, adding that creating trust is at the heart of the project.

Each session is structured exactly the same. The kids and their families walk up, Freidin re-introduces himself and shares his story, and he spends some time building that trust.

Then, Freidin leads a short meditation, where the kids are invited to take five deep breaths while sitting on the same level as him.

“For a lot of these kids and a lot of parents, it’s the first time their kid has been affirmed by an elder community member,” said Freidin. “By that last breath, that’s when the image is made.”

He then asks the same questions each time, including: What do you think about these anti-trans laws? Are these laws affecting you or not? What is your message to the next trans person in line?

“The repetition, I think, really draws out these narrative threads,” said Freidin. “That last question, every single kid knows what to say, and it’s pretty incredible. They always say, ‘Just be you. Being you is radical, and you will be loved, and we’re gonna get through it.’”

The end result is a counter-narrative of hope and affirmation in the face of hateful anti-trans legislation and rhetoric.

“For the kids all around the country who don’t have supportive families or are struggling, they get to see this project on social media… and they get to have this private moment and absorb the positivity and strength of these kids,” said Freidin.

In one oral history, Callum, age 16, said, “I’ve been trying to get involved in advocacy for a while now. I’ve been kind of procrastinating doing it, because in some ways I’ve felt scared about everything that’s going on and also I don’t want to be seen as different.”

“But I saw this project and thought, you know, maybe now is the time. Maybe now is the time for me to feel better about myself, for me to feel confident enough to just show people who I am and show people that we exist and we’re here,” said Callum.

That’s what it’s all about, according to Freidin. “The kids and families know that they’re doing this to create change, and this is their social activism,” he said.

“People have said lots of horrible things, and I’m aware of it, and I’m still putting myself at risk just like these families are, just like every other activist is doing right now, because there’s work to be done,” said Freidin. “But the second I get to a session, I am full of joy. It is so wonderful to connect with these kids.”

Out of countless memories from the past few years immersed in this project, one of Freidin’s earliest stands out.

He was in Birmingham, Alabama at his very first session and had just finished photographing two kids. As he took his time packing up his equipment, he turned around to see the mother of one of the kids running back toward him holding a box of warm cookies fresh from the bakery where she worked.

“It’s just the kindness of that one mom. It’s like these parents have adopted me,” said Freidin. “And I’m kind of adopting their kids, and then the parents are adopting me. And I never expected that, but that’s what happens.”

Trans and nonbinary youth and their families interested in signing up for a free portrait session can visit

Maddie Fabian can be reached at or on Twitter @MaddieFabian.]]>