Jah Grey is a self-taught photographer whose work is motivated by a desire to capture, question, and present queer depictions of Black masculinity. Focusing on portraiture, Jah’s images are often accompanied with written prose; stories that offer counter-narratives and glimpses into the lives of his subjects. Jah sat with Newest to speak about process and learnings, not only related to artistry but also his own identity and actualization as a Black trans man.
How did you learn about masculinity and specifically Black masculinity? And then how did you unlearn?
The first time I learned about Black masculinity was through music, videos, online…things like that. Then, I went to school and saw the guys, how they operate and navigate and that was my first in. My first idea of masculinity wasn’t anything negative. It was positive. It seemed great, fun, carefree.
This all quickly changed when I transitioned. As I got older, there were a lot of things that I realized weren’t being spoken about. There were a lot of problematic ideas and concepts around masculinity that I began to slowly discover. I also realized that I contributed to that. I was part of a cycle, and still am a part of that cycle. What I hope for now is to become more aware so I can unlearn what I thought I knew.
You’ve mentioned that there are parts that need to be looked at. What are some of those parts?
There’s a whole list. I think the biggest one is the inability to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We are not allowing ourselves to show or feel any emotion, not allowing ourselves to ask for help, not allowing ourselves to say that we don’t know something.
The thing is, we have to allow ourselves to be nimble enough to know that we’re not perfect and accept that we are going to make mistakes. We are going to do things, some that can be very harmful. But what are we going to do after that? And how are we gonna break that cycle so that it is not something that continues to occur?
A lot of men don’t want to talk about things because they don’t want to be shamed. I think it can feel like a sense of loss. The thought of unlearning this and doing something different is like you’re [having to] change your whole game. And I think change in general, can be a very scary thing.
Was it scary for you to walk away however far you’ve walked from that standard definition?
Yeah, it was definitely, definitely super scary for me. I always felt it would have been easier if I were a cis man stepping away from this. But as a trans guy, there are so many other expectations that are placed on my body and on who I am as a person. I’m already alienated and am basically further alienating myself by not fitting into what the norm is.
I couldn’t relate to the guys when I used to work nine-to-five in a kitchen. It was pretty brutal and problematic. At that point in my life, I was transitioning and I just wanted to fit in. It made me feel really sad because I didn’t want to be different. For the majority of my transition – I’ve been transitioning for eight years now – I was stealth. The people that knew I was trans knew I was trans. The many people that I met [since] didn’t know and I actually had to quote-unquote come out to them. I always tell people this: when you’re transitioning, it’s a coming out story. Basically, you’re always telling people it’s an ongoing thing.
It was only two or three years ago that I identified as trans publicly, in an interview. It’s scary to feel a sense that you don’t belong and that you probably will never fit in. I had to really be comfortable with saying it’s okay to not be a part of these boxes. I had to compromise my safety to fit in. And realizing, too, that these boxes were never safe for me.
That change was scary and it always will be. I try to remind myself that the scariest thing about me is simply existing. I have to remind myself how brave I am to even just exist. I know fear and it will always be there. I try to welcome it instead and create a safe space for myself to be able to be scared in.
These complicated concepts and identities, you’re trying to capture them through your art, which I’m assuming is not always the easiest because it’s not a linear sort of identity or reality that you’re trying to portray. Let’s talk a little bit about your art for a second. How do you find your models or subjects?
They’re just regular people that I meet. Most of the people that I have documented have been people that I’ve met for the first time. And that’s really nice. There was something about them and their energy that resonated with me and where I was at in my journey.
I think it’s important for us to learn about people in general because it’s hard for us to have a deeper understanding and a perspective of who we are if we don’t connect with other people. It’s equally important for men to want to have a desire to learn about other men.
A lot of what you do is breaking down this idea of hyper-masculinity and you’re countering a lot of really, really deeply entrenched ideas of masculinity, especially masculinity for men of colour. And you’ve talked about the layers of complication. And when you add in queerness or transness or racialization, masculinity gets progressively more complicated. How do your subjects or models react to this process and what prompts, if any, do you have to use to get them to where you need them?
I give them an idea of what I’m going for before we meet. I also let them know I’m not looking for anything specific. This is just totally up to them, how they’re feeling about it. The first bit of photos are always the most awkward because we’re getting to know each other. The shirts are off for a lot of the subjects and people I photograph. So for me, it’s like, yo, we have to really work up onto this, you know, this dynamic where everyone feels comfortable.
I think it’s interesting too, to see themselves in a space that they felt like they would never ever be seen in. I had a showcase at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) at the beginning of my career. The gentleman that I photographed was just blown away because he never saw himself as somebody that would ever have his face up in the AGO.
These stories are stories that need to be told and I’m not doing the telling. I’m just here to create a space where that story can be heard. We need to see ourselves in more of a light because we do deserve that.
If you’re a person of colour, if you’re Black, if you’re Indigenous, if you’re queer, if you’re trans, the establishment, they never say they want you. They never say that. But then, to be taking up that space, it sounds quite transformative.
It is. And it’s also like, what are the stories that are told about us? Because oftentimes when our story is being told, we’re not doing the telling. We’re telling some of the story but the media is basically editing it in a way to appeal to their viewers. This dilutes the story especially if their viewers are all white folks. It’s nice to know that we’re getting to a point where we are realizing that our stories are important.
Even knowing that that space, it does belong to this community, that the AGO is not off-limits, it belongs to your communities as well, is really important. We’re in the political movement of our generation, of our time, of our lifetime right now. There’s a lot of talk about Blackness and there’s obviously a lot of talk about Black representation. How do you see your work fitting in during this absolutely historic time?
I see it fitting in because I’m Black. And the men that I’m documenting will always be relevant, as long as we are here existing. Our relevancy is not something that I even remotely think about. I haven’t had great dynamics and relationships with men. Documenting male subjects is – for me – trying to repair my relationship with them. Every day I talk to the men in my life, I’m just super grateful to have them there. I try to do my best during this time to let my brothers know they’re loved and cared for.
I talk a lot about disposability and feeling like I was disposable for being a trans person, regardless of me being Black. I’m Black and I’m trans and queer. I have all these little layers that I know are very complex. And during this time, it’s making me feel like I have to pick one or the other. I need to devote to being trans or I need to really devote myself to being Black. It has been challenging.
It’s interesting when you’re saying that you have to focus on being Black or focus on being trans, but our identities, you can’t compartmentalize them like that. But I know what you’re saying though because as a society, they look at things in binaries and they look at things as checkmarks and checkboxes. And so then the intersection of identities is hard to explain.
Yeah, and we definitely take that on in our own lives by checkmarking things for other people. I’m also somebody that, as a Black trans guy, has navigated the criminal justice system. I have a checkmark on that too, which is not great, you know? And so sometimes when I hear things or see things on the news, I see people who basically have the same checkmarks as I do and see how people treat them, how bad and poor people justify certain things that happen to their bodies because they have these checkmarks. Those are the things that I really do pay attention to. I’m fighting for those things during this time. I’m fighting for the fact that we all have different segments but it doesn’t justify any harm being done to our body. I hope that, as the world slowly starts to stabilize again, we keep reminding ourselves not to forget what we’re learning right now.
Well, speaking of learnings, your career has come with, I’m sure, so many different experiences that you’ve learned from and all sorts of different teachings. What has been your most surprising discovery? What has just surprised you in this journey?
I think the most surprising thing probably would be that happiness does exist. I’ve never, I just have never been a happy person and I can definitely say that I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been. It feels really good because if you asked me a couple of years ago if I thought that I would ever get to a place of being happy or stable, I would’ve said no. Seeing that it exists within me and that I don’t need to seek outside validation from others to tell me that I’m worthy and deserving of happiness, I think has been my biggest discovery.
[Because of COVID-19] it’s four or five months I’m at the house, and I am feeling good, obviously, despite all the other things that are going on. I was feeling like, wow, I can be by myself. Cool. I’ve never been by myself ever. I’ve been super codependent, I could never be alone. And I would do other things to distract myself, to not to sit with myself in my feelings, and actually feel my feels. So I think that’s the most surprising, how much I’ve grown within a small period of time. I think that would be it for that, I guess.
What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions or anything you want to tell us about? Or you can give us a little sneak peek of the new?
What’s next for Jah? I’m always going to be doing photos, but I feel like in the future, I’ll probably be doing a lot more public speaking. Um, right now, I’ve been working on this for a little bit and it’s, it kind of is awkward even saying that I’m doing this, but a book. I’m currently writing a book and it’s been taking me a long time. It’ll be about masculinity and things that I’ve learned along the way. It’ll be about vulnerability.
I also started a yoga group in collaboration with one of my friends, Rebecca. She’s part of the Wellness Collective, and she does yoga for women of colour. We started a Black men’s yoga group. I’ll be extending that a little bit by introducing a martial arts and meditation segment as well.
During my journey, I realized that having healthy ways to express feelings and emotions are what’s needed. I think when we don’t have healthy outlets for that, it does get really hard. So along my journey, these are the little things that I’ve come across that I fell in love with. Like, I never thought that I would be a guy doing yoga but I love it. I love it. It’s like super nice. And, um, you know, it’s definitely helped me with my processing along my journey of being accountable.
I want to extend this to the men around me. It’s like, you know, it takes you to do something once really for you to see if you actually can get down with it. Those are the little things that I’m working on right now. And then I’m working to stay safe out here. I think that’s my biggest priority, it’s safety. My mental health, emotional health, my spiritual health, my physical well being.
I’m not writing 2020 off but I definitely am trying to be patient through it all. I’m not having any high expectations on what’s good and also realizing like, over the years, I’ve never really given myself a time to relax and be there for myself. And so COVID has given me an opportunity to slow it down just a little bit. I’m learning what it looks to be slow-moving and pace myself. That’s where I’m at right now. And, you know, we’ll see.
Film : ‘Dancing in the Light’
Dancing in the light is an intimate piece that focuses on the importance of real, healthy, intimate relationships with other men. It challenges the idea that we cannot be vulnerable or loving to those who we don’t know. By creating a space of comfortability and uncomfortability, I challenged these men to share space with one another, dancing without direction and allowing themselves to feel their individual feelings around each other.
Director: Jah Grey
Director of Photography: Mitchel Reed
Editor: Jah Grey
Dancers: Daniel Santokie, Rodney Diverlus, Shakeil Rollock