The Photo Series Challenging What It Means To Be Non-Binary
Beautiful and matter of fact, these photos explore the diverse spectrum of non-binary identities.
If you were asked to explain exactly what it means to be non-binary, what would you say?
That’s the singular notion artist Jackson Akitt is exploring and challenging with a photo series documenting the non-binary experience through a lens that doesn’t give way to the singular stereotypes the non-binary community is used to having represent it.
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The project began as a response to a call for projects exploring themes of identity as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial in 2016, with Jackson hoping to open up conversations about what life is like for non-binary people beyond the narrow assumptions and identity markers presented in the mainstream media.
Two years later and the project – @nonbinaryportraits - has grown into a series which reaches far and wide via its current home on Instagram.
“Being non-binary myself, and finding myself then feeling quite alone in my friendship groups and my university course in that identity, I was really seeking representation and community for myself as much as anything,” Jackson explains.
“I'd proposed my dream project and after the commission ran its course I couldn’t imagine that being the end of the work, and as I moved to Brighton from Cumbria, where being queer and transgender is quite a different experience, I was very interested in moving the project beyond the Brighton bubble I’d become more accustomed to.
“Being non-binary wasn’t something that I saw being talked about much - things have definitely changed in the almost two years I’ve been working on the project, it’s more widely known about but also more widely criticised and disparaged, so I feel like the need for representation - genuine and diverse representation - is still as important.”
This plays into one of the key aspects of the project: undoing the misrepresentation and confused stereotypes many people have about what being non-binary means.
“If you look at the sparse representation in the media, we’re all skinny, white, flat chested, ultra-androgynous models in fashionable menswear that were assigned female at birth,” Jackson says. “Even looking at popular online influencers instead of celebrities or models we can see this same narrow stereotype being the acceptable face of non-binary identity more often than not.
“Even stereotyped ideas that we all use they/them pronouns or want hormone replacement therapy are harmful. There seems to be this idea that if you want to be taken seriously as being non-binary, you’ve got to change your name and change the way you dress and be a certain balance of masculinity and femininity. Misunderstandings aren’t just annoying; they are also so ingrained in society that they systematically harm us. For example, as a non-binary person who has recently been to a gender identity clinic myself, wow, these ideas are literally gatekeeping our access to healthcare and beyond.”
If anything, the series illustrates that, as with any identity, there is not one way to be non-binary. So what does Jackson want you to take away from these photos?
“That non-binary people exist. That we are a diverse and varied community. That we are more than buzzwords for think pieces seeking to cause reactions at our expense. That it really doesn’t matter if you don’t understand; we are here regardless and worthy of love and respect,” they say.
“Mostly I want other non-binary people or people who are questioning their gender identity or expression that they are not alone in this and there are communities of us looking to raise each other up.”
Alongside increasing positive representation of non-binary people and illustrating that there is no one-size-fits-all way to represent the non-binary experience, the project has given way to a personal exploration of Jackson’s own sense of self.
“Part of why I’ve been so invested in the project is that the more people I meet and photograph, the more success the project has, the more that I can point to it as a resource that makes me feel less alone and more backed up in my own identity,” they tell us. “I hope it can be like that for other non-binary people, where they can show their families this project, like an archive of our existence, and say ‘see, there’s loads of us, there’s all this support for us’.”
It’s also the point that feeling uncomfortable with being gendered isn’t a new idea – it’s just that at this point in time, it is becoming easier for us to express our non-binary identities more openly.
Asked which photos in the series have resonated most deeply and personally, Jackson replies: “I think particularly two portraits I’ve made of non-binary people with their children have really been important to me, as well as those of the older participants of the project. I’m 24, so its great I get to photograph and meet all these other young/mid twenties non-binary folks, but really what has had the most impact is meeting people older than me in our community.
“It’s incredible to see non-binary people thriving in older generations as people who didn’t have this language of non-binary to connect to when they were my age. To be able to see people I identify with being parents, overcoming so many barriers and just being themselves is an amazing thing.”
To see more photos from the series, visit Jackson Akitt's @nonbinaryportraits on Instagram.