9 month old Amy smiling and crawling on a wooden deck.
9 months old and zippy. Credit: Judy Jensen.

Learning to love myself in photos

I often have vidid memories of my childhood. I remember when I was 8 or 9, playing with the newly born surprise kittens of our aging, unexpectedly fertile cat Snickers. My mom had told us that we could only keep one, and so my brother and I erected an elaborate obstacle course to see which one was the most cunning, smart, and strong. Donatello, the runt, lost all of the contests; Leonardo won the sprint and Raphael won the maze, but Michelangelo, he won both the climbing test and the endurance challenge, which involved hanging from a cliff molded from a bean bag. He held on tight longer than all of them while he mewed, his brothers awaiting his blunt arrival below. My brother and I knew Mikey was the keeper.

I remember a year earlier breathing heavily on my bicycle at the top of our street’s 40 degree inline, staring down at the cul-de-sac below, wondering if I would make it safely to the bottom. I remember my summer YMCA summer camp counselor echoing in my mind, “Have some courage.” I glided for a few moments, then pedaled hard, racing down the 1,000 foot street until the pedals pedaled harder than me and untied my shoe laces, which entangled themselves in my spokes. I flew off the bike, laces woven through my wheels. I remember laying on the asphalt, knees scraped, entangled in a web of mangled shoe string. My first thought was that Kevin Duckworth, the Portland Trailblazer basketball player who lived in the house at the end of the street, might run out from his house and save me. He didn’t. But my Mom eventually came, disentangled me, helped me home, and cleaned my wounds.

I cherish these memories. They were moments of joy, moments of pain, and moments of growth. When I remember them, I don’t see myself, I see from myself, remembering how I was, who I was, and how I saw the world. I know they are true in a sense, even if they aren’t perfectly true, and it’s that essence of truth that makes that valuable. These are the moments that made me.

However, as important as my memories are to me, my photographs—especially photographs of me—have always been something different. When I see myself in an image, I’ve never seen me. I’ve seen someone else, an imprint of someone who carried me in them. I think many of us have a similar sense of images of our younger selves foreign. We perhaps didn’t have a self, or the same self, when it was taken, and so it can be hard to see ourselves as the young people we once were. But as a transgender person, I also feel detached from childhood photos in a deeper sense: it’s like recognizing images of body that is technically mine, but actually not. They are images of times when I felt foreign to myself, and foreign to others. They evoke a feeling of morose disembodiment.

Nothing is more peaceful than sleep. Credit: Judy Jensen.

Childhood photos at different ages evoke different feelings. When I see myself as a newborn, I think of when my daughter was born, and the immensity of bringing new life into the world. When I see myself as an infant, I can chuckle at my double chin and my face, squeezed between apple cheeks. I was a deliciously plump baby. I see myself as a toddler and I think of my boundless curiosity and I am grateful for parents that nurtured it into something I could carry into adulthood. In these early years, I just see innocence and wonder. I see myself.

The child I see at age 6-12, however, is someone else. I see pictures of myself in my boys clothing, with my boys haircut, and all I see is a girl, forced to crossdress, confused and muted, and leaning hard on curiosity to escape. Those photos surface the earliest awareness of my body and my self, and the dissociative feelings that accompanied those realizations. This is my body, but it isn’t. People see my body, but they don’t see me. These photos evoke shame, secrets, and hiding.

Laughing on the sidelines, pushing those trans feelings down deep. Credit: I can’t remember.

Photos of my adolescence are the most painful. I see the same things most people see: a person trying to adjust to a new physical and social reality, and inescapable awkwardness. But I also see someone losing all faith that the transition of puberty would be undoable. I see someone powerless to stop the wedge between my self and my changing body. These photos are of a girl who should have been discovering herself and finding her place in womanhood, but was instead hiding herself, and building a manhood that she didn’t want or care for, because there seemed to be no other way to be.

Once I went to college, I felt more in control of what I captured in photos. I took pictures of what I saw, who I was with, what I was doing. I documented. But I never took pictures of myself. Most of the pictures I have of myself through my mid-thirties are ones thrust upon me by others: family photos, graduations, and groups, with a feigned, manly smile. The selfies I took captured something darker; I was never smiling. My photos from those years reflect how I felt: invisible. Looking at myself was too frightening, too depressing, and so I looked outward.

Yet another trip. Credit: Amy J. Ko

After grad school, I settled into my role. It was comfortable enough for a time. I played my part, trying to look like a man, trying to smile in photos. I still avoided mirrors and cameras, trying to keep myself busy enough that I wouldn’t have to face my demands. At that mostly worked. The few pictures I do have of myself are selfies I took from airports to tell my (now) wife that I had landed safely, and my wedding.

When I first began to accept myself as transgender, and began to see myself in my face and body as I rolled back the damage of puberty, photographs took on a very different meaning. Suddenly, I could see myself and not feel disgusted; I wanted to see myself in my memories. I began taking pictures with my loved ones, selfies of me in the places I traveled, and selfies of just me, smiling, happy. Pictures of myself suddenly felt like a way to capture little cues to moments in which I was comfortably me, sharing myself with others. I look back on my past two years of photos and feel reminiscent joy. I think this is how it’s supposed to feel.

Self-acceptance leads to selfies, apparently. Credit: Amy J. Ko

At the same time, I also felt a kind of grief. I didn’t have photos of myself for most of my adult life, and yet for the first time, I felt like I had lost them. I suddenly wished that I had been me in all of those moments, grinning and giddy. I can remember those moments, and place myself in them, but I can’t see myself in them. And my childhood photos evoked regret.

I’ve spent the last two years trying to reclaim my photos by reliving them. I had my Mom send me all of my childhood photos to scan. I’ve carefully scanned 12 of them each Sunday, four at a time in three batches. I took a moment with each photo and just stared at myself. I imagined myself hugging that little girl, telling her that she was strong and that she would eventually be okay. I’d tell her that I was sorry that she was so trapped, and that she’d have to live so long in fear and shame, and that I’d change everything if I could. I used the resilience that she earned after to care for her, a child that had done nothing to deserve such suffering. With each photograph, I healed a bit, reassuring my younger self that there was nothing she could have done, that she was deserving of love, and that even if no one could love her for who she was then, I could love her now. Scan, crop, caption, “Amy at the zoo with the penguins.

As painful as it was to go through nearly 2,000 photos this way, it was also cathartic. I can look at photos of myself now and feel like even if I wasn’t me then, I was there, caring for myself in a way, doing the best I could as a trans girl with no way out. My photos don’t trigger pain or regret anymore, just somber love, like a parent looks at photos of their child, so proud, but also a tad regretful at everything I could have done better to care for them. But more importantly, I can finally see these photos and remember: where I was, who I was with, what I was doing, and who I was, as hard as it was. And I can see that I was there all along, just not seen.

Now I see myself. And there’s nothing I want more than to be seen.

This might have been my first real smile on camera. Credit: Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store