For the past year, photographer Titus Brooks Heagins has been working with Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) Raleigh on the development of a major new exhibition devoted to the artist’s long involvement photographing transgender communities in the United States and Cuba. 

The exhibition will officially open on October 11, coinciding with National Coming Out Day, and include programming throughout its run that celebrates and honors the trans community, including a memorial event on November 20, or Transgender Day of Remembrance. 

While transgender people in North Carolina have seen some legal victories this year, they continue to face discrimination and violence, and anti-trans legislations span states across the country. 

Sasha Rodriguez-Mason, a Wake County transgender woman, was murdered on May 13 in the town of Zebulon. According to HRC, she was the 16th confirmed killing of a transgender or gender non-conforming individual this year. 

Lt. Governor Mark Robinson has repeatedly spewed hate against the community, referring to both “homosexuality” and “transgenderism” as “filth” at a Seagrove, North Carolina church in June 2021. 

Heagins’ exhibition seeks to bring more awareness to the stories of the transgender community. 

“I create photography that advocates for political, social and economic transformation and challenges stereotypes of those ‘othered’ by race, social standing, gender or handicap by presenting counter narratives,” said Heagins in an artist statement for CAM Raleigh’s Exhibition Lab. 

He started as a professional photographer in 1997 after taking a group of Duke students to the World Youth Festival in Havana, Cuba.. Today, Heagins lives and works in Durham. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh and the Casa de Africa in Havana, among others.  

Heagins’ photography examines periods of revolution, social justice, the Black experience in America, gentrification, and poverty. It provides an opportunity for the viewer to engage with diverse communities from a perspective that educates, and, as he puts it, “tells the story that the sitter wants told.”

Since 2015, he has photographed the transgender community in Cuba. It is one of the latest focuses of his oeuvre that has been rooted in capturing a wide cultural spectrum through documentary photography. Describing himself as a fine art documentary photographer he has traveled the world capturing the lives of people who are often seen as “other” for over twenty years. 

According to Heagins, images of transgender people are often based on stereotypical activities, such as pride parades or sex work. “My intention was to create a counter narrative that locates and balances the lives, through images, those photographed in documentary style portraits,” he states in a project for Lens Culture called “I Still Love You …” 

Ebonee, photo by Titus Brooks Heagins / CAM Raleigh

The body of work is meant to show resilience, strength and perseverance against transphobia in a male-dominated, or machismo, culture. 

During a virtual talk with the artist-led photography collective, Six Feet, Heagins said that his time in Cuba shaped everything in his work. Instead of photographing a lot of the street scenes, he made a connection with a Cuban couple who in the years that followed would lead to remarkable access into the lives and homes of the country’s residents. He has photographed there ever since, along with series in Haiti, Durham and at multiple Black Lives Matter protests across the country. 

When asked about his interest in photographing the transgender community, Heagins, who identifies as straight and cisgender, recalled the bullying he received growing up in a Black high school where big and brute athletes were heroes. Being on the smaller side all his life, Heagins got picked on and called “gay” and “homosexual.” 

“Instead of walking away and distancing myself from that, I decided to embrace it,” he said during the talk. “Everyone I thought was gay or homosexual, or whatever label we put on them now, I made them my best friends and they were the folks I hung out with.”

That openness to building relationships continued into his professional career and while working in Cuba, he realized that trans people kept showing up in his photographs. He made it his mission to do something about bringing more awareness to the community and met a young trans woman, Nomi, during the country’s annual Pride celebration held in conjunction with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). 

Cuba, under the Castro regime, imprisoned gay men or sent them to reeducation camps in the 1970s. Homosexuality was seen as inconsistent with the hyper-masculine ideals of the government. The country has changed a lot over the last several years. Under the guidance of former President Raul Castro’s daughter and LGBTQ rights activist, Mariela, the country’s constitution now bans “any form of discrimination harmful to human dignity.” Gender reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy initially became available free of charge under the national healthcare system in 2008. However, many members of the LGBTQ community remain estranged from their families. 

“I understand the sting of being ‘othered’ in a community you supposedly belong to,” said Heagins. He describes meeting this young group of trans women in Cuba that he would photograph for years as an amazing experience.

Heagins work will be on display at CAM Raleigh from October 11, 2022 through March 12, 2023. The museum is planning a series of events recognizing Trans Day of Awareness, held the last day of March each year, during the final week of the exhibition. More information will be posted on the museum’s website as it becomes available at https://camraleigh.org.

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