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Documentary on Homeless Transgender Teens Aims to Change 'Hearts and Minds'

By Amy Zimmer | January 28, 2014 7:03am
 Photographer Josh Lehrer and filmmaker Pamela French are making a film about transgender homeless youth.
Documentary on Transgender Homeless Teens
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MANHATTAN — Photographer Josh Lehrer’s Upper West Side studio has become a hub every Wednesday for transgender homeless youth.

Lehrer began taking pictures of these New York City teens five years ago after asking an expert in the Department of Homeless Services which social group was considered by DHS to be the worst off in the recession.

Transgender youth often lose their families and homes, and sometimes their dignity, Lehrer found, which is why he sought to honor them through classically composed images, created in a space where they felt safe enough to let their guard down.

The photography project, “Becoming Visible,” raised more than $30,000 on Kickstarter in 2011 and traveled the world, from galleries in Shanghai to a national conference in Newark, N.J. about the growing crisis of homelessness among transgender youth.

Becoming More Visible
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Pamela French

The teens are now set to become the subject of a documentary, "Becoming More Visible." Lehrer and the film's director and co-producer, Pamela French, are again looking to Kickstarter for $30,000 to help with pre-production costs. (The campaign, which runs through Feb. 6, has raised more than $17,500 so far.)

“These kids are very easily stigmatized, easy to dismiss as freaks or different than us,” Lehrer said. Because of that, they’ve had to put on “armor and toughness,” he said.

“I think if we succeed as showing these homeless kids as the kids they are, and get through to the vulnerability they possess, then we’ll change a lot of hearts and minds.”

One in five transgender youths needs, or is at risk of needing, shelter, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Yet they are often dismissed by shelters that welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual homeless youth.

Lehrer spends Wednesdays shooting anywhere from seven to 10 teens who use shelters, which residents must vacate each day by 8:30 a.m. Over time, the weekly shoots have evolved to include experts who sometimes help the teens with their resumés or provide information on how to legally change their names.

“We’re not trying to save these kids,” Lehrer said of the teens. But he is trying to help them as they navigate the homeless system. He hopes that by sharing their stories, he can help stop families from shunning their transgender children.

“The photographs were absolutely stunning,” said French, a former music video director who first saw Lehrer’s work through his initial Kickstarter drive. “The way these kids were elevated and celebrated: It wasn’t like ‘Woe is me. I’m a victim.’

“It was beautiful to watch them work with him. They were able to be who they wanted to be.”

The full-length feature is expected to follow five teens — yet to be determined since the documentary-makers are watching the lives of the young people unfold, even as they film.

Most of the young people Lehrer has photographed are between age 15 and 18, with half hailing from New York City and others lured here by images of a welcoming city — which they often find to be false, the photographer said.

French said that if she could create the final shot of the documentary, it would be of a parent seeing a photograph of their child at an art opening.

"[They would be] touched and accepting or embracing their child for who their child is."