Documenting Transition

After training as a photographer and fine artist in the UK, Bangkok and San Francisco together with a background as a journalist from Norway, Kris Schreier Lyseggen started collecting stories about individuals with gender identity differences in order to tell stories and create images that communicate a social commentary. Two such projects turned into the books The Boy Who Was Not A Lesbian & Other True Stories and The Women of San Quentin – Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons. Now based in California and Tuscany, Kris speaks to Aesthetica about photography and her inspirations.

A: Which photographers influenced you and how did they influence your thinking?
Two days before September 11 2001, I left my job as a news reporter with little knowledge about art and moved to Birmingham, UK, to study photography. Very early on I met a transgender woman who introduced me to gender identity which is how I came upon the works by other female photographers like Lise Sarfati, Mariette Pathy Allen, Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin.  I was not so much taken with their actual photographs but rather their process; how they found their “subjects”, their own life styles; how and why they lived in the middle of it or not – Sarfati and Arbus looking in, being taken by the “underworld” in which I could identify with at the time and Pathy Allen and Goldin living within the people they photographed. I was later captured by various Magnum photojournalists and especially Lise Sarfati’s photographs of a transgender couple going through their transition in Moscow in the 1990’s.  I later met Pathy Allen in Cuba in 2012 where we both got to know transgender people in Havana. Dennis Drenner and Arsha Arshad’s work on transgender people in Pakistan and India have also inspired me.

I was inspired by these people because I had worked as a newspaper journalist and hardly had any time to go in-depth, so I felt both fortunate and excited to be able to work in one community for as long as I wanted.  I learned that I had a great advantage being a small woman with a camera and that I was not a threat to people and could gain trust and in many instances great friendships. At that time, I was also photographing the Jesus Army and the Wild West Weekend cowboys in the Midlands, UK.

A: What motivates you to continue taking pictures?
KSL: Taking and creating photographs is perhaps the only thing that has ever been a consistent obsession of mine.  It is often the process rather than the actual outcome that motivates me. Documenting and learning from the people I photograph along the way, minorities, people’s struggles, the “underworld”, the human rights abuses, raising awareness motivates me to keep going. I never used to take photographs for anyone else to see, but I later learned that I could use the photographs to contribute information about causes I am deeply committed to.  It has really taken its toll learning of the horrendous torture people are experiencing in prison here in the United States. Absolute terrifying and horrific human rights abuses spread across an entire continent. A new form for slavery.

A: How would you describe your style?
KSL: I use different styles and methods – documentary photography, advocacy photojournalism and visual diary.

A: What type of cameras do you shoot with?
Rolleiflex twin lens (medium format/120 film) and Canon EOS Mark II.

A: When you are shooting, how much of it is instinctual versus planned?
My photographs in the past were never constructed.  Most of my works were taken impulsively but strictly within a certain theme, subject or struggle. However, during the prison project and in the upcoming book that I am making with my husband Herb Schreier, I have used my Rolleiflex more, which often had to be on a tripod. I wanted to show the former incarcerated transgender women’s strength and dignity and I felt that I could do this best by taking more classical portraits.  n the new book S H E – Being Trans & Xhosa in Rural Post-Apartheid South Africa, we are mixing Rolleiflex black and white square photos with digital colour photographs.

A: What has been your most memorable project/assignment and why?
KSL: The Princess of Walsall, about a person who identified as a transvestite, the first person I ever met who taught me about gender identity. Also, my projects which are about to become three books. I came out the other end of these projects as a changed person, due largely to the dignity and resilience they had and how they wanted to participate to help raise awareness even though it was extremely hard for them to share so much of their personal lives. The struggles they had and still have to go through are enormous.

A: What do you want viewers to take away from your work?
I hope that hostility and violence against other human beings can stop since we really all are just one. I hope that people can learn some of the things I learned through my projects and help raise awareness about gender identity and human rights abuses.

To find out more about Schreier Lyseggen’s work, visit

Matt Swain

1. Kris Schreier Lyseggen, Kris and Mama Africa. Courtesy of the artist.