Mark Seliger
Tiny. © Mark Seliger
© Mark Seliger

Jamila Pratt and Paradise Valentino

“When I was little, I wanted to look like Lil’ Kim, but I knew I couldn’t because I wasn’t born a girl. I showed my doctor three pictures of Lil’ Kim, and I feel like I’m the closest they got to her. I went to a doctor in Mexico without any passport, without any ID. I don’t even know how I got out there. I just wanted to make my dream come true.” -Jamila Pratt

Three summers ago when Mark Seliger started shooting portraits on Christopher Street he didn’t realize he was working on a transgender story. He was simply attempting to document a subculture that he thought may be in danger of disappearing.

“Christopher Street was a street I always have avoided, it was a little bit of a circus to me,” Seliger says. “Then I thought, ‘What’s going to happen to all of these characters that we see there all the time?’ I walked around a little bit and decided to jump in and get a couple of portraits.”

© Mark Seliger
“I always wanted to be a boy—always. I don’t remember ever not wanting that.” -Les Larue © Mark Seliger

Seliger packed up a small camera kit, some simple lights and an assistant and got to work one evening, approaching people who caught his eye and asking them if he could make their portrait. Seliger, who typically works with high profile celebrities, says that working on the streets in this manner was refreshing for him.

© Mark Seliger
Cover of On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories © Mark Seliger

“That was definitely part of the journey for me,” he says. “It was the experience of pushing myself to meet people and ask if I could photograph them. It was something I’ve done in the past, but it had been a while since I had actively done it.”

By the end of the first summer he had gone out eight or nine times and had about a dozen shots that he was proud of. The following summer one of his production assistants saw the images and commented that Seliger appeared to be working on a transgender story.

© Mark Seliger
“I did a movie called The Dictator, with Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Kingsley and Megan Fox, and I wasn’t out. And the New York Post outed me as a transsexual actress, which devastated me. I felt very discriminated against.” -Victoria Beltran © Mark Seliger

“She introduced me to the younger movement, people that were transitioning, but were more the naturals,” Seliger explains. “Younger, less-costumed, less gregarious and more quite, which was a whole other genre.”

© Mark Seliger
“I was raised Greek Orthodox and I remember the first time I felt different in my body—I was around ten, and my family and I were getting ready to go to church and I really did not want to wear a dress. I wanted to wear a suit. I really wanted to look like the Greek composer Yanni. I wanted his suit and his hair. But I knew, because I was assigned female gender at birth and people saw me as female, that I couldn’t achieve that. I was so young. I didn’t know the name for what I was.” -Tony Zosherafatain © Mark Seliger

As each summer passed Seliger’s project grew more diverse: bringing in people of all ages, ethnicities, a number of transgender men and individuals who identify more with the gender fluidity movement.

© Mark Seliger
“The danger of being trans and telling people is that they tell other people. I don’t think they realize they are putting you in physical danger.” -Ni’Tee Spady © Mark Seliger

Over 70 of these intimate black and white portraits are collected in Seliger’s book On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories (Rizzoli). Many of the portraits are accompanied by lengthy written pieces from the subjects, discussing their transition story, their struggles and what they may have lost or gained because of their decision. Seliger says he thought it was vital to include the long captions, to give people a deeper understanding of these subjects.

Mark Seliger
Tiny © Mark Seliger

The portraits were shot at night time, on Tri-X film with a medium format Hasselblad camera and a LED light.

“I didn’t want to be fussy. I didn’t want it to be a strobe,” Seliger says. “I wanted it to feel like you were living out in the street. I wanted it to feel like the West Village.”

On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories is available now.