This article originally appeared in Powderzine.
The old schoolroom has six long, wooden bench tops, each one immaculately oiled to perfect preservation by the house’s caretaker. They are complete with holes for inkpots and seem caught in a state of perpetual readiness, waiting for the return of children; little ghosts in ringlets and long socks. A tiny teacher’s desk takes one corner - feather in inkpot, fresh red apple beside – and is diminished even further by the Union Jack flag: staunchly overbearing backdrop. The opposing corner heralds the chalkboard. It is inscribed with lettering in perfectly curled cursive, with a list of words for spelling as indicative of the time as the Union Jack itself: Quarries; England; Ireland; Wales; Colour; Property; Purpose; Polish.
It is in this setting that Ash, fresh from the barber’s and adjusting his crisp white shirt, stands tentatively before the gaze of Tamara Dean’s camera. It’s unusual for Ash to be on this side of the lens, but today is special. Today marks Ash’s fortieth birthday as a human, and his first birthday as a man.
“I remember distinctly when I was three and four being convinced I was a boy, and didn’t really realise because I didn’t have any brothers… I didn’t realise. I knew I was different from other kids, but I couldn’t articulate how… but I always thought I was a boy.” The particularity of Ash’s difference only really clicked when it was time to start school. The mandatory girl’s dress uniform was enforced and Ash hated it. (He’d borne the discomfort of a dress once before – flower girl: 1979 – but the reward of getting closer to Jennifer - other flower girl and crush – had made the ordeal bearable.) Growing up in the “ultra-conservative” town of Cowra, in the Central west region of New South Wales, made announcing the fact that you were a boy, stuck in a girl’s body, impossible.
Back in the schoolroom, he’s now seated in front of a faded, pull-down map of New South Wales. A little surly, yet completely in control, it’s as if he’s in his element. He has found himself, at last, in this schoolroom setting. Today he is not only righting his past, he is re-writing it. And despite his initial unease before the camera’s lens, a different ease has been found within.
Ash has been documenting his FTM (female to male) gender transition for the past eighteen months, his self-portrait series stemming naturally from an interest in, and dedication to, photography that was planted in his childhood and has grown steadily since buying his first “serious camera” in 2009.
“A lot of my childhood I spent with my grandmother. She took her camera overseas in nineteen twenty seven/twenty eight and photographed what she saw. I would spend my weekends with her, going through the photos and writing on the backs of them. We would sit down and talk about where she was when the photo was taken, and where she was in her story. It was always this big story of that moment in time.”
The capturing of this “big story in that moment of time” has become particularly poignant when on the subject of gender transition. “It’s the biggest thing you’ll do in life, going through that change, and documenting it honours people and their process. Because we’ve had to endure being someone we haven’t wanted to be for a long time, you actually have to be appreciative of the fact that you got to a point in your life where you could make that decision, and that your history is not something to be shut away or ashamed of. You should be proud of who you are.”
Though Ash had begun enhancing his masculinity long before he transitioned, taking that first step was still no easy task. In the process of making his decision, Ash is clear to point out the significance of today’s online communities in making that step less daunting. “When I first knew about people that transitioned there wasn’t as much publicity, there wasn’t all the online stuff. It just really helped to see how others had coped with their journey and the impact it had on them.”
Noticing the importance of documentation in his own journey, and inspired by those who inspired him, Ash has now begun documenting the transitions of others. “I decided to keep documenting the journey for other people because it is a transition and you’re wanting to come to a point where you’re feeling more comfortable in your skin… Taking photos and documenting it and looking back on it, particularly when you get to a milestone, - like having top surgery or being a year on T [testosterone] - you really see big changes. It’s really interesting, going back through old videos and seeing how I’ve changed.”
Ash rests on a wooden railing, RM Williams boot perched atop the schoolroom’s bench top, and his calm, commanding gesture seems to finally embody the history from which he was displaced. The childhood spent working on his parents’ farm, shearing sheep and driving the truck - for a time at odds with the adopted urbanity necessary to nourish the Ash that identified as Butch - has now settled. It’s as if, by changing his body, he has come home, this new body returning him to the rural landscapes of his birth.
Ash had been blown away by the changes he saw in others through their transitions. “They’d go from being unconfident and having doubts and feeling certain things, to growing to become really confident. Their appearance, their demeanour, everything would change as time went on.” For him, the greatest inspiration was “seeing them become the people that they are supposed to be”.
Today in the schoolroom, whether it’s the gentle, pastoral manner of the photographer, or just the way he is momentarily disarmed as his girlfriend catches his eye, Ash now stands with an ease I have never seen before; he has become the person he is supposed to be. A leaden weight has lifted from his shoulders, and in his hardening he has softened.