NUNN ON ONE PHOTOGRAPHY Peter Bussian focuses on New York’s trans community

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Peter Bussian is a visual artist who continually promotes international themes in his work. He’s been published in The New York Times, LA Times, Paris Match and O: The Oprah Magazine, among others. Several galleries in Los Angeles have displayed his work involving Afghanistan.

He’s made documentary films in Nigeria, Sudan and Pakistan. In 2008, he worked on Opium War, a film in which he played a U.S. soldier; the movie was Afghanistan’s submission for the Academy Awards.

Bussian’s latest project is a photography book called Trans New York that gives an intimate look on a wide range of people in various city settings. Choosing not to have the pages glossy for the print version was calculated by Bussian to convey the overall style of his work.

Windy City Times: How long have you been in photography?

Peter Bussian: I have been in photography for 40 years and for the last 20 in international development photography, so I spent many years in Afghanistan, various parts of Africa and the Middle East.

I came back to New York and haven’t traveled much for the last couple of years. A year ago, I decided to take pictures at the Pride Parade, which I had never done. I got one really good picture of someone who was possibly nonbinary and sent it to my publisher. She loved it and we decided to do a book on transgender New Yorkers.

WCT: Do you have an exhibition for the photos planned?

PB: I would like to have an exhibition and I have talked to The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in the West Village about it. When COVID hit we weren’t able to do it, but I hope to have something in the future. We have talked about next year and I would love to do all 50 portraits with a proper opening for an exhibit. We are doing some Zoom events, but it’s not quite the same.

WCT: How did you find the subjects for Trans New York?

PB: I had friends that knew the transgender community in New York and I started contacting people on Instagram.

WCT: From the book, it’s easy to tell that some of them knew each other. Did you find it to be an isolated group?

PB: Yes, somewhat. There was some resistance to book at the beginning because people didn’t know me and rightly so. They are a community that has been persecuted and they are very protective. I respected that a lot.

I think it helped me being a quirky outsider. I had an objectivity and no agenda. I just wanted to tell people’s stories. As I trudged all over New York during a hot summer, I got to know them and became very impassioned about them. Now I have several good friends out of the experience. I stay in touch with most of them.

Abby Chava Stein, who did the foreword, for my book is a trans woman and an Orthodox rabbi. The book went deeper than just portraits of 50 people. Through the interviews, I believe it broke some new ground that may not be in other books.

WCT: How did the interview process work?

PB: With my publisher, we came up with what we would ask them on the interviews. I emailed them the questions and photo release beforehand. They would fill it out and I would know the basics when I met them. It would have been too much to interview and shoot pictures at the same time.

WCT: Were there any requests for it to be a glamour shot?

PB: Yes. Many wanted pictures for their websites. Some were in media or actors. This shoot was not about that. I had to make that clear that I was not shooting headshots for people or fashion pictures.

WCT: Lester Esmond Dale described believing himself as being born deformed. Can you talk more about his story?

PB: Lester had a very interesting history and family. He’s married and has two adopted kids. They are adults now, with one of them being a Vietnam veteran.

WCT: In the Je’Jae Cleopatra Daniels photo, who was the angry-looking man in the picture?

PB: That happened by chance. We met at Union Square to do the pictures and there were Trump supporters there at the same time having a demonstration. Je’Jae started interacting with them and we had fun messy with them!

WCT: Any other surprises on the photo shoots?

PB: One thing I noticed about the whole trans community is how, in general, happy they are. I believe it’s because they did something to actualize who they are and who they want to be. I think it is the same joy when anyone follows their dreams.

WCT: Possibly they enjoyed being picked for your book?

PB: I hope that is true and that makes me proud about the project. It really changed my view about trans people for sure.

WCT: You asked several of the subjects in the book what makes them unique. So, what about you makes you unique as a photographer?

PB: For me, one photograph tells an entire story. I’m a storyteller. My goal is to tell that story with one photograph instead of 12 different photos. I don’t know if I always succeed, but I try.

WCT: Were you tempted to not include interviews in the book and instead speak with just the photographs?

PB: No. I think the interviews give basic information and I wanted that in the book. I did tend to get more lengthy than I originally thought. The forward and essays at the beginning also organically evolved. I am mainly a photographer and didn’t know we would have this many words. It’s a good thing we did that because they had a lot to say.

WCT: Have you thought about other books, such as a Trans Illinois one?

PB: That’s not a bad idea. I have thought about a Trans California book. We also thought about Trump country, such as Wyoming and West Virginia. I would like to do a book tour there.

A trans photography book in Pakistan would be powerful. The first time I displayed the pictures was at the International Islamabad Art Festival last year. They were very well received.

While trans people are persecuted there, like everywhere, legally they have stronger rights there than anywhere in the world for inheritance and marriage. That is not true there for gay people.

South Asia has a very old tradition of trans people performing at weddings, so they are accepted even though still denigrated. I would like to pursue a project there.

I’m open. The book is doing well in photojournalism and a few other categories on Amazon.com . I prefer if people purchase it at a small chain bookstore, though, or at ApolloPublishers.com . If it sells, I am looking forward to doing more!

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