In their own words: Gender as a spectrum

Story highlights

  • A photo book examines the fluidity of gender identity, sexuality
  • Photographer Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert lets his subjects define themselves

(CNN)"Definition is not my forte. I leave that to dictionaries."

So says one of the people featured in Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert's portrait series "Gender as a Spectrum" when asked, "How would you define your gender?"
The sentiment reverberates throughout the pages of Ohlert's photo book of the same name. It features portraits and interviews with people whose definitions of gender identity rarely overlap, hence the title. The interviews address how sexuality can be fluid, too.
    Such talk may not sit with well with some in the mainstream, even as the idea of gender fluidity becomes more common in the media and popular culture. That's what makes the book necessary, says Ohlert, who presents "a documentary collection of portraits and personal encounters," not necessarily "portraits of gender."
    Photographer Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert
    "We wanted to have questions that were pretty intimate, but it was up to each person how they wanted to present themselves and which questions they wanted to answer," Ohlert says in the prologue. "Some do it with humor and eloquence, without having to reveal their innermost selves. It was supposed to be a framework, so that people had the opportunity to say what was important to them."
    The Berlin-based photographer began working on the series in 2013 after meeting a transgender woman named Kaey in a popular gay nightclub in the German capital. She was familiar with his work and approached him about making a book about transgender life. It was before she started taking hormones, and she had "a very strong urge" to read about experiences of other transgender people that reflected her reality, Kaey says in the book's prologue.
    "I felt that something was missing and I imagined what I would like to find," she says. "I wanted to portray people in their differences, their own identifies, their personal pathways and their own words. Not written by some author conveying a story. Not from reporters or non-trans people who had written a book, but transgender people writing about transgender people. I think it's nicer to speak up for yourself."

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    Ohlert was pursuing a similar idea after spending time on the drag scene, and the two teamed up. Kaey introduced him to people in Berlin who led him to people in Paris and San Francisco. He met them in their homes, spending hours getting to know them and asking them questions before taking their portrait. Through the process, the 25-year-old came to learn something about himself as a gay man.
    "I realized that there's no fixed aspect of my gender and my sexuality that I could define as 'me,' but that it is fluid," he said. "You can drift. You're not trapped at any one point even if you, as I do, define yourself for example as a 'man.' The book is therefore for me an analogy through which to understand life. Gender is a theme for everybody, and is part of every identity."