Sara Swaty Roger said she likes to capture the essence of the subjects she photographs, whether that is when they have just woken up, as they shave, or as they face the challenges of changing their sex.
Roger, a Kirkwood photographer, has put together her first professional exhibit, “Gender Bender,” which deals with gender roles and identity. Roger said her work, on display in Ste. Genevieve, MO, is aimed at challenging society’s perception of what is accepted of males and females.
“When we see something that we don’t think is the norm, we are automatically disgusted with it,” Roger said. “If you see a 16-year-old boy with his fingernails painted, you’d automatically make an assumption. I want to show people that our practices and beliefs are completely influenced by our culture.”
Roger, a recent photography graduate from Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY, said her photos show the pain and stigma associated with questioning one’s sexuality and role in society.
“They are just normal people,” Roger said. “They weren’t happy in the body they were born in and wanted to change it. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with marrying someone you love just because you share the same genitalia?”
Roger’s exhibit started as a final project in school, where she was given a chance to spend several weeks working on a single subject of her choosing.
“I really wanted it to be something meaningful and deep,” Roger said. “I’d never attempted such a serious project in my life. I did not think it would turn into this.”
A year later, Roger had photographed more than 20 people each with different sexual characteristics, from gay and lesbian, to transgender, drag and more.
One of the models was Shawn Flynn, whom Roger met while studying at . Roger said when they were both about 16, she remembers Flynn not being happy with who he was as a woman.
“I remember how stressed he was and how unhappy he was,” Roger said.
When Roger returned to Kirkwood from Rochester, she contacted Flynn to participate in her project, warning him it would be an intimate and personal photo shoot.
“It's not something that I feel I should be ashamed of,” Flynn said, explaining why he wanted to participate in Roger’s project. “It's important for others to see the changes we go through. Hopefully, it will create more understanding out there.”
Scott Sampson Kincade, co-owner of the Joseph Sisters Gallery, where Roger’s work is on display, said he fell in love with the photographer's work from the beginning. Kincade found Roger after he put an ad on Craigslist calling for artists interested in showcasing their work at his gallery.
“The way it’s shot is beautiful,” Kincade said. “They (the subjects) are so comfortable with her that their personalities really come through.”
Kincade said Roger’s work has been a blessing for his gallery as it has drawn a lot of attention. In a small town like Ste. Genevieve, however, it has also drawn some criticism, he said.
“We had a very minute group of people who spoke against it, but our town as a whole spoke louder than the minority,” Kincade said. “It was the best free press I’ve ever gotten.”
Roger said her show was never aimed at offending anyone. She said it was not vulgar, but rather honest and respectful. For those opposed to her work, Roger has only one question.
“Why? Why do you feel like that? What bothers you about it?” Rogers said. “If people have free will, why shouldn’t they be able to use it?”
On the same night that Roger’s exhibit opened, New York legalized gay marriage. Flynn said he felt like it was a sign that Roger was after something big.
“It’s a movement that is happening and growing, and I think with her work, Sara is starting sort of a mini revolution,” Flynn said.
Roger said her goal may not be a revolution, but at least make an impact on people's minds.
"Photography is a powerful tool that can influence and alter how people think as well as change their perspective," Roger said. "This is my goal with my photography—to make change and create a new train of thought."
Roger’s work will be on display through Sunday at the Joseph Sisters Gallery in Ste. Genevieve. Roger said she hopes she can bring her work closer to St. Louis but doubts Kirkwood will be the place where her work will be shown next.
“That would be great, but where? In Kirkwood I can’t really think of anywhere,” Roger said. “I can’t think of anyone that would want it because it’s a very conservative place.”
Whether her work is accepted or not, Roger said her exhibit is about her subjects and their struggle to be happy with who they are.
When Flynn went to visit the gallery with his family, he said that was exactly the feeling he got when he saw his photo.
“I thought, ‘Wow I look a lot better than in high school; I look happier,’” Flynn said. “I look like I am having a fun time.”
For times and more information on the exhibit, visit www.josephsistersgallery.com.
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