‘This is me, as I am’: A photographer documents her own gender transition

In 2015, Allison Lippy realised who she had always been—and turned her camera on herself to understand her journey as a transgender woman.

By Allison Lippy
Published 26 Jun 2022, 06:04 BST
Two points in time, an image of my pre-operative face on the left, depicting my former ...
Two points in time, an image of my pre-operative face on the left, depicting my former self in 2014, and a post-operative face on the right taken in 2018 after my facial feminization surgery. Both stand as bookends of a journey represented by the transformation of a visage and the changes that lie beneath. Using art as a way of making sense of what I had been through and where I was going was therapeutic and provided insight.
Photograph by Photo Illustration by Allison Lippy

It took 27 years for me to realise I was transgender. It took a month or two to decide to physically transition. It took even less time than that to understand that I should document my transformation—for myself and for anyone else who needs to see it.

I should start at the beginning.

At 27, this photograph (left) marked the first day of my transition on April 7, 2015. The middle frame, taken on May 18, 2015, documents a disconnect between me and my former self. The photograph on the right, taken on July 25, 2015, is a reflection of my understanding from research that hormones and hormone blockers would cause physical changes. Not knowing how this would affect my body specifically, there was an underlying anxiety of the unknown, as results vary from person to person.
Photograph by Allison Lippy

Growing up in Baltimore in the 1990s and early 2000s, I wasn’t aware that people could be anything other than the gender they were assigned at birth. There weren't resources or role models available to me at that point to even begin to understand who I was. 

However, there were little hints of my queerness, a feeling of being different, something intangible. I never shared nor had the opportunity to explore those feelings until my early 20s. When I was 21, I came across videos of trans women on YouTube talking about their transitions. I would return to the videos periodically to see their updates, which intrigued me. I was telling myself that this was just research for a story that I wanted to do on trans identity. I wasn’t yet ready to confront the truth about myself.

By August 22, 2015, there was a feeling of excitement, of wanting to document and see myself evolve over an extended period of time.
Photograph by Allison Lippy

I moved to New York City in 2011. Keeping my mind and body occupied by working in the photo industry distracted me from introspection. In 2015, I was sitting in my therapist’s office when she casually mentioned a person—a celebrity—who had come out as trans. I don’t remember what the context of that conversation was. I don’t think I was even paying particular attention to what she was saying. But I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’

That throwaway comment was the spark that forced me to stop ignoring what had been burning in my subconscious. When I was at home, alone with my thoughts, I pondered my identity. Asking myself over and over again, ‘Am I trans? Am I a woman?’ I told myself probably not. Then I thought, ‘Maybe?’ I went back and forth, but as the days and then weeks progressed, the answer became clear: ‘Yup, that’s you.’

Finally, I realised I needed to accept who I was. 

January 2, 2016: There were days when I really felt the weight of the discrepancy between how I saw myself in the physical realm and how that didn't align with my expectations.
Photograph by Allison Lippy
March 26, 2016: The effects that hormones alone have on the human body, without surgical intervention, can be quite significant. With the progression of time, my skin began to soften, breast tissue started to develop, and the physical differences became more visible.
Photograph by Allison Lippy

All the confusion I’d felt made sense; all the puzzle pieces fit for the first time. Everything just fell right into place. Confident and excited, I started moving quickly to make up for lost time.

I came out to my therapist first, just to test the waters, and then to my mother, who gladly was my rock throughout my transition. I’m fortunate that everybody in my life—including my parents, brother and friends—was really accepting.

April 20, 2016: Five days after undergoing a medically invasive and painful procedure known as facial feminization surgery (FFS), I pointed at the camera at myself. This surgery alters the bone structure in order to remove the effects of what testosterone had initially done to shape the skull. Still seeing elements of my past features, reality began to dawn on me that it would take a while for my “new” face to settle above my reconstructed skull.
Photograph by Allison Lippy
May 28, 2016: This is the first dress I ever owned, given to me as a gift by another trans woman and friend. I wasn’t even halfway to where I wanted to be physically and I felt like a walking work in progress.
Photograph by Allison Lippy
May 22, 2017: I had refrained from cutting my hair for quite some time as it took a while for it to grow out to a length in which I felt more comfortable. Having a feminine physique isn’t the totality of who I am. To me, being a feminist woman is to be an individual, where I choose my own path of what is right for me and my body.
Photograph by Allison Lippy
Self-portrait.
Photograph by Allison Lippy

Fundamentally, I owe my very existence to my trans elders, especially queer Indigenous, Black, Asian, Latinx, and POC people. They were in the streets and in our communities doing the hard work, paving the way for the rest of us to discover and live authentically as ourselves. Trailblazers, like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and countless others, stood up and fought for our community in a time when visibility and representation were next to none.

Within a few months of coming out, I started taking hormones—and I began making self-portraits. Turning the camera on myself was a way to understand where I started and where I would end up. As a photographer and someone who didn’t encounter positive images of trans people as a kid, I felt I had a responsibility to tell my story through my own queer perspective.

May 29, 2022: Being a trans woman, who happens to also be a photographer, I realize the importance of representation of self and how that can be a powerful tool in storytelling. Seeing a queer persons’ story from their own perspective sheds light on what otherwise might go unseen.
Photograph by Allison Lippy

I don’t intend to be representative of all trans people. Just as there isn’t one way to be human—there isn’t one right way or one wrong way to transition. We each have our own path.

My path happened to be a medical transition. In 2016, I went through facial feminisation and gender reassignment surgeries. The facial feminisation surgery reconstructed my skull, shaving bone to remove the effects of testosterone. While this might seem extreme, imagine discovering who you truly are and then looking in the mirror and seeing someone else. The surgeries were painful, but the journey to be yourself always includes some pain, sometimes mentally and physically.

It’s difficult to look back at old family photos now. I wish I could have been me earlier. But when I look at photos from early in this project, I see a person who is on a journey to being their true self. And toward the end of the series, there’s a few images where I think: ‘This is me, as I am. I have zero regrets.’

Allison Lippy is a Brooklyn-based photographer whose work explores the convergence of identity, culture, and science within transitional spaces. Follow her on Instagram

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