Talking Trans Representation and Fine Art Photography with Sawyer Devuyst

Talking Trans Representation and Fine Art Photography with Sawyer Devuyst

V sits down with the artist in an exclusive interview.

V sits down with the artist in an exclusive interview.

Text: Justin Ragolia

Some time ago, while leafing through years-old Barney's campaigns, we were lucky enough to come across the creative powerhouse that is Sawyer Devuyst. The transmale photographer, model, actor, interior and furniture designer, stunt-worker, and costume designer has quite an impressive resume: he's been draped in Margiela for Barney's, has appeared in a music video, worked as a stunt double, acts in TV and film, and has now turned his focus to art photography. His latest series, titled MINE, is a collection of fine-art self portraits meant to increase representation for trans men in 2017. We interviewed the artist about his upbringing, working as a creative, transgender advocacy, and his plans for the future.


We’re huge fans of your Mine project and the mission and inspiration behind it. What else would you like to accomplish in terms of carving out more room for trans representation?

I want there to be room for everyone at the table, and I want everyone at that table to be thoughtful and kind to each other. I want to acknowledge our differences and our similarities and I want all of those differences to be showcased and celebrated. I want to see stories about trans people that don’t focus on transition stories or victimization. I want to see stories about trans men- period. I want to see stories told about transgender people by transgender people. I want to see different bodies, different colors, different gender expressions. People who are otherized are having a hard enough time in the current US political climate. We need to put as much love and acceptance into the universe as we can.

Would you say you were a creator, an artist, from birth? Or was there a moment in your life that connected you to that passion?

Yes, I’ve been a creator from birth! My parents are both creators- my dad was a woodworker, and my mom is a musician. I play the drums, and grew up playing at my church with my mom and in a hardcore band in high school. When my dad worked on a Saturday, I would go to work with him and build things out of scrap wood. I haven’t felt much support from my family with most things, but they have always supported my creativity. In my late teens and early twenties, I was really discouraged by being an artist, thinking that I had to go to college to be taken seriously. I had this stupid phrase stuck in my head- “everyone is a photographer.” Which may or may not be true. I actually don’t care if it is or not, because I think if you’re creating art authentically, it will stand out. I think I had an extended moment in my twenties that lasted a few years, when my vision and style in all of my art practices became clearer.

You’ve clearly got a knack for fine art portraiture. What introduced you to photography? We know you’re working to increase trans male visibility, but what made you turn to photography to achieve that goal? Had you done any other photographic work before?

Most of my education is in music, actually. But between my junior and senior year in high school, I started taking photos at punk and hardcore shows and I fell in love with capturing moments of feeling that could otherwise get lost in a sea of action. I went back to high school and asked the photography teacher if I could take her class for no credit, since I’d taken no other art classes before. She agreed after seeing the photos I’d taken that summer. The photo studio became my safe space and I would spend hours in there, hiding myself from a pretty gnarly home life and fifth-period algebra.

In the months leading up to the start of my photo series, MINE, I had two fortuitous encounters- one with showrunner Jill Soloway, and one with actor Denis O’Hare- where both stressed the importance of making your own work, and not waiting for someone else to create the work you want to see or be involved in. I took to photography because it was free since I already had a camera. In all honesty, I took to self-portraits because I doubted (and still doubt) my talent as a photographer and also because I’m shy, so the thought of approaching people to photograph was terrifying. MINE, in particular, has been a pretty incredible journey. I view each photograph objectively, as art, and not as a photograph of myself. The project is meant to show the life of a transgender person authentically, with no ego attached. So if there is a roll of skin or a blemish or me just looking haggard one day, that’s it. That’s a human who happens to be trans looking a little rough. I’ll often choose those photos specifically, because they’re the most authentic.

The only other photographic work I’d done was taking photos of the bands in high school. I’d wanted to model when I was younger, but my mom told me I didn’t have the body for it, so I gave up on that pretty early on.

I’ve noticed that you’re a big proponent of working to inform the more cisnormative members of our society that there’s no one, all-encompassing transgender narrative. What has your process been like in terms of spreading that awareness through discourse and not allowing yourself and members of your community to be placed in a box?

It’s taken patience, in both others learning and in myself. If I had been doing interviews years ago, it would’ve been a mess. I was also taught growing up that there are men and women and those two things look and act a certain way. It’s taken years for me to unlearn that, in the biggest ways and the smallest ways. It’s one thing to know something, but to fully understand and then embrace something is entirely different. Me acknowledging that I’m transgender is one thing, but understanding what that means for me (not for anyone else) and then embracing that and loving that part of myself is so far from that.

The first step in spreading nuanced transgender narratives for me was taking a good hard look at who I am and who I wanted to be. There are only so many representations of trans men in the media, and I don’t feel an affinity towards any of them. Because we’re taught that gender is binary, it’s often thought that you transition from one gender to the other, and that’s what I thought for a while. But I don’t feel like I transitioned from female to male. I feel like I’ve transitioned from female to something entirely different. The core of a person is their soul, which is housed in this blob of skin and muscle and bone. My soul is the same. My spirit is the same. I’m just freer.

In every interview I do and in my day-to-day life, I’m open to talking about being trans, and without shame. There are so many ways to be a person, and this is just one of them. I need to acknowledge that this is a great privilege that I have, because I’m white, pass as a cisgender man and sometimes pass as straight. It’s so often not safe for trans people to be open about being trans, and my privilege affords me that safety.

We’ve seen that you’ve designed some really amazing, super minimalist furniture. Your clean-lined, sort of skeletal table sets really stand out; those bright colors paired with rustic slabs of wood and sleek slices of marble really give them a distinct look. Do you think you’ll be experimenting with other physical art forms in the future?

Thank you! Definitely. I love interior design, I love welding, I have a love-hate relationship with woodworking, and I’ve recently started working with stained glass. I also work in costumes for film & television, which is actually really similar to interior design in the mixtures of textures, colors and materials. One is for physical spaces and one is for physical bodies. I just love having a tactile experience with something I’ve created.

You’ve got quite the modeling portfolio! What’s been your favorite modeling project to date and why?

I want to say something major, like Barney’s or OUT Magazine or the A Great Big World music video, where I got to hold an owl and wear Margiela or Gucci or something, but it’s actually a Refinery 29 editorial about being trans or gender non-conforming at the beach. Lia Clay, who is incredibly talented and who is a trans woman, photographed the story. The interview questions were so thoughtful and authentic, and didn’t focus on transition stories or victimization. The project humanized trans people by giving us a voice to share our experiences as people, not just bodies. The photographs are beautiful and the stories are beautiful. I’m really proud of it.

Who are some of the artists, actors, and makers you’ve drawn inspiration from throughout your own creative journey?

Alexandra Billings is incredible in her tenacity and wisdom. Bridget Everett is incredible in her tenacity and depth. I love a tenacious woman, I guess! I love Sarah Paulson, Viola Davis, Kevin Spacey. I love Annie Albers, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Richard Serra, Le Corbusier, Dieter Rams, Kehinde Wiley. I’m inspired by Amos Mac, Lia Clay, Beth Pickens, Nicole Georges, Ali Liebegott and Laverne Cox. All of these people have taught me and made feel and have changed my heart and changed my mind in different ways.

What’s the next goal you’re trying to reach, be it in your art, career, or personal life?

I have so many goals at the moment. I have my eyes set on a specific acting role, which shall not be named, lest I jinx myself. I’ll soon be back in New York and can’t wait to get back to working on my craft (of acting). I actually joined SAG-AFTRA as a stunt person, doubling Andie MacDowell and doing some glass-breaking work and a fire burn. She’s a dream, by the way. I wore a wig and heels for the first time ever- thank goddess I was crawling in the scene. But a life goal of mine is to work as a stunt person in film & television. I’ve been trained in falls and fights, fire burns, precision driving, skids and slides. My actual dream job and ultimate goal is to be an action actor. I put that dream on hold because of my transition, but like Bridget Everett says, “Dreams Don’t Have Deadlines."

Amen to that. Keep up with the creative jack-of-all-trades here, and check out some images from MINE, as well as some selects from Sawyer's modeling portfolio below.

Credits: ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF SAWYER DEVUYST

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