Sometimes when the credits roll at the end of a movie I really love, I feel more sad than satiated. It happens with books, too. There’s this sense that I have to deal with the consequences of falling so deeply in love with a world or a set of characters that are entirely made up. I had that same feeling the first time I looked through Soraya Zaman’s book American Boys. But then I had to pinch myself, because nothing in the book is made up—it’s all real. And thanks to both the subjects and Zaman, it’s a world we now live in.
American Boys is a collection of portraits of transmasculine people from across the country. But more than just a collection of portraits, the book is also a collection of stories. With each new subject comes a page of text laying out a few details about each person’s life, including their age, how long they’ve been on testosterone, and their Instagram handle. The handles surprised me at first, but Instagram is where this project started. It’s also where this project continues. Photographer Soraya Zaman, who identifies as non-binary, uses the handle @americanboysproject to further the story of these and other transmasculine people. It’s fitting, because Zaman found all of their subjects via social media. In fact, Zaman gives the internet and social networks credit for why people are more capable of challenging the gender binary. In their author’s note at the end of the book, they say, “For the first time ever in history, a like-minded community from all across the world can find one another,” and, “This is particularly true for the transgender community.”
But this work is more than just an homage to a gathering place. In a way, the Instagram handles allow this book to stay alive, and to call out the inevitable changes that each subject continues to experience. Identity, after all, is an evolution. Transitioning isn’t as stagnant as a single photograph, and the appearance of handles gives breath to the story we see fixed in print.
Perhaps because of this gateway into each subject’s current online presence, I felt keenly aware of the presence of time in this book. The project was compiled over the course of three years. It’s not clear if the age listed next to each subject is their age at printing or shooting, and I like this ambiguity. When I look at Justin, who is listed as 18 in the book, I can’t help but think of all the changes that happened between my 18th and 21st year. Many of the subjects are young, and perhaps since change seems so much more concentrated in youth, it’s hard to look at this book without recognizing all that could have happened in the lives of these subjects since their photograph was taken.
For Zaman, those three years meant traveling to twenty-one different states. Because of the broadness of landscape this inevitably produced, the book can read like an American classic. I found myself thinking of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield as I turned each page. Gabe, the first “American boy” we see when we open the book, stands on a roof with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He’s wearing slacks and a tucked-in collared shirt. He could be from another era, or he could just be from Brooklyn. Still, there’s something in his depiction that feels like it’s calling out to the works of Walker Evans or Dorthea Lange—photographers who have come to be recognized for capturing an America that was overlooked, redefining how we will think of America in the future.
From rooftops to skateboards to wide open fields, American Boys covers all the trappings of “boyhood” as we know it in this country. Zaman is doing something interesting within this context. They play with the country’s sense of nostalgia for boyhood, flipping that foundation into something that’s capable of redefinition. Halfway through the book, one subject, Benson, sits on a lawn chair next to his dad in a backyard in Oregon. It’s your classic summer scene of a father and son in the backyard, and they are both trans. Another subject, Steve, lies down in the brush somewhere in South Dakota. Amari sits on the train tracks in Florida. Caden surfs in California. I wondered why this book was called American Boys as opposed to American Men, since all the subjects are over 18. But the more I look at this book, the more I feel like a longed-for narrative is finally being returned. In a sense, Zaman is giving these subjects the boyhood they never had.
Something that comes up over and over again as you make your way through the pages is topless portraits. Shae lies shirtless in bed with his wife in Michigan; Chella flexes wearing a sheer shirt on a porch in New York; and Aodhàn wears earrings, a necklace, and no shirt in a field of flowers in Idaho. It’s so easy to associate nudity with vulnerability, but there’s nothing weak about these images. The expressions on each person’s face, the way they carry their bodies—there’s a palpable confidence emanating from the page. Some of these people have had top surgery, others haven’t. All of them, whether they feel this way or not, seem to be caught in a moment of utter assuredness. Teddy, who poses nude like a Roman statue in a forest in Kansas, is a perfect example of this. He angles his body so that the light sneaking through the trees bounces off of his bare chest. His hips jut forward toward the camera, and his right hand holds a leaf playfully over his crotch. Even though the leaf is concealing something, there’s nothing about this image that feels obfuscated.
Although everyone in this book is connected by their transmasculine identity, the takeaway I get from American Boys is that this identity holds an expansive spectrum of experience and definitions. Masculinity can be so much more than just a way of presenting. And even though Zaman’s medium is strictly visual, they’ve found a way of showing the layers of gender that are more than just sight-based. I love how Chella puts it when describing his preference for he/him pronouns while identifying as genderqueer. Chella says, “The way you present does not have to correlate to your inherent identity and this is valid.” The meaning of masculinity is finally finding nuance, and it’s time to celebrate that.
Editor’s Note: This week, Soraya Zaman’s American Boys was re-released in a second edition, and you can purchase it here. Be sure to also check out the American Boys Project Instagram account here, as well as Zaman’s own personal account here.