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Charley Dean Sayers photographer November17th book trans
November 17thCourtesy of Charley Dean Sayers

One photographer’s uncensored documentation of her gender transition

Charley Dean Sayers’ debut photography book November 17th captures her gender confirmation surgery on her own terms. Here, she speaks to Nicola Dinan about the project

November 17th will leave you wondering: why should happiness demand so much suffering? In her debut book of photography, Charley Dean Sayers, 23, documents her gender confirmation surgery, which she underwent three months after her 18th birthday.

The book spans Sayers’ five weeks in Chon Buri, Thailand. It’s a portal into an extremely intimate period of Sayers’ life, and of mental and physical tumult. As I moved through the images, diary entries of Sayers and her mother, messages sent to friends, I often felt like more of an intruder than a reader. The great irony is that much of the world feels differently: fully entitled to knowledge of trans people’s bodies. Have you had the surgery? Recovery must’ve been awful, right? How bad was it? Questions too often asked by people too unfamiliar.

In the pressure to satisfy our sceptics, self-censorship becomes an intrinsic part of being trans. We do it to hide until the time is right. We do it so that medical practitioners believe us. We do it because we fear, at the smallest hint of doubt, those who support us will stop doing so. And so the story goes: HRT? I feel amazing! Every day is a total fucking gift. I was trapped and now I’m free. I have always been a girl. I have always been a boy. My outsides finally match my insides. Slay, I guess.

Sayers says no to self-censorship, to the crippling burden of hiding your pain. In doing so, she gets the first and last word.

You went to Chon Buri with four cameras. I wonder why, at that moment, you chose to document those five weeks so closely?

Charley Dean Sayers: It was just a way of conceptualising my own trauma before it even happened. I think seeing it through an artistic lens really helped me process it in the past tense. I felt a combined sense of responsibility and delusion that the entire experience was an artistic project.

I’d be laying in the hospital bed, and I’d have my dressing changed, but I’d be taking pictures of it, and in that way, it was almost like I was seeing the pictures three months in the future when I developed the film. I was forcing myself into the headspace of thinking, ‘Oh, this will make a fabulous image.’

I guess in that sense it made it easier to endure the trauma.

Charley Dean Sayers: Yeah, for sure. If I took a picture of it, then it wasn’t real. It was just part of my project – it wasn’t something that was happening to me. My recovery occurred through the viewfinder, and this helped me find the nuance and beauty in suffering, and also made the year of recovery much more rewarding.

How does it feel to know that other people will have access to this incredibly intimate time of your life?

Charley Dean Sayers: I’m overwhelmed. I’m defining this experience on my own terms completely, my suffering – I’ve transformed it into a 200-page visual journey, and there’s no interference from any publishers, either.

I’m really excited for gender confirmation not to be such a huge question mark to so many, but I’m really not interested in enlightening people about the specific processes within the surgery. I chose to speak about what felt relevant to me personally. It’s all about showing the emotional and physical turmoil that trans people have to put themselves through in order to feel comfortable.

On defining the experience on your own terms, is that why you chose to be the subject of your photography, for example, rather than documenting other people’s experiences with gender confirmation surgery?

Charley Dean Sayers: I think when it’s your own experience you’re not as delicate. While I was in Thailand, there were numerous other trans women that were receiving the exact same treatments that I was, and they were going through the process at the exact same time. I’m sure if I would have asked them to be the subject of my photography, they would have said yes, but I knew the photos could never capture the same transparency. I didn’t care if I was nude, I didn’t care if there was blood, if I was crying, if I was in an awful mood. I still wanted to take the picture. I knew I could be mean to myself if I needed to be.

Has fraught access to trans healthcare in the UK shaped November 17th?

Charley Dean Sayers: Yes. I think that’s why I found it so hard to release the book, and why I waited so long – I wanted to do it right. Within the period of me having this surgery and making the book, hormone blockers for young trans people in the UK have categorically been stripped away. It’s not at all accessible. It was when I was that age. I felt as though I couldn’t show the actual struggle that I went through, because I felt as I needed to be grateful for receiving the bare minimum, which was the hormone blockers.

The word regret and the concept of changing your mind is thrown around so much in regard to trans children. When I was having surgery, those were definitely thoughts that I was having, which made me feel guilty, but I think it was just a natural thing to feel. I have no regrets now, and I’ve never had any regrets about the hormone blockers, but I feel like when you’re trans, the word ‘regret’, and the concept of not being sure is almost blasphemous, because you don’t want to regress any treatment’s availability for future generations. Accessibility to gender-affirming care for trans kids should be the bare minimum, but when you’re under 18, gender dysphoria is denied any credibility.

How did you get to a place where you wanted to be honest about the suffering you had to endure to attain happiness?

Charley Dean Sayers: I made six handmade drafts of the book when I graduated from CSM last year. They look very different to how the final copies look, and that’s just purely because I was censoring myself in the first draft. That just boils down to, again, feeling such a weight on my shoulders to speak for the entire community, which I don’t think any single trans person should feel.

I didn’t want it to be received in the wrong way, but I think that will just happen regardless… so I may as well just be as honest and as truthful as I can attempt to be. The trans community is painted with one brush by the media, and everyone has a predefined idea of what it means to be trans, so I might as well bare it all. It’s my story on my terms.

How is November 17th going to inform your future projects and art practice?

Charley Dean Sayers: Creating the book and being so honest has affected my work already. My recent work has been extremely frivolous. I made a project called ‘Big Head’, exploring the very idea of being my own muse. I was printing out these humongous pictures of my head and my hands and was gluing them on top of my face to portray this sense of an inflated ego. I think trans joy is such an important thing to convey, and I think humour is a great way to start.

Moving forward my work is going to be a lot happier, because that’s the place I find myself in now, and I’m really happy with where I am in my life and my body. I want to show a trans person existing and making the stuff they want to make and my work not necessarily being about my gender identity. Everything’s informed by who you are, but my work’s going to be a lot more fun and light moving on.

17th November by Charley Dean Sayers launches on February 17 at the Photo Book Café in London.