Philly photo exhibit honors trans people of color

From left, photos of Ellington McKenzie and Kaye Terrell, as seen in Marcus Branch’s solo photography exhibit “Smell Your Flowers.”
From left, photos of Ellington McKenzie and Kaye Terrell, as seen in Marcus Branch’s solo photography exhibit “Smell Your Flowers.”

In a society rife with rhetoric, policies and laws that attack and vilify the trans community, authentic, joyful portrayals of trans people are more important than ever. That’s where the work of queer Black photographer Marcus Branch comes in. Branch’s solo photography exhibit “Smell Your Flowers,” which “uplifts, honors and celebrates Black and Brown members of the trans community,” will open at Mission in Arts (MiA) in Philadelphia on Nov. 4 and close on Dec. 16. 

Branch, who’s based in Philadelphia and New York City, created the exhibit in response to the abundance of trans deaths in the last couple of years. From November 2021 to November 2022, 47 trans people in the U.S. lost their lives to violence, according to the Remembrance Report by the National Center for Transgender Equality. Of that group, 85% were trans women, 70% of whom were trans women of color, the report shows. The Human Rights Campaign reported that at least 25 trans and gender nonconforming people were killed through violent means in 2023. 

“During [2022], there were a lot of movements happening as far as Black Lives Matter and a lot of the community coming together and showing solidarity,” Branch said. “But I felt like there was this negligence towards the trans community within the Black community, and that didn’t really sit well with me.”

“I wanted to be able to use my platform, use my strength in the way that I could make a change,” Branch said, acknowledging the privilege he has as a cisgender person.

Audience members can expect to see soulful, intimate portraits of trans people of color as part of “Smell Your Flowers.” 

“I want it to feel like you’re invited into their home, into their heart, into their space,” Branch said. 

The title of the exhibit comes from the idea that many trans people of color aren’t able to enjoy  their flowers, or words of kindness or appreciation, while they are alive. In a time with so many negative, somber portrayals of the trans community in different media channels, representations of trans joy are essential, Branch said.

Ellington McKenzie, a friend of Branch’s, was photographed as part of “Smell Your Flowers.” Branch photographed McKenzie not long after McKenzie had top surgery two years ago, so seeing themselves in this current exhibit marks how much they’ve changed, McKenzie said. 

“I’ve always wanted this type of body, so to actually achieve this type of body, it’s amazing,” McKenzie said. 

They commented on the need for empowering representations of trans people of color in a time when legislators around the U.S. are passing laws that revoke trans rights and perpetuate transphobic ideologies.

“It’s really important right now that we get proper depictions of us enjoying our lives, in love and in harmony with people who want to see us thrive in the same regard,” McKenzie said. “It’s important, especially coming from another queer person who knows our experience adjacently. It’s really important for our safety for people to see [that] yes, we have this turmoil that’s going on with our country, with our government, [but] we’re actually out here still thriving and still trying to build better worlds for us as trans people of color.”

Kaye Terrell, who owns AOHKAYE Jewelry and works as a visual merchandising manager for Urban Outfitters, was also photographed as part of the exhibit. 

“When Marcus first told me about the project, I was over the moon,” Terrell said in an email. 

The way Terrell expresses her trans identity deviates from the mainstream, she said adding that she is “honored” to “show that there are other trans identities out in the world. It’s important to show trans people in an empowering way because against all odds, we persevere and push through our struggles. It allows others to see that we have many faces and present ourselves very differently.”

Branch hopes that trans people of color who view the exhibit “feel seen,” he said. “I hope that they take away the feeling of love and recognition. I really want them to feel like they have a place and they are celebrated, they are wanted, they are needed.”

When it comes to cishet spectators, Branch hopes it motivates them to find ways to help their trans peers and ensure they feel visible. 

“Not even just my cishet counterparts, I want everyone to feel that way,” Branch said. “I feel like everybody can take something away from it and to still celebrate and love on each other so that that division is no longer there or felt, and the communities can come together the way that we really should.”

Apart from the exhibit itself, Branch plans to use the space at MiA for weekly events that center the trans community. Although exact dates are to be determined, the events will run through early December and include a memorial service to mark Trans Day of Remembrance; a panel discussion in which Branch will discuss the exhibit and hold space for photo subjects and other trans community members to share their experiences; a trans vendor market where Terrell and other trans creators will sell their goods; a youth workshop involving the exploration of themes of self love, acceptance, friendship and expression through polaroids and crafts; and a movie night. 

“Smell Your Flowers” will be on display Nov. 4-Dec. 16 at Mission in Arts, 1720 N. 5th Street, suite G3.

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