The Trans Mirror

Liam Brooks — December 13, 2017 1:35 p.m.



The mirror stage, Lacan writes, “is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation.” As the infant grows to recognize its own image in the mirror — the sight of a self-contained being-thing, all neatly packaged and structured and capable of interacting with other being-things — it comes to understand itself in relation to the rest of the world, and through that mental and physical diagramming essentially come to consciousness, and flexes its self-actualization from that point on.

The mirror can be found in many practical and metaphorical theoretical frameworks in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and media studies. But the mirror as a thing in and of itself is hard to pin down — except when it appears in photographs.


..the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subjects entire mental development.

Jacques Lacan


This is an introduction to the ways in which the mirror has become a shorthand in photojournalism for stories about trans people. In socially coded and rhetorically metaphorical ways, the mirror is a reflection of societal attitudes, misconceptions, and generalizations about gender dysphoria, transitioning, privacy, and safety. And as we attempt to answer why and how the mirror has become a symbol for social construction — how the mirror stage has shown staged mirrors — we inevitably arrive at the paradox of identifying the mirror as a thing itself — what does the mirror stage look like for a mirror?


The collective mirror stage is over because what do I see when I look in the mirror but an apparition /

a body in disguise

Juliana Huxtable


Apart from stories about trans people, the mirror shot is especially common for two other topics: people who practice athletically taxing routines, like dancers and weightlifters, and weddings.

The former uses the mirror shot to reveal the subjects’ own focus on their body. By showing not only the athlete’s body, often in settings where muscles and flesh are exposed — at the gym, in tight-fitting clothing, or otherwise — but the athlete’s body redoubled in a mirror, one of the representations can be inhabited and through its eyes can then judge itself, a neat sidestep of the voyeur and a potential way in to what would otherwise remain a surface-level understanding of bodily experience. That is, a large part of being an athlete is seeing one’s self as an athlete. And even then, not just the process of being but the process of becoming — of taxing and training one’s body and mind — requires that ability to see one’s reflection, and like an infant “manufacture for the subject … a succession of phantasies.”


If you miss the shot, ask her to fix her ear rings again.

Academy of Photography


The mirror in the wedding photograph serves a similar but distinct purpose, but is better understood through a contextual lens. Weddings are the preeminent visual intersection of institutionalized gendering and state power, and mirrors must be understood within that playing field. That is, if the athlete photograph uses the mirror to represent the experience of pure physicality, the wedding photograph — often the bride or groom “getting ready” — uses the mirror to represent pure sociality. By looking at someone looking at their reflection in the wedding scenario — or, more often, looking at a reflection being looked at — we do not hear the subject thinking “Am I really this?” (a manufactured phantasy) but rather “Am I really doing this?”

This distinction between physicality and sociality is by no means definite, nor even truly existent. Just as the physicality of athleticism is a socially marked way of being, the sociality of the wedding, especially for the bride, is a sociality inhabited through and by intense attention to physicality, from grooming to makeup to the dress. But by distinguishing the two subject areas for the sake of argument as being primarily marked by these two lenses — of pure physicality and pure sociality — we can better analyze the mirror in photojournalistic coverage of a topic that, in the eyes of many mainstream journalists, seems to be a visualized blending of the two: being trans.

In most photographs of trans people in mainstream news outlets, the reflection is seen over the shoulder of the subject, or at least at an angle that would indicate this, if the frame were to be extended. Several other throughlines also readily come to the surface. First, the overwhelming amount of visual coverage is devoted to trans women, which comes at no surprise — the majority of coverage in general that comes back in searches, as well as representation in fictionalized and other forms of media, is of trans women, for reasons that will be explored in more depth later in this paper. Second, in a phenomenon that is tied not just to the placement of mirrors but also to the nature of intimate portrait work in general, a majority of the portrait images in the profiles and other news pieces I was researching show the subject in their home, and often in the most private spaces within that home, whether in the bathroom or near a closet.

Lota Hijra in the mirror

Making it clear to the audience that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume.

Juliana Serano


This sense of privacy created by portrait work inside the home, regardless of the presence of a mirror, is by no means exclusive to coverage of trans subjects. But it is worth analyzing how a sense of privacy overshadows issues that are essentially, and dangerously, public. The closet and the bathroom are a symbol and practical reality, respectively, for trans rights, in terms of “coming out of the closet” and transphobic legislation like that seen recently in North Carolina that attempts to restrict the use of the shared public/private space of the bathroom to cis people. The fact that transness (and all gender, of course) is a distinctly internal experience that manifests itself in gender presentation and performance as well as impacts on the gendered (or non-gendered) subject by way of societal pressures and actions by others separates it from other tools of classification and oppression like skin color.

In analyzing the mirror as shorthand for these often misguided private-but-public inclinations for representation, the shorthand which it literally reflects must be included — the same shorthand that drives the imbalance in coverage between trans men and trans women. That is the shorthand of femininity itself, and with it the just-as-existent but lock-and-keyed shorthand for masculinity. It is not that symbols of masculinity do not exist, nor are hidden or unknown to the news photographer and editor. It’s that these symbols are not so readily, formally, to be considered nor revealed as artificial. As Julia Serano writes, the media tends not to notice—or to outright ignore—trans men because they are unable to sensationalize them the way they do trans women without bringing masculinity itself into question.




Excerpted from Juliana Huxtable's HOOD BY AIR


With all things and most obviously with mirrors, there is a flip side. Just as the mirror is a figurative reflection of social re-ifications of the stakes of gender presentation and performance, it’s also a useful way to understand the power of photography, too, in its most mechanic and optic of forms.

Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man in America in the nineteenth century, and that was no chance happening. In Aperture’s “Vision & Justice” issue, Henry Gates Jr. explores Frederick Douglass’s relationship to the photographic image with the metaphor of the camera obscura. Like Douglass’s favorite rhetorical technique, the chiasmus, the camera obscura is “the mechanism that reproduces, rotates and reverses a scene, transforming it into an image flipped 180 degrees.” Douglass’s image-camera can take in events and flip them, grabbing both sides of what Gates terms Douglass’s “linguistic seesaw” — “‘You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” — and flipping the ends of this “x” to demonstrate that “we had gotten these associations wrong all along, that there was nothing natural or fixed about them after all; that they were constructed…”


You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man

Frederick Douglass


There is no surer way to demonstrate that, as Butler writes, “the body is not merely matter but a continual and incessant materializing of possibilities” than to re-materialize those possibilities differently, without losing what makes that body human. While this re-materialization can be voided philosophically — if you replace all the boards of a ship with new ones, is it a new ship? — it cannot be voided practically. The ship still sails; a ship is nothing but a construction of boards in the first place.

Gates goes on to argue that the radicality of Douglass’s photographic act was, practically, one of mass quantity — that he “was intent on the use of this visual image to erase the astonishingly large storehouse of racist stereotypes that had been accumulated in the American archive of antiblack imagery." Douglass was, after all, not just the most photographed Black man in the nineteenth century, but also the most photographed of all men in America at the time, and through this multiplicity, Gates argues, he showed himself as being fully human. “There was not ‘a’ Frederick Douglass,” Gates writes, “there were only Douglasses” (italics in original). While other activists looked towards armed combat or the passage of laws, Douglass — while not discounting those avenues — served “as captain, without peer,” on the battlefield of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “anti-slave” (“Here is the anti-slave… now let them emerge, clothed and in their own form”) of visual culture.

Douglass’s recognition of the power of representation has not faded from the minds of modern-day activists, and indeed has exploded outward as a core facet of photography of all kinds, from those that counter the hegemony to those that support it. From its earliest days, the photographic image has allowed people to stage themselves not as who they are, but who they want to be. The advice is to “dress for the job you want, not the one you have”; under studio lighting, the photograph fixes those clothes to your own skin like an iron-on patch. And as Gates points out, all photography does that — the optics of the mechanism itself require a flipping of reality, such that the “have seen” and “shall see” of the historical chiasmus are inverted as surely as an hourglass. (What are cameras but time machines? The Hubble looks not just into space but into history.)


The body is not merely matter but a continual and incessant materializing of possibilities.

Judith Butler


But the true power of Douglass’s harnessing of visuality lay in the optical quality of the camera itself. Just as his writing centered around the chiasmus, his imagery centered around a visual reversal. Gates’s insight is not about the photographic event, but the event of photography, or rather the event of the mechanism of photography.

Just as cameras can reflect in a dually subversive and productive (constructive) way in the camera obscura, so too can mirrors themselves function, without a lens — not as a way to flip reality, then, but to actually reflect it exactly. Without regard for the horizontal mirroring, indeed without the funhouse effect that is also possible, the power of mirrors to indeed show Barthes’ referent — what is, or at least what was, historicized not in silver nitrate but in that lingering speed-of-light ricochet.

At Standing Rock, water protectors echoed a protest strategy from 1960s Ukraine by affixing mirrors to shields, pointing them at police and private security so they saw their own armored likenesses reflected on and over the bodies of protestors.


The collective mirror stage is over because what do I see when I look in the mirror but an apparition / a body in disguise…

Juliana Huxtable


Unlike the trans mirror trope, these mirrors do not reflect societal pressures and structures; they reflect them. That is, those oppressive institutions are pulled from the very thing that represents them to be represented through that very thing, in a type of pulling-up-by-the-bootstraps subversion that shouldn’t really work, but somehow does.

If the trans mirror, in all its makeup and fetishized faux-intimacy, allows implicit biases and transphobic sense-making to hide in plain sight much as a mirror does, chameleon-like, the mirrors at Standing Rock forces what might remain out of plain sight — or, rather, the sight plane — to become visible within the very community its invisibility threatens.

But in the end, we are left with the larger question of why news photographers feel the need to use the mirror as shorthand in the first place. Why add this layer? I think it comes down to equal parts laziness and fear. Laziness in that the mirror, like a pun, calls attention to itself and the photographic form, as if to say yes, this is representation, and that you should remember that. Why? Because there is something about representing this person in particular that doesn’t work on the surface level — for better or worse, this person is different. And fear in that there may be something lost, some intrinsic aspect to identity, if Barthes’ referent is fused too neatly to the page or screen.


The network emerges / as the primary form of classification


With this laziness and fear in mind — this aversion to the formal quality of photography itself — I propose in closing a different sort of self-reflection may serve the same purpose, like mis-aligning the color plates when printing or calling attention to the color channels of the digital image; anything to push the representation a bit off-kilter, anything to peel the sticker’s corner up just enough that a bit of brainpower can tear the whole thing off. ♦︎