|A self portrait
Last month, Portland, Oregon based trans photographer Nik Wilhelm stepped in front of the camera and bared his soul - and his pre-operative chest. For 30 days in December, the resultant photographs hung in Portland’s feminist bookstore, In Other Words.
Identifying as a “gender-squishy” person who gets a rush off of masculine pronouns, Wilhelm admits, “If I won the lottery today, I’d have top surgery tomorrow. So basically baring my tits to the world at large was rather scary.” He says the exhibit forced him to acknowledge “feminine aspects” of his body. It also benefited Portland’s Identity Project and Wilhelm’s legal name change, because he dedicated the sales of his prints to fund both. The Identity Project helps gender variant Portlanders alter their names and gender markers.
It’s important to Wilhelm to change his name, because, “In my headspace, I’m Nik, and I’m rather tired of needing to defend that. It’s irksome to look down at the ID and see a name that isn’t who I am. I’m not changing it for myself or my friends…but for when I interact in the big wide world, to give the person I am legitimacy in the eyes of others.”
Wilhelm says he fell in love with photography six years ago, when he first purchased a digital camera. Since then he says photography - and living with creative intent - has become like breathing for him. “I’m that person that always has a camera…. the one bent over… looking closer at the shiny object in the mud. It’s not the equipment I shoot with or what f-stop or post-processing I do - it’s the way I look at the world and the way I convey that to other people that makes the art I produce different.”
He sees his style as irreverent and argues, “People should question everything. I like to see people thinking and reacting and questioning, no matter what the reaction is. If they think my work stinks, I’ve done my job. But if they’re ambivalent about it, I need to get back to work.”
Wilhelm holds a day job (to “finance my art habit”) and he devotes his nights to theater, which he’s been involved in for over a decade. “I’ve done Renaissance festivals, worked in professional and civic theaters, helped build ten-foot tall ogres, costumed 20 pint-sized angels, choreographed live steel fighting and worked with various improv companies.”
These days, most of his work revolves around the queer community with events that Wilhelm says encourage dialogue around sex and self-acceptance. Currently involved with a production of the Vagina Monologues, Wilhelm plays a role in the show, both on stage and off. He also performs regularly and provides technical support for Portland’s Dirty Queer (dirtyqueer.com), one of the few X-rated open mics in the country, held the second Friday of each month.
Every artist evolves and changes both the spaces and mediums they work in, Wilhelm contends. “If you’re not moving in some direction as an artist, you’re not really creating. If there were an ultimate evil, it would be stasis.”
Wilhelm believes that everyone has the potential for creativity. “Labeling myself as an artist doesn’t make what I do inherently better. I might have more practice, but everyone can be creative, and they don’t need to call themselves ‘artist’ to make art. If you’ve got the urge to be creative, act on it. It’s a positive impulse, and even if you never share it… you’re creating, which is, of itself, an incredible thing, and something we don’t allow ourselves to do often enough.”
Wilhelm’s prints can be found on his deviantArt page or ThisNik.com.
Trans author Jacob Anderson-Minshall co-writes the Blind Eye mystery series with his wife. He has an essay in the just released anthology, Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power, which examines his transition from lesbian feminist to straight white guy.