Hong Kong photographer captures 4 years in transgender friend’s transition

Mark Woodward met Lia Romero when he went to New York to study, and Romero's transformation from man to woman is the subject of Woodward’s first solo show in Brooklyn

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 2:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 10:18pm

When Hong Kong photographer Mark Woodward was working with United States special forces, the country’s military elite, taking photos of their work, he brought out pictures of a slight transgender woman back in New York.

In the photos, taken during her transition, Lia Romero stands watching the camera with her eyes wide open, wearing just a thin slip.

“The special forces troops said, ‘That is brave’,” Woodward recalls. “I take my hat off to that.”

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In his first solo exhibition, which opened in Brooklyn on Friday, Woodward is exhibiting the series of photos he took over four years of his friend Romero’s physical and emotional transition from a man to a woman.

Woodward says he first met his friend, then named Antonio, when she was the resident adviser at his university dormitory.

“It was over the winter break, I think through social media, that she came out or I heard it through someone and very quickly after getting back we grabbed a coffee. I think it was pretty clear I was captivated, I was intrigued,” he says.

Born and educated in Hong Kong, where he attended West Island School, Woodward moved to New York to enrol in the Parsons School of Design.

“[Growing up] in Hong Kong, and having so many different friends from different cultures, honestly I think it made me more captivated by people than I am by visual emotions or impulses,” he says.

“Coming to New York I had this curiosity about people. That being said, I wouldn’t say Hong Kong is a very LGBTIQ city – it’s just not so prevalent as in New York … It was something I never really thought about before meeting Lia, and it just captivated me.”

Speaking from San Francisco, Romero says Woodward was the only photographer she trusted to capture her change.

“I could just tell from how he interacted with me, a pretty flamboyant queer belting musical theatre all the time, and other people, that he was a very nonjudgmental, open-hearted dude,” she says.

Woodward says he was the one who reached out first, sending Romero a Facebook message asking if she was interested in doing a photo session with him.

“That first series really had this oddity to it, this real vulnerability but this courage at the same time, so I was working up the courage slowly to ask her to document the whole transition,” he says.

“[But] at the end of the second shoot she actually asked me. Most people don’t want their transitional period documented, whereas Lia is amazing in how much she wanted to show and how much she wanted an honest account.”

Over the course of four years, using traditional cameras and smartphones, Woodward continued to photograph Romero’s transition as she physically and mentally changed into the person she had always been inside.

“Every time I get a tattoo I take a photo of the patch of skin underneath because it will never be the same again,” Woodward says. “Now imagine that as gender reassignment surgery and the fact that she is okay with an exhibition of her delicate last four years?”

However, the subject takes a different view. Romero says she is grateful for the opportunity to tell a truly positive transition story for a transgender person.

“That is the very reason that I agreed in the first place to go public with this work,” she says. “There are so few stories in the media about trans people that tell a positive, happy journey. Of course I have had rough moments along the way, and have had to teach a lot of people, but it is all worth it.

“I wouldn’t change anything about my life. I wouldn’t be who I am today and would not know that this amount of love is possible had I not been born this way.”

Still, Romero says she has strong feelings about photos that have changed and continue to change with every month.

“How I feel about certain photos I think changes a lot with each point in my physical and mental transition,” she says.

“The other day, Mark and I were going over some photos when I pointed out a photo that I was in love with. He started laughing because he said that initially I had hated that picture.”

Woodward says that although his photographs have captured Romero’s physical changes over the past four years, he has been most struck by things he couldn’t capture with his camera.

“What’s really captivated me is how much she’s blossomed … I knew Antonio as quite introverted [but] I’ve seen an unbelievable emotional strengthening … For so many people, I show them the images and they say, ‘Oh has she had the surgery, is she done?’

“It’s not about ticking a box. It’s not like changing your genital organs is proving anything … she’s always been a girl.”

Now living in California, Romero is finishing up the prerequisites for going to medical school in San Francisco while working on a trans-centred musical.

“I was originally a singer and actor whose goal was to make it on Broadway … [but] my transition threw a little wrench in my plans, because having a bari-tenor/counter-tenor voice doesn’t exactly put you up for many leading lady roles,” she says.

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Splitting his time between New York and New Mexico, Woodward is still taking photos of the American police and military, but says part of him still can’t believe the time he had working with Romero.

“It’s simply her complex journey and whether that journey is coming home or is the opposite of coming home, the anti-journey of no longer pretending to be someone she’s not. It’s been a delicate path,” he says.

“Whether it’s friendship or a relationship between photographer and subject, I [can’t believe] I had so much access. I’m humbled.”