Entry Title: "The Women of San Quentin"
Name: Kris Schreier Lyseggen , United States
Category and Expertise: Documentary|Photo Essay and Feature Story|Portrait|Deeper Perspective, Professional
Entry Description: Kristin Schreier Lyseggen has been working on long term photography projects since she graduated from Birmingham Institute of Art & Design in 2004 (UK). When she came upon a world of gender-fluid individuals her experience left her wanting more. She spent the next decade working on gender identity to illuminate the lives of people who are born in a body that does not match their gender. Trained in Oslo, UK, Bangkok and California, Kristin's recent work include The Women of San Quentin about trans*women in US male prison system.
Story: I started this project before we learned that Private Bradley Manning was to become Chelsea Manning and before anyone had seen the popular Netflix TV show “Orange is the New Black” where the actress Laverne Cox, herself trans, plays the magnanimous, edgy, wise trans woman inmate Sophia Burset. In real life, trans women are put in male prisons with notorious predators. The passport to a women's penitentiary for trans women is usually bottom surgery. However many trans women have not had genital surgery but are taking estrogen and so have acquired many female secondary sexual characteristics like breasts. For these women, living with men in a prison environment is extremely challenging and often dangerous. The only option for many of them is to live isolated in a cage, or to become a sex slave of another prisoner. My mission was complex and perilous. In order to understand the harsh reality of their lives, I had to gain the trust of these women. As often is the case with my work, I did not have a clear boundary between this project and my personal life. At first, when I started receiving their letters in my mailbox, I didn’t quite know where to put their stories. The letters spoke of things I had never heard before, stories of abuse that were so horrific that I didn’t know how to respond. Their stories were so broken, stories from outside and inside a prison system with a notorious reputation. I found nothing redeeming in their descriptions of life inside prison living with a profound difference that renders them prisoners twice over - both imprisoned for their crimes and imprisoned again for their gender difference.