Behind Soraya Zaman’s Thoughtful Portraits in ‘American Boys’

sonya zaman american boys mobile
Soraya Zaman/American Boys

Australian photographer Soraya Zaman used to work in real estate. But after quitting that job and backpacking for a year, Zaman knew a shift was needed. “I backpacked overland from Hong Kong to Cairo with only my camera to keep me company, and when I returned to Sydney, I knew that I wanted to take pictures for a living from then on,” Zaman told ONE37pm.

After assisting a photographer in Sydney for years, Zaman made the leap and moved to New York City in 2013 to pursue a career in photography. Outside of commercial shoots, Zaman’s personal work explores sexuality and gender expression—two topics that are greatly important to Zaman due to their own exploration of self.

Zaman's latest project, American Boys, which was published this year by Daylight Books, documents the stories and includes thoughtful portraits of the transmasculine community across the United States.

We discussed with Zaman via email how an Instagram account—with over 15K followers—grew into a book deal and all the work that went in behind the scenes.

Rory, San Diego, CA 24 years old / Soraya Zaman/American Boys
Jimi, Richmond, VA, 27 years old / Soraya Zaman/American Boys

What led you to create American Boys?

It started as a personal project to create work out of a commercial environment. I think all my personal work has been focused around notions of gender and sexuality. At the time I was looking to explore expressions of transmasculinity as it was something personal to me and my own feelings and journey of gender identity. I am nonbinary and masculine leaning. It didn’t take me long to realize that honoring and sharing stories, validating and centering everyone I met and photographed in an affirmative way was really important, especially in the now changing political climate.

These images show a glimpse into each person’s life at a specific moment in time, their personality, honesty, humor, beauty, vulnerability, strength and so on. It's work that informs and expands upon understandings of gender identity outside of the binary in a real and authentic way and challenges people’s own perceptions of traditional binary gender roles. 

Tell us about your workflow with each subject.

I discovered everyone in this project through Instagram. I mostly sought out people who were using their online platform to express what was happening in their lives in an interesting way. To me, they were natural storytellers, with a willingness to share for good or bad.

That resonated with me. I reached out over DM to see if they were interested and shared some of the images I had already taken. I have a map of the U.S. above my desk, and I tried as best as I could to reach out to people from all over the country, so there was representation not just from major cities but also smaller towns.

I saw this as an important part of the process, to feature transmasculine lives all over the country and not just represent people who live in New York and L.A. and other places typically thought of as queer hubs. To me, there is an extra level of bravery required to live and exist as a trans* person in smaller towns where community and safety can be harder to find.

Meeting everyone was an amazing and life-changing experience. We would sit and chat for a long time before I even took my camera out to start shooting.   

Chella, Brooklyn, NY, 18 years old / Soraya Zaman/American Boys
Amari, Mount Dora, FL, 33 years old / Soraya Zaman/American Boys

Was there a point in the project when you felt frustrated and pushed through regardless?

Yes, most definitely. When you spend four years working on something, it’s like running a marathon.

I just had to have faith that what I was doing was important and worthy of living as a book. There were some frustrating moments for sure, especially when looking for a publisher. I spent months sending this work to a lot of different publishing houses. Many didn’t write back and those that did, I often received some really tone-deaf responses and rejections.

One of my earliest responses was an instant reply saying, “Modern portraiture doesn’t sell.” I just thought, “OK, but do you even get what the point of this work is about?” Another person cut and pasted my personal bio back to me and told me I had made grammatical errors and highlighted in red my “they/them” pronouns and suggested I correct them to “she/her.” So you know, that was just some of the stuff I was coming up against.

I just had to have faith that what I was doing was important and worthy of living as a book.


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Thomas, Athens, GA, 27 years old / Soraya Zaman/American Boys

How did this project go from Instagram to a full-fledged book?

In my mind, I always wanted this work to be a book and take these stories out of online platforms and give them more permanency. I launched the Instagram while I was looking for a publisher because I was getting a lot of rejection and disinterest around the work.

I could see that publishing houses were blind to the trans* community and its allies, so I started the @americanboysproject Instagram to create a visible platform so people would pay attention. I’m so proud of the Instagram page and what it has become. It sits rightfully on its own and also simultaneously connected to the book. I would absolutely love to shoot a second book. There are definitely more stories out there that need sharing, and I’m looking for funding so I can do this.  

I’ve started to run Instagram Story takeovers, giving the platform to people featured for the day, and some have chosen to take this opportunity to discuss how their life and identity have shifted and changed since we met. I think this is so great and just adds another level of expansion to the whole story, which would be valuable to explore in a documentary series.

Jei the Viking, Colorado Springs, CO, 30 years old / Soraya Zaman/American Boys
Jaimie, Montclair, NJ, 22 years old / Soraya Zaman/American Boys

What advice would you give to young, aspiring photographers—particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community?

To anyone wishing to undertake a series or a project, the best work is a reflection and an exploration of what is personal to you, your identity and how you see the world. Our identity gives a valuable perspective because we sit outside of the dominant heteronormative landscape. So what are the questions you have or what can you see that perhaps the world at large is not seeing?

When it comes to working commercially, remember that we are also more than just our identity. Although I am a queer, nonbinary photographer and I put that into everything I do, I also try to not let that be a limitation. We all need to challenge the industry to be inclusive on every level and push for representation not only in front of the camera but across all aspects of the industry— photographers, design teams, stylists, glam crews, art directors, producers, editors, writers and so on.  

The photography industry, and all industries for that matter, needs to hire queer, trans* and nonbinary people because of our identity but also because we are the best people for the job. Hire us because being gender inclusive is so necessary and adds incredible value and perspective to any project, whether it’s gender-focused or not. That is what true inclusivity looks like.

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