If you pause and take a moment to appreciate your surroundings, what do you notice? Photographer Leo Xander Foo considers his camera an extension of his emotions and state of mind. “I use photos as a means to express the world around me and what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s a translation of my soul, basically. It is a window to myself and it helps me express who I am.” As a queer trans man immersing himself in the dynamic NYC scene, Leo finds that much of his work reflects the LGBTQIA+ community. “Whenever I photograph, I really aim to capture the person or myself as genuine and as real as possible. So I think that’s how the identity part comes in, just by photographing someone’s true self.” His lens lovingly peels back years of calcified judgment and insecurities to reveal the radiant soul beneath. “With my portraiture, l want to help the person see really how beautiful they are in their most real self. I aim to capture the person how they feel inside or how they want to be seen. The best feeling ever is when someone tells me, ‘You really captured how I genuinely feel or how I see myself.’ That’s what I want to do. It’s more of a communication and connection between me and the subject. That’s a really intimate thing to be able to give a visual of the person rather than how I see them. Again, it’s a conversation of how they see themselves and how they want to be seen, and just how real and genuine that is. Something that bothers me is when someone photographs me and it doesn’t feel accurate as to who I am, so I wouldn’t want to do that for someone else.”
He gravitates towards documenting moments of unbridled exuberance within the community. When the sun sets, sheer delight emerges. “It all revolves around just capturing the authentic self, and that makes me happy and that makes my subjects happy to be seen. I photograph a lot of nightlife, and I think that’s also such a special realm of queer joy where people just get to see themselves without having to worry about really anything else besides enjoying the music and enjoying your friends.” Freed from their inhibitions, his subjects can rejoice with abandon. Leo is more than happy to tag along for the ride. “Even just the act of photographing it feels very liberating and freeing just because it’s an environment where there’s really no structure as to how I’m supposed to be capturing it. There’s such a structure to most of my jobs, but when I photograph nightlife, it’s just me going out there and being in the environment and in the energy. I just happen to work really well with that and letting things happen as they’re supposed to happen, which is very beautiful to me.” Examining the identities of others led to big realizations about his own. “I didn’t start photography knowing that I was trans until I met more people and photographed more people. It just opened up a lot more connections and helped me realize things about myself. Photography is a tool that has shaped my life significantly. All of that is attributable to the amazing people I met and was naturally drawn to.”
Nothing compares to the excitement of liberation unburdened by the stress of social policing. “There are a lot of different moments of queer euphoria for me,” Leo reflects. “The most obvious are really vibrant and joyful experiences, like when you really see how beautiful you are or when you capture someone and they can see how beautiful they are as well. But there’s also just moments in everyday life where you don’t have to worry about being misgendered. When I know that I’m safe in a place and I don’t have the stress of not passing or worrying that someone is going to treat me a certain way because of who I am, that is the most peaceful euphoric moment ever.” The assumed inevitability of hostility towards his transition drove Leo away from his other art, equestrianism. “I ride horses a lot and I did a lot more five years ago, but I left for a couple years because I didn’t feel safe. A lot of horse people are very conservative, and particularly where I rode horses. It didn’t feel like a safe space. I’ve just gone back this month and they’re all very accepting of who I am. They call me Leo even though they knew me before I transitioned and they all just treat me how anyone else is treated, which feels great because it doesn’t feel ostracizing and it doesn’t feel like I’m being separated. That was a very important moment for me.” His sense of self is finally whole once again. “It feels really great to have that in my life again, because it’s such a big part of my passions and I didn’t want to have to choose between who I am and my love for horses. It’s really great to have both back in my life. I didn’t want to choose between two things that are really important to me.” Joy doesn’t always have to be sacrificed, although many queer people must make that decision for the sake of safety. “I’m grateful that I didn’t have to lose something very special to me just because I’m queer. I was worried it would be seen as this crazy thing that would make someone treat me differently. It feels really good just to be able to walk back into that without any harshness.”
Leo’s craft is perpetually changing, just as he is. “My photography has really grown and changed as I have grown and changed. It’s another extension of myself and it’s me talking in a language that’s visual. I think it’s both discovering myself through art as well as just living life and having my art mirror that. I feel like as I continue to follow my passions and let my heart guide me, my photography will communicate and translate that as well. Now that I’ve stepped back into horses more, I definitely want to tap into that and have more horses in my personal work and express that connection. I really enjoy capturing how my queerness exists within horses and that passion.” Reintroducing horses into his photographs is a highly symbolic embrace of his younger self. “It’s connecting to my inner child. The first thing I ever knew about myself was my passion for horses and animals in general. It’s creating a new thing where I am my queer self now and connecting back to my childhood. That’s definitely a new relationship growing.” This fusion of identities past and present is an act of deep relief and healing. “I had to separate from that environment in order to really find myself and figure out what I was feeling. And now that I’ve found that I could step back out into the world fully and not have to be unsure about myself or uncomfortable, having that profound new confidence helps me go forward with anything. Sometimes I forget how much I’ve already achieved and I don’t give myself enough credit for that, but I feel like this is the beginning of something new and different, which is interesting.” He will continue to explore bold and unapologetic ways of being.
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Leo Xander Foo Evolves Symbiotically with his Photography. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Leo Xander Foo.