Robin Hammond photographed 80 nine-year-olds in eight countries around the world for National Geographic's January cover story. He photographed equal numbers of boys and girls, and also looked for other kinds of diversity: geographic, ethnic, socio-economic. He asked each child the same nine questions about how being a boy or a girl played out in their everyday lives.
"Nine-year-olds are old enough to articulate their lives, but [they're] not quite adolescents," Hammond says. "We thought this age was an interesting time to ask them about their feelings about their gender."
One of the children Robin photographed was Avery Jackson, from Kansas City. Avery spent the first four years of her life as a boy but has been living openly as a transgender girl since 2012. ("Everything about being a girl is great," was her response to one of Hammond's questions.)
Arriving at Avery's house, Hammond was met by an outspoken, confident kid dressed all in pink. "What [she] is wearing in the photograph is what she was wearing when I arrived. I didn’t ask her to dress all in pink," he says, addressing comments he's received objecting to this strong statement of femininity. "Some transgender people prefer to dress in a way that they feel reflects the gender they identify with. It’s a way to communicate who they are to a world that doesn’t always accept them."
Though the idea of including a transgender child in the story came early on, the decision to put Avery on the cover came after all of the photographs had been taken. As editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg explains in a letter to our readers, "The portraits of all the children are beautiful. We especially loved the portrait of Avery—strong and proud. We thought that, in a glance, she summed up the concept of 'Gender Revolution.'"
For Hammond, who has been working with the LGBTQI community around the world for the past several years, the most exciting thing about this decision was the validity it gives to transgender people.
“Telling Avery’s story makes, for many, an abstract and confusing issue real and relatable," says Hammond. "This is a very human issue. Sadly, the LGBTQI+ community still face great barriers when it comes to being accepted. And as a result they make up a shockingly large proportion of homeless youth and suicides. Avery’s picture in National Geographic tells millions, including transgender people, that who they are is normal and part of our humanity. It is my hope that Avery’s pride and confidence can act as a message of hope for a community who have, for far too long, been misunderstood and marginalized.”
Hammond hopes this photograph can contribute to changing people's minds. "It’s those narratives that challenge our beliefs that help us move forward as a society,” he says.
In the end, it comes down to acceptance. Quoting a therapist from a story about gender identity, he says "'Do you want a happy girl or a dead boy?'"
As for the opportunity to raise awareness of the struggles that transgender people face?
"That’s why I am really proud to be part of this story," he says.