For Photographer Quinn Kirby, This Assignment Was Personal

The nonbinary photographer chats about their experience with Planned Parenthood project

When Ashlea Phenicie, communications director for Planned Parenthood of Michigan (PPMI), needed a professional photographer to join a new campaign focused on gender affirming care, she knew where to look. Phenicie had been following Quinn Kirby on social media, and she asked the award-winning photographer if the assignment might be right up their alley.

Kirby’s immediate response was “Heck yes.” For Kirby, their interest in the project was personal.

“I came out as nonbinary very slowly,” Kirby said. “And this past year, I've become more vocal about it. I've just gotten more confident in who I am, and not only did this feel like a celebration of the [PPMI] program and all of the people it's going to help, but it was also just very affirming to have somebody reach out and be like, ‘Hey, I know this might mean a lot to you; do you wanna come on and help us tell the story?’”

Once Kirby submitted a proposal and was selected for the project, they discussed the details of the two photo sessions. One session was shot at the Planned Parenthood health center in Ferndale with models Phenicie had recruited from the east side of the state. “PPMI created an application and shared it widely,” Phenicie said. “We had several applicants and Alecxander, LaVelle and Chloe were selected to participate.” She added that each model was compensated $500 for their time.

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From Grand Rapids — Kirby’s hometown — they recruited Bailey Sell, owner of Transfigure Print Co., an LGBTQIA+ inclusive screen-printing business. For that shoot, “the purpose was to show trans people living their lives, enjoying their hobbies and feeling affirmed in their identities,” Phenicie said. Sell’s partner Arlo Van Horn became part of that session as well. The two can be seen in an apartment engaging in activities like reading in bed, cooking, playing with LEGOs — the everyday things couples do.

“[Sell] is incredibly active in the LGBTQ+ community in my hometown and just a stand-up guy,” Kirby said. “And I was like, if there is one person who I can envision in this project that I'm familiar with, it's Bailey.” Kirby reached out to Sell, whom they hadn’t met previously, and found he was interested.

When they’re directing a shoot, Kirby tells their subjects if they’re uncomfortable, it will show in the images. That’s why the sessions begin with conversation.

“I really just guided genuine conversations between the models,” Kirby said. “[I] had people talk about their lives; some folks were really vulnerable about it, talked about times that they had been misgendered... We made jokes, and it was just a very well-rounded discussion. I feel like I learned a lot about everybody throughout the whole process.”

Kirby said they could identify with issues relating to misgendering and pronouns. “I know what it's like to have somebody recognize me as the correct gender, use my correct pronouns — and for some people, this is gonna be the first time that somebody sees them that way, sees them as who they are, and we really wanted to bring that feeling to the shoot.”

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Kirby, who recently moved to Pittsburgh, graduated in 2020 from Central Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism with a minor in entrepreneurship. Soon, they realized photojournalism was not the right fit, but in the midst of the pandemic, it was hard to find the kind of work they were looking for.

The pandemic pause gave Kirby time to think. They decided to open their own business.

“I'm putting so much energy into wanting to make other people's dreams work, might as well start on mine,” Kirby concluded. “And what started out as seniors and graduates [portraits] — and I still do that here and there — now I have moved into the creative personal branding and commercial space. Uplifting projects and businesses has been a really cool way to see how photography can help people see their best day.”

Kirby said two of their favorite photos from the PPMI photo session with Sell are the ones where he’s applying testosterone cream and one with Sell and his partner sitting on the bed gazing at one another.

“Everything worked out in this very serendipitous way,” Kirby said. “And I know that that's not something that people commonly hear in production, but it was just a beautiful amalgamation of everybody coming together for one goal.”


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