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Paul S. Amundsen

A Memoir of a Boy – In Search of a Normal Life

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“I was born a boy, but I want to die as a woman”, she says, sitting in a taxi, nervous about the upcoming appointment at a sex change clinic in Bangkok.

It was a true moment of no return. She was nervous, but at the same time ready. “It’s my life and there are no other real options, even though I am sacrificing a lot. But I want a normal life, and people should accept my past, she said.”
Transsexuals, especially from South-East-Asia, are living on the edge. It’s hard to get a normal job. Many are working as prostitutes or in the entertainment industry.

“It is sad to see how people are treating transsexuals as a group, rather than individuals,” she says.
She searched for better opportunities outside her home country and chose to live far away from the Philippines. She moved to Norway in 2008, married a man and began working as a nurse. However, the relationship did not last, and the couple divorced in less than a year.

After the break up, a lot happened in her life in a really short time. She began cross-dressing part time, and a few months later she began injecting hormones. After one year on hormones she got breast implants. The operation triggered her to live as a woman full time. However, after some months she did not like being in between genders and considered sex reassignment surgery. In February 2010 she underwent a sex change operation in Bangkok.

As the journey moved on, from the first pictures were shot in January 2009 until May 2010, something happened with her. An identity, a body and a personality changed and took shape.
After the operation she got her new passport. Her old name was history. Her new name was Aira, and her new life could begin.

However, four months after the sex reassignment surgery she caught pneumonia. Her general health was not so good and her condition took an unexpected turn for the worse. She got critically ill and she died on the 25th of June 2010.

She herself gave the project the title “A Memoir of a Boy”. She wanted me to document her process and her struggles to become a normal girl. I hope this project will give people insight into how everyday life is for persons struggling with their gender identity.
“A Memoir of a Boy” is still the title for the photo essay, but now it is also “A Memoir of a Girl”.


Paul S. Amundsen, born 1976, is a freelance photographer based in Bergen, Norway. He has no formal photographic education, but started photographing very early in his life. He has been producing his own projects for more than ten years and has both an artistic and photo journalistic approach to storytelling. He has been a full time independent photographer since 2004, and his clients include daily newspapers like Bergens Tidende, Dagbladet, Dagens Naeringsliv and The New York Times, among others. He is currently working on several independent long term projects.

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Paul S. Amundsen

29 thoughts on “Paul S Amundsen – A Memoir of a Boy”

  1. Strong, strong essay, hit me hard. Wasn’t expecting anything like this as I clicked on my Burn link. I’m not a fan at all of video, I know absolutely nothing on video production and the only videos I pay any attention to are the Magnum podcasts, but I found this one worked well with the images.
    Never stopped to think about this subject, though I have nothing against it either. I live and let live, but somehow as I’m about to walk out of my house with my little son and head off to take photos I’m sure Aira will be on my mind most of the time. I suppose that proves this essay works and at least one more person is aware of the internal struggle some are born with.

  2. It’s nice to see a project combining still and video on Burn. It seems 2 dimensional to me, but perhaps true to the subject — if Moi/Aira primarily saw himself in dark, physically sexual terms.

  3. The kind of subject that can elicit contradictory feelings (good!), not so much from the choices and struggles in the personal life depicted (we all have struggles, and contradictions) but how one chooses to bring it about.

    The story comes out, IMO, filled with a morbidity that the essay’s limited nature(biographically), its shortness, gives us little chance to evade. As a result, one cannot quite shake the feeling that every move in her life was to get her inexorably closer to her fateful death at an early age (Panos: 27 again!). I’d think that was not especially wanted by Moi or Paul, but maybe I am mistaken.

    As an afterthought, I am also always pondering why transexuals (or maybe the photographers) so often think exposing themselves naked, lasciviously, (playing to be who they claim they are actually not playing to be) has to be so central to their representation of their felt identity. As if playing to be a woman was merely enough to be a woman. Yet how many women do we know who’d think their womanhood is best projected, or owned up to, with that kind of representation?

    To be a woman is just not to be effeminate, a woman is not just the idea of a woman, and we may ask if that, the constructed idea of “being” a woman (which surgey does indeed physically “construct” for them) is not what too many transexuals often end up with, and what could be their hardest and ultimate contradiction to deal with.

  4. It gives me more insights into her story and the physical transformation, but not so much about the struggle and her own thoughts about the process – and the obvious ‘why?’-question. Her singing and her friend talking about her does add a special atmosphere, but does not give me these insights either. I would like to give credit for giving yourself a very difficult task, because how do you present visually in less than 4 mintues that someone does not feel comfortable inside their own body? It’s so much about the inner things, I assume… (or maybe I’m wrong?)

    It’s very good imagery and it triggers my curiosity, but once it has triggered my curiosity I can’t find much more to make me understand better.

  5. Like a slap in the face….strong for morning viewing :)
    I don’t have time to write much (will do so later) but I found it interesting.
    Reminded me of Patong in Thailand….

  6. JIM SAID:

    “Too much of a “Life sucks, and then we die” vibe for me.”


    Damn. Have to go buy a new irony meter. This one just had a Chernobyl-like meltdown! ;^}

    Now that is funny, I don’t care who you are.

  7. After reading the above comments, I think I probably should not comment at all.

    The problem – I cannot find one thing wrong with this essay. I cannot suggest anything that the photographer might have done improve it. It seemed to convey a story to me that a skilled novelist might take four or 500 pages to tell. And it was all right there – in 3:14 minutes of still, video and audio.

    It made me wonder about God, creation, and all kinds of things.

    I am a lousy critic.

    Paul, I am very sorry for the loss of your friend.

  8. The story looks quite straightforward to me – was it really that linear?
    I would be interested in the pictures with pneumonia – in the slides it sounds like she gave up, or better already arranged with the death, since she hat reached her destiny – to die as a girl.
    Be careful what aims your setting for yourself.

  9. In Tahiti a mahu vahine (third sex) is a gender of great importance….valued for their creativity, their understanding of that world that twines between and beyond men and women, thrust upon their lives are often roles of great social importance in terms of cultural and artistic and moral wisdom….In India, Hijra make up millions and are seen neither as outcast nor freak and are accorded the right to register and vote, not as man or woman but as other…just another glorious variant of what we know as HUMAN….In Sanskrit, there are 3 gender options….

    I’m always flummoxed by those who see people like Aira as somehow Other, as in they’re broken, they’re lost, their freaks….for our identities are multifarious, our bodies not at all static, our minds, our breath, our states in a state of flux and our sexuality and our gender as much a cognizant part of who we are as our the spiraling dna which first formed us, chain by chain, link by link, click by chromosonal click. Though I have always identified myself as ‘male’, as a person who hungers for the joining of a woman, in body and head and genes, who I am as a societal construct has a times been a source, as with all probably, of frustration. Our dna construct us, in whatever variant they combine, and most of our societies (especially in the West) rearrange that construction into nice, neatly woven identities…..until the I in the our Me tears against those strappings…..

    The photography is gorgeous and tender and aches with the presence of Aira. The photography, here, is an attempt not as much to ‘show’ us who Aira was but to evoke the presence and poetry of the live, the stamp set behind Aira’s going. It seems like the very transformative truth of Aira’s stepping and ‘changing’ is marked upon each of these pictures, which themselves are really about visual transformation, between the shadows of the blacks and their dance with the whites…..beautifully photographed and lyrically told….

    I too loved the video and each time I listened to the essay, the poignancy of Aira’s love of life, of Aira’s love of ‘showmanship’, the singing, the, which rings much more true in French, joie de vivre, is more and more clear….don’t we all love to sing regardless of how beautifully off-key and pitched it sounds….and both the pictures and especially the video makes me long to listen to more, to see and watch the story of a life beyond the gender transformation….for that is my one great lament here…and I do not know, do not yet quite fathom, whether this is a problem with this story and this pictorial/documenting relationship or this is our problem in our need to bifurcate and define humanity by 1’s and 0’s…man/woman….i do wish video and essential story had not just been about Aira’s physical transformation, the bodily rearranging, the surgery from man to woman…because all that to me, still, seems too 2-dimensional…just about gender…about ‘sexuality’….about a person who was once a ‘boy’ but became a ‘woman’…i want to hear more and learn more than just about gender as cut and divided by a knife, i want to see more than just Aira’s identity as her physical elements (breasts, loss of penis/scrotum) but I want to hear more about the life of transformation unrelated to gender: moving from PHillipines to Norway…Aira’s loss of family….the moments that make up the day, the real clicking of identity…..in other words, i see all that gorgeous truth in some of the pics, but the narrative seems simply about the story of boy becomes girl and dies….and one’s life is so much more complex, complicated, alterted and altering……but it is there in the pictures…enough for me….what lacks in the literalness of the narrative, of the statement, of the sound and sequence, is forgiven by the personal collision contained in the photographs….

    and yesterday, at first when i viewed this a few times, i was upset and bothered by the abruptness of Aira’s death…as if the entire sequence were building toward the transformation of life and once the physicality of that transformation was heroically apparent, then a bland and cold nearly indifferent line of text shuttling Aira away…as if some ridiculous American soap opera or Steel Magnolia moment and I was angered by that, by what at first i took as an irresponsible narrative choice, to end abruptly an essay on someone with the notion of their death (without delving into that)….and then at 2:30 pm yesterday I was called into the office at my school to be told by my boss that one of my friends, a former co-worker, had died….’passed away bob, yesterday’…just like that….4 weeks after I’d last spoken to her about her new job, hugged her as she departed with her behind-pulling wheeled basket….and i reeled…spent most of yesterday, again, trying to reconcile this loss that seemed to come out of nowhere, as death always seems, of how abrupt and unfair and discounting her death seemed all the day and throughout the night…and then again, late in the morning, i watched this essay again a number of time, but with the eyes and head wearied by Karen’s death……

    and I realized that the way that Paul as constructed this around aira’s death is much more true, and much more profound, than I’d immediately seen….because no matter what, no matter how we long, we are not given the gorgeous narrative sequence and arc of the lives of loved ones….

    they are shorn from us in a moment…and we are bereft and left counting the explanations and whys….

    and I feel that now even more profoundly here…..for this is a story as much about Paul’s loss and his own transformation….his life re-worked by the knife….

    beautiful and tender and filled with deep love for both Aira and this life…..

    congratulations and thank you for sharing…


  10. Paul, I’ve watched your essay quite a few times, both with and without sound and for me it works in both viewing manners. Good photography and storytelling. A brief post by me but Bob and Frostfrog have said it all.

    Congratulations and hope we see much more from you.


  11. Just realized how in the beginning while still a man there is a black curtain shielding the light from coming in but it’s also like if hiding from the world. Towards the end as a woman finally we see open windows, light. Not sure if that was intentional but definitely the way I saw it a second time around.
    She was finally at peace….

    In my first comment i mentioned it reminded me of Patong Beach in Thailand….”The lady Boys”
    They paint a glamorous life and they seem happy. This essay made me think more about their lives when not performing…their day to day life.

    Life is a struggle as a man as a woman or whatever….

  12. I’ve only just had time to watch this, been busy with a few things. Iwas just saying a few weeks ago to a friend and picture editor that I thought most “multimedia” pieces were nothing of the kind and were redundant and lazy. He agreed with me.

    That is a charge that would be impossible to throw against this piece – massive, massive shout out to Paul for making this a truly multimedia piece, and using the different tools available to him to really tell this woman’s story and connect us with her in a way that I’ve not seen to this extent before. Or with this much respect and trust.

    My only criticism is that her demise felt quite abrupt and unexplained in this essay – I’d have liked to have known more about that. Was it due to her operation? Due to her lifestyle more generally? What happened there? I think that needs answering, and I wish/hope that Paul has documented the final days of her life in some manner. I trust that, if so, it was done respectfully. And, if not, then I can guess why, too. But I would have liked more on that.

    Other than that, this is an excellent piece of work, a moving piece of work, and that is the most we can surely ask for, right? To give a piece of ourselves to the world fully, just to make the world more interesting by sharing.

  13. Meant to add, if it’s not been said already…

    I really like the use of b&w here to show something that is far from it.

    But technical comments are really far from the point with this.

  14. Beautiful. Sad and beautiful. But at least Aira was able to die a woman.

    Paul, this is a very difficult story you chose to tell. Of course when you started the project, you had no idea the end would be so tragic. When photographers point their cameras at transgender, or even transsexual individuals, all too often they go overboard on the “drama queen” part of the story, in essence turning their subjects into caricatures of themselves. But you resisted this temptation and portrayed Moi and then Aira with respect and empathy. She comes across as a real person, as someone we might know and love. I do love her after seeing her through your eyes. I love her courage, her vulnerability, her willingness to risk everything to become who she always knew she was at her core.

    Your use of multimedia works very well here. Aira’s story deserves to be seen and heard in as many ways as possible. She comes to life in this video. I will not forget her. Thank you for allowing Aira to touch people even after her death. That, to me, is the only definition of an “afterlife” that makes any sense.



    thank you for having the courage and the talent to tell this story in a powerful way…anyone not moved by this, cannot be moved….


    thanks for the wisdom/insight…

  16. CARLO – fair point and, to be clear on my earlier comment, I really wasn’t trying to say that all multimedia is bad. In fact, it’s an area I have a strong interest in and inclination towards (having a music background and having supplied music to films in close creative relationships with those filmmakers, plus I have a few filmmaking close friends). I just think that, in the rush to take it up as “the bold new thing” a lot of what gets put out there could be better conceptualised, better executed, and more thorough. I also think we’re sometimes too quick to talk pieces up as being strong – there are few of those. I think Paul’s piece here is in that category.

  17. Thanks again for leaving so many wonderful comments. It is so interesting to read some of the interpretations, they are very valuable. I will not comment every single comment, but:

    Patricia: Your comment is truly amazing, thank you.

    David, Paul, Carlo, Mike, Frostfrog: Thank you!

    Herve: I think no one can fully understand or explain the complicated issues regarding transsexuals self representation. Even after photographing her life for 18 months, I really do not know much about transsexuals in general. An important part of her female identity was about creating an ultra feminine look that men found attractive. Howeever, she was also concerned about not being a stereotyped woman, not overdo it, so to say. It was a difficult act of balance. It is difficult to say much in wider, general terms, its way to complicated, I think.

    Bob: Wonderful comments, thanks!

    Framers: Thanks. Some others have also commented the end. It is a slap in the face for most of those who see the multimedia piece, and it felt like that for me as well, when she unexpectly died abroad. But I agree, the edit could definitely be improved.

    David ALan Harvey: Thanks!

  18. Paul,

    As a Thai, I would say, thank you so much for your powerful story. Thailand is considered as a smile and relaxing country. Thai people are considered as kind people also. But I don’t really understand why we have never tried to understand ladyboys. I am working on my ongoing project about ladyboy in Thailand too. I hope I could get touching story as your. And I really hope that Thai people could get some awareness from your story.

    ekkarat punyatara

  19. Framers Intent,

    I agree…and yes..I quoted you but should have underlined “most”. It was clear you did not say ALL.
    Have not seen that many to be quite honest. I guess I have been lucky that the few I have seen have been good ones.


    Thank YOU for the powerful and touching essay.

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