On a late September evening last year, Carter Howe was shooting for his friend’s modeling portfolio when she hit him with an unexpected request. “She was like, ‘You know what? You’re kind of hot!’ Can I take some photos of you?”
Carter recalls that night with clarity, an endearing laugh breaking the flow of his sentences over our long-distance Zoom call. “I guess that’s how it happened,” he says of his modeling career, which recently accelerated with a Converse campaign slot. “It really just took that one friend.” Prior to that night, 22-year-old Carter had only really experienced life behind the camera. His teenage years were spent in Boston, cycling through a series of interests that eventually led to him staying with a host family in the French city of Rennes, known for its beautiful buildings and art museums.
“I was pretty lost for the year before that,” Carter says of the trip, which he describes as formative. “I had always been kind of a jock, but I wasn’t good enough to be on any of the top teams, and I was always so awkward and uncomfortable with my body.”
The move stemmed partly from his fascination with French culture, but it was also an attempt to be “completely immersed in something else, I guess maybe to try and learn a bit more about myself.” There were highs – the joys of being wine-drunk in public as a teen liberated from US drinking laws – and lows – the isolation of grasping your way through a country that doesn’t understand your early attempts at communication – but Carter learned a new language and discovered new sides of himself, namely his deep, creative curiosity. “I went completely into music and fine art,” he recalls, adding with a laugh: “It was my late-stage emo phase!”
Since then, Carter has moved between Sydney, Boston and Los Angeles, fine-tuning his own creative process and experimenting with new mediums. Photography became a passion, offering him a way to meet new people (“I love being a fly on the wall”) a ticket to new experiences (“I was shooting concerts because it was fun, and I went to shows for free!”) and a chance to collaborate with musicians he admires.
Keen to land more work, he moved to Los Angeles in 2019 and, in February 2020, even launched his own gallery in West Hollywood’s Cafe IF. Just a month later, a global pandemic halted his momentum. Carter began quarantining with close family, but it was during these isolated months that he pieced together key parts of his identity. “There are a ton of really dope masculine women and non-binary people, but I didn’t know why I felt so uncomfortable with my masculinity in a female-presenting body.”
During lockdown, he figured it out. In June, he started coming out as trans-masculine to those close to him. Three months later, he posted a collage of black-and-white photographs to his Instagram, depicting his face at various angles and, in one, a gigantic grin. “Sometimes the hardest part of the phrase ‘just be yourself’ is figuring out what that means,” he wrote in a candid, explanatory caption. “I’m proud to be transgender and this month I’m lucky to be able to begin a medical transition to help heal years of discomfort and disconnect.”
“After COVID happened, I definitely went into a vacuum,” he tells me of those months spent locked away. “It gave me this space to be alone that I hadn’t had in such a long time. That’s when I started feeling like: You know what? If I try this, wear this, cut my hair like this, I can actually stand to look at myself in the mirror. That was something I hadn’t experienced since I was very young.”
Shortly afterwards, a creative producer at Converse slid into his Instagram DMs. “I guess they had found me through a photography connection, but I’m such a fan,” Carter says, the joy still audible in his voice. Any nerves he had about starring in a big-time campaign in Los Angeles disappeared as he got to know the team, many of them fellow Boston natives, and his on-set experience was markedly different to the occasional modeling horror stories he’d heard about the industry in general. “It meant so much that they didn’t think twice about casting a gender non-conforming person, and that hey didn’t sensationalize it or prod me [for more information] at all. I felt so comfortable, which is a real gift.”
The success of the campaign led to Carter recently signing with Lost and Found Management, a decision he made based on a feeling of instinctual trust. “Maybe that’s a product of my queerness,” he muses. “Your trust receptors are switched on a little higher, maybe because you’ve been compromised by people in the past, so I would say I surround myself with people that make me comfortable.”
Carter is also acutely aware of the industry’s tendency to pigeonhole trans models, and the last few months have made him think more deeply about trans representation, as well as the role he can play within that on a wider, mainstream level. “I’ve definitely been connecting with other trans people, and with queer history,” he explains.“I’m becoming more aware of the immense privilege not only of being a white trans person, but also a masculine-presenting trans person. That’s a huge, huge deal.”
He also acknowledges the white-washing of queer history, and repeatedly underlines that his visibility would not be possible without the queer and trans people of color leading key fights for decades. “I can normalize a piece of the trans experience, but it’s about so much more than one white, trans-masculine person from Boston! It doesn’t end with me, and I really want to bring light to trans people of color, to have them tell the rest of that story.”
This is easier said than done, especially given the limited space still afforded to trans creatives in mainstream media. Then, there’s the mythical idea that there is any one singular, trans experience. Representation is important, but not only does this place the onus of flawless representation on the shoulders of already marginalized people, it strips individuals of their complexities, their character.
“This is all very, very new to me,” says Carter of continuing to explore the nuances of his own identity alongside a growing public profile. “This is all happening in the same year that I’m coming out! It’s one thing to get your mind aligned with something you identify a lot more with, but the next part you have to deal with very quickly is not pigeonholing yourself, and allowing yourself the space to explore. That’s definitely something that instilled a lot of fear in me when I came out, that if I start using masculine pronouns, having a deep voice, undergoing certain types of physical transition, people are going to assign certain expectations to me. That’s terrifying! Fluidity is so important. You don’t have to commit yourself to one kind of identity to make it simpler for people who don’t understand it.”
Carter’s confidence has blossomed since that first, fateful night on camera, but he’s equally determined to keep experimenting with his own photography, too. He’s working on a photo-book as we speak, collaging colorful, fantasy-like images with excerpts of writing stored over the last few years. It feels like a full-circle moment, a memento of everything he figured out during those months in lockdown. “So much of the work I made in the past was an escape from the thing I needed to address,” he explains. After all that introspection, he’s ready to use art as his medium to tell his own stories on his own terms.