“I liked Disney princesses and princes. I dreamed of wearing my mother’s high heels or a dress. I was really fascinated by femininity.”
The year is 2012, the speaker 19-year-old Hari, who as Hari Nef has since gone on to stardom as an actress, model, transgender activist and social media personality.
At the time, Hari was one in a spirited parade of teenagers inclined — eager, in fact — to share with the photographer and filmmaker Michael Sharkey their passions, hopes and sometimes gnawing anxieties.
Their comments, which accompany a series of showily provocative images, are gathered in “Queer Kids,” on view through Oct. 21 at the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. The show is a testament to its young subjects’ insistence on being seen, their style the outward expression of a thorny refusal to be ghettoized or, conversely, assimilate.
“So much of this project is about the freedom of expression,” Mr. Sharkey said, “and style or physical appearance has a lot to do with personal expression.”
Mr. Sharkey, 46, self-effacing in a uniform of dark T-shirt and jeans, is no stranger to the topic; he has been tracking his quarry, mostly in their teens, since 2006, and has brought to his project a keen eye for the quirky and original.
“These kids’ style is spiked with defiance,” he said. “That’s something that young people, who were bullied, ridiculed and ostracized for so long, feel they can afford now.”
In an often openly hostile political climate, defiance can function in more ways than one. “Being outrageous and flamboyant in your personal style can be a kind of armor,” Mr. Sharkey said. “For people that you’re trying to attract, it can also be the entrance to conversation; for people you are trying to repel, it can work very effectively as a weeding-out process.”
For Mr. Sharkey, who has worked as a fashion photographer, the absorption with flamboyance has given way in recent years to a more ardent pursuit. “I’ve became much more interested in character, especially the malleable character of young people,” he said.
We were seated in his studio, a rambling ground-floor loft in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. One by one, Mr. Sharkey displayed images from a selection that would go on view in Exeter the following week. There was Brandon, 18, thrusting out his chest the better to show off his tight, incandescently white dress shirt; Kenny, 21, his plum-tone hair sculpted into a high-rise helmet; and Chanel, 18, leaning suggestively against a mash-up of animal prints in her bedroom, wearing nothing but her skivvies.
There was Hari as well, streaked with multicolored warrior-like markings and gazing directly into the camera; and Mars, flaunting a thatch of straw-colored hair and the twin chest scars that marked the early phase of a male-to-female transition.
“Some of these kids, they’re proud of their scars,” Mr. Sharkey said. “They wear them as a badge of honor.”
He added: “It’s important for me to visually represent the physical transformation of these young people. Part of the squeamishness in our culture is that we have so few opportunities to address the physicality of this kind of transformation.”
“People transform their bodies all the time,” he said. “We wear makeup, we go to the gym, we are always turning our physical selves into something truer to an idea that we have of ourselves.”
In the interviews accompanying his photographs, Mr. Sharkey asks subjects where they imagine they will be in 10 years. Their goals are often surprisingly modest, even prosaic at times.
“Nancy will have a bakery,” Marie, 18, says of her partner. “We will have a house, a garden, classic stuff.”
Tanner, 16, imagines having graduated from college “with a little house in the country, a husband. Hopefully I’ll be able to marry him.”
Mr. Sharkey intends to compile their replies in book form and is working on a TV pilot, a 30-minute dramatic series also titled “Queer Kids,” loosely based on the characters he has encountered and documented over the years.
With his brother, Daniel, he will return to Exeter later this month to make a new series of portraits and a short film about the school and its queer community.
His young subjects, he predicted, are likely “to celebrate who they are with a mix that’s part pride, part resistance, part pure joyful celebration.”
“When people come out of the closet,” he said, “no force in heaven or on earth can put them back where they came from.”