When Mia Nakano worked as a photojournalist in Nepal, she observed workshops intended to educate people in the countryside about queer, but primarily lesbian, identities. “I would ask [the facilitators], ‘How do you define the word?’ And every person gave me a different answer,” Nakano recalled. Her questions sparked a debate. Translators argued over terms and interpretations.

Nakano, who is based in the San Francisco Bay area, began wondering about the language people use to define themselves, especially when it comes to race, gender and sexual orientation. And thus, the Visibility Project was born.

Along with collaborator Christine Pan, Nakano has photographed more than 40 people to create a collective portrait of female, trans and gender queer Asian Americans. The series is also tied to surveys and films that document people’s struggles to define their identities beyond a butch/femme dichotomy or an Asian/non-Asian split. The Visibility Project explores the relationships between who we are, what we see and the language we use to describe all of it along the way.

But Nakano had other motives too. “Most of the material on Asian-American queer folks is very intellectualized, heady theses projects that aren’t accessible,” she said. There was always so much text, but never the faces of the people featured in the writing. The Visibility Project was Nakano’s response to that, too—the chance to empower a community to speak for themselves.

For more information, check out visibilityproject.org.