The first image posted by xychelsea87 was a pair of black, brand-new Chuck Taylors, shot from above on a plain wood floor like any good Instagram influencer who “has a thing with floors.” Next up, a slice of pepperoni pizza, a hand, and a sleeve of a black and white striped shirt. “So, im already enjoying my first hot, greasy pizza.” Next post, the same hand, the same striped shirt, with two glasses of champagne. “Here’s to freedom and a new beginning.” And on May 18, Manning turned the camera on herself for the first time. It’s a carefully-styled image—her Instagram has been a study in carefulness—as she reveals a portrait on her own terms for the first time since her release. The sun is on her face — she’s outside. “Okay, so here I am everyone!!”
Chelsea Manning didn’t get to chose the image that defined her for the seven years she was in prison, a blurry shot in a blond wig, smiling in a car while on leave in the US during her time in Iraq. The leave was essential to her decision to leak the files she had downloaded as an intelligence officer, she explains to the New York Times.
“Before I deployed, I didn’t have the guts,” Manning, who was then privately referring to herself as Brianna, told me. But her time in Iraq was changing her. “Being exposed to so much death on a daily basis makes you grapple with your own mortality,” she went on. She no longer wanted to hide.
The expedition was the high point of a disappointing two-week leave. The Army had bumped up her departure from F.O.B. Hammer, and her family hadn’t had time to readjust their schedules: Manning’s aunt was on a trip abroad, and her sister had just had her first child — it would be tricky to carve out time for Chelsea…
At that point, it would have been possible for Manning to return to Iraq with the files unshared — her actions had been illegal, if reversible. But Manning told me that being in the United States had prompted an epiphany. At home, she says, she realized how invisible the wars had become to most civilians, whose awareness of Iraq extended as far as the occasional newspaper article or chyron on cable news. “There were two worlds,” she said. “The world in America, and the world I was seeing [in Iraq],” She went on, “I wanted people to see what I was seeing.”
Manning emailed the photograph to a superior in 2010 in an attempt to make the army understand who she was.
“Now I knew who I was,” Manning told me. “But the people I’m around the most didn’t.” She titled the email “My Problem.” The issue of her gender identity was “not going away,” she wrote. “Now, the consequences of it are dire.” (Manning said her captain confirmed receipt of the email but “swept it under the rug.”)
The photograph became the iconic image Manning when it was introduced as evidence in the court martial and distributed to the press.
[B]y the fall of 2013, it had appeared alongside hundreds of articles on Manning’s transition. To Manning, the idea that it should come to define her was painful. “It was just so far from her experience at Leavenworth,” Evan Greer, a trans activist and friend, told me. “And I think some people saw that image, that luscious wig, and figured she was given that kind of freedom behind bars.”
In reality, every aspect of Manning’s appearance was being governed by Army rules, from her briefs to her hair, which she was required to wear, per Section 670-1 of Army regulations, in a “neat and conservative style.” Manning was in a position that can be difficult for non-trans people to understand: She had come out as female but was still being addressed and treated as if she were male — often pointedly, by the Leavenworth staff.
Manning’s Instagram—and the stunning, styled images that accompany the New York Times interview—are the first steps for Manning to take control of her own image. On her Instagram, she rarely turns the camera on herself, mostly preferring to show the world from her POV—her Italian dinner, her Starbucks cup. The vocabulary of Instagram and it’s elevation of the minutiae of our lives, becomes a slow revelation of someone discovering the world anew.
While the Times dresses her in a beautifully-tailored suit for the cover of the magazine, she also makes it clear to the editors that she has her own style, her own way of being in this world. In a photograph where she looks out the window, wearing a t-shirt and jeans, the caption reads, “Manning in her own clothes.” The Chuck Taylors are pointed straight at the camera.