5 Queer-Identifying Photographers on the Importance of Representation

Find new perspectives as five queer-identifying photographers share their experiences in the creative industry and how things can change for the better.

This article has been approved by Prism, a Shutterstock ERG (Employee Resource Group) committed to creating a supportive, diverse, and inclusive company culture for LGBTQ+ people globally.

We all shoot for different reasons. For some, it’s all about getting to know themselves deeper. For others, it’s capturing moments and telling important stories. And as wide and vast this creative field is, there’s always room for improvement. There are more empty seats on the table that need to be occupied.

LGBTQ+ Representation in IllustrationWe need better representation of the LGBTQ+ in imagery. Illustration by GoodStudio.

Representation, or more appropriately, the lack thereof, is one of the oldest struggles in the field of photography. It may not be obvious to the vast majority, but photography has always been male dominated. From the big bosses in photo agencies to photographers hired and commissioned by publications, most are heterosexual men. And to make significant change, we need to acknowledge this flaw and we need to listen.

We spoke with five queer-identifying photographers on what the industry looks like from a queer’s perspective and the importance of representation, not only for the photography industry but also for the queer community.

Anastasia Page

Photographer Anastasia PagePhotographer Anastasia Page.

Page is a queer photographer focusing on editorial and documentary photography. During their early work in photojournalism, Page shares that it was “predominantly dominated by cis white heterosexual men.” When they dove into the fashion world, they said, “the things I heard from creative directors, on set, or from other employees would floor me,” and remembered how one of their former bosses told them, “you just really need to learn your place.” It is statements like this that prove we need to keep talking about representation in all levels of all industries, until it becomes normal and not something LGBTQ+ folks and their allies have to keep fighting for.

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Watching you grow as an artist is a privilege. Having you in my life is a blessing. Seeing you smile brings me joy. Being mutually bad at responding to text messages in a timely manner makes me feel seen. Your radiance is felt by everyone who comes into contact with you. Experiencing your post-burning man Afro was incredible. I look forward to bringing you more juices and snacks while you work so hard to accomplish your dreams. I will never stop posting how proud of your work I am on Instagram. Happy 25th birthday babe. . . . . #gnostictattoo #tattooer #portrait #birthday #adriannastabs #stab #needle #bushwick #brooklyn #newyork

A post shared by ANASTASIA PAGE (@anastasiapage) on Feb 17, 2020 at 3:03pm PST

And there are many ways we can do better. As obvious as it may sound, self-education is important. And so is taking a trip down history lane. Learn how we came to this. Learn about the gender gap. Amplify the voices of queer photographers by supporting their work. And for Page, it’s also a worthy step to refrain from supporting or putting up with the gatekeepers of the creative industry. “I recognize it’s not easy changing habits or not working with places that you have routinely worked with, but for every unwelcoming homophobic space that exists, there’s a welcoming and accepting space available.”

When asked about the importance of representation, Page says, “I think intersectional LGBTQ representation isn’t just vital, it’s a goddamn industry emergency.’

“Representation needs to exist as a standard not a trend. Because if it’s just a trend, it means something different. It means that a diversity checkbox is getting hit for the company, agency, photographer, etc to not look insensitive,” they further added. 

Rah Foard

Photographer Rah FoardPhotographer and filmmaker Rah Foard.

“I like to think that the world would be super boring without the LGBTQ community,” shares photographer and filmmaker Rah Foard. They added that photography would lack certain essence without the “queer photographers out there capturing weddings, capturing rallies, and documenting history for moments that propel equality and justice.”

A photographer who often shoots weddings and portraits, Foard believes our society can do better when we acknowledge the problem that exists, and that queer representation is important not only in the world of photography but in all industries.

“We’ve been around for generations, it’s just now we have the space to be more loudly visible.’

“You can’t do the same things over and over again and pass the mundane down to those younger than us. The queer community, the butch lesbians, the gay men, the bisexual humans, the trans folks, they all add empathy and acceptance to every industry that involves human interaction,” shares Foard.

Marley Nichelle

Photographer Marley NichellePhotographer Marley Nichelle by Nina Dowell.

“People don’t understand how sometimes, being queer can hinder you from opportunities because a lot of people aren’t educated enough. People’s personal life shouldn’t dictate whether or not they can have certain opportunities. This is why representation matters. It’s kind of like racism. Black lives matter, but when you’re queer and black, do you still truly matter?” says Marley Nichelle, a photographer focused on documenting the Black Lives Movement. Although he’s been in the field for quite some time now, Nichelle admits there are times when he finds himself “separating queerness from photography.”

“In my head I’m always hoping I’m not being judged for being queer, or worried if I’m gonna get business because I prefer to be identified as he/him,” he added.

For Nichelle, having more queer and LGBTQ+ folks in the photography industry helps bridge the gap. “I haven’t ran into a lot of queer photographers and the ones I have ran into were/are white. I run into a lot of heterosexual photographers who are black, but I rarely run into black photographers who are queer,” Nichelle shares about his experience. As long as queer people still find it a challenge to find folks who are just like them or who belong in the same community as them, there’s work to be done. And self-educating, as Nichelle suggests, is one good start. “Society should use this time to change narratives in all areas… Educating ourselves and standing up for someone you see being torn down in a hateful way.”

Amanda Picotte

Photographer Amanda PicottePhotographer Amanda Picotte.

Amanda Picotte is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. With clients like Google, Tumblr, Refinery29, and High Hemp, she is no stranger to the commercial and business aspects of this field.

“Since most people don’t personally know a trans person, or know very few queer people, media representation is an important way to introduce and normalize queerness,” she says. Picotte, who identifies as non-binary, also added that LGBTQ+ roles and stories should be depicted and told by LGBTQ+ people so as to not “run into stereotypes and misrepresentation.” This is also an effective step to showcase the diversity of the community.

How else can we make positive change? Picotte suggest people and companies should hire more queer photographers, especially queer people of color, and let them “tell their stories all year round, not just during Pride month.” She further added that hiring queer people is more than telling queer stories, saying, “our perspectives are valuable when applied to all aspects of society.”

Pau Villanueva

Photographer Pau VIllanuevaPhotojournalist Pau Villanueva by Martin San Diego.

Pau Villanueva has been a full-time freelance photojournalist for four years now, and admits most of the work he’s been exposed to were shot by men. “I don’t want to think that there are more male photographers because they’re given more opportunities. But there are times when I can’t help but wonder how things could have been if I were a straight cis-male photographer, and I wish I didn’t have to wonder,” says Villanueva.

Based in the Philippines, he shares that he’d sometimes feel alone in navigating the photo industry as queer and that there were stories he was hesitant on pursuing because of his gender identity. “There was a constant feeling that I don’t belong, especially when I am surrounded by people who do not understand my struggles as a queer photographer.”

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My documentary work with the indigenous communities in the Philippines has changed my views on gender and sexuality significantly. Not until I saw how the Lumad exercised ownership of their gender identities, I used to assume that gender expression beyond the binary was considered forbidden in all indigenous culture. I used to think that the only existing structures and labels are the paradigms imposed by mainstream cultures. ⠀ ⠀ Indigenous schools have challenged backward practices and have adopted progressive beliefs with the help of culturally-sensitive education. Thereon, I have learned to tread the gender discourse carefully as not to force my own formed perspectives. Most of all, I have learned how important it is to let them choose how they identify themselves using their own native terminologies. ⠀ ⠀ Photo: Lumad children are preparing for their Christmas pageant at the Bakwit School last December 25, 2018.⠀ ⠀ "Constructing LGBTQI Narratives” will be on June 22, Monday, from 3 to 5 PM. I'm invited to talk about my documentary work focused on queer and cultural identities among indigenous communities. Check out @upcwgs for more details.⠀ ⠀ #Pride2020🌈

A post shared by Pau Villanueva (@villanuevapau) on Jun 21, 2020 at 3:45am PDT

For Villanueva, representation is vital as it “adds another layer to human narratives” when captured from the photographer’s own gender perspective. “Photographs taken by LGBTQ+ and women photographers do not exist just as a counterpoint to the male narrative. We have different ways of relating,” he shares.

And it’s not just about different perspectives or narratives. When we have more LGBTQ+ folks in the industry, we become more exposed to issues and stories only they can capture best. “The public grinds up those who don’t fit a narrow definition. A storyteller can do so much as to change one’s perspective towards the queer community,” Villanueva shares. “I can say that I am gradually finding my footing into the industry, even if I don’t have anyone else’s footsteps to follow,” he adds.

Top illustration by Good Studio.

For more LGBTQ+-related articles, check these out: 

Capturing the Gender Spectrum: Transgender and Non-Binary ImageryLGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through HistoryDocumenting LGBTQ Rights with Kay Tobin Lahusen and Barbara GittingsLGBTQ+ Stock Photos Need an Update: Here’s What to SubmitKeywording Photos Using LGBTQ+ Inclusive Language

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