Capturing the Gender Spectrum: Transgender and Non-Binary Imagery

As more brands look for ways to explore gender diversity, here’s how photographers can provide respectful, accurate representation of trans and non-binary people.

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.

A recent study from GLAAD and Proctor and Gamble underscores the importance of representation in the media, confirming that people who are exposed to LGBTQ stories are more likely to accept LGBTQ people in their lives — including family members, neighbors, doctors, and more — and more likely to support issues relating to LGBTQ rights.

The study also found that people look favorably upon companies who include LGBTQ people in their advertisements, with eighty-six percent believing inclusion reflects the company’s support of LGBTQ people.

Accurately Represent LGBTQ PeopleIt’s important for companies to capture a true representation of LGBTQ people. Image by Amanda Wayne.

“Inclusive advertising of the LGBTQ community both accelerates acceptance of the community and generates a positive brand image for the advertiser,” Alex Schmider, the Associate Director of Transgender Representation at GLAAD, tells us. “Brands should consider this a win-win scenario, that not only are they reflecting the reality of the world, but also indicating their commitment to LGBTQ people.”

As more brands look for ways to explore gender diversity through their marketing, photographers must accept responsibility for providing a respectful, accurate representation of trans and non-binary people. That principle holds for photojournalists covering trans stories, and it also holds for commercial photographers.

Capturing the Gender Spectrum - Thai Transgender Model at MicAccurate representation of trans and non-binary people is essential to telling the story. Image by Jasper Cole / Blend

To understand how image-makers can better represent trans and non-binary people in the new decade, we spoke with two experts: Jennie Kermode, the Chair of Trans Media Watch in the UK, and Schmider, who in addition to his role at GLAAD, is a filmmaker and producer behind documentaries like the new Netflix Original Documentary DISCLOSURE. Below, you’ll find our top tips for trans and non-binary representation.

Tip #1: Seek Participation and Collaboration

“Historical depictions of trans people in the media have often been done without our perspective or participation, ultimately affecting not only how the public sees trans people, but also how we see ourselves,” Schmider explains. “Disability rights activists came up with the slogan ‘Nothing About Us Without Us,’ and I believe this to be one of the most helpful guiding principles in setting out to tell any story about a community for which someone isn’t a part.”

<span class=Crafting Their Own Image" class="wp-image-136536"/>Trans and non-binary people should have the right, and access, to craft their own image. Image by Geartooth Productions.

For generations, trans and non-binary people have had their stories narrated largely by those outside the experience looking in. So, in 2020, the photographer’s obligation lies not only in telling these stories, but also in sharing them from the people themselves, on their own terms.

Texas Isaiah, who was the BTS photographer for DISCLOSURE, and who is a visionary artist in his own right, remarks that his duty as a visual narrator is to ‘share these stories of trans and gender-expansive people, and also put them to the forefront of the work,’” Schmider tells us. “He says, ‘I’m not telling their story, I’m acting as a conduit, as a vessel for them to tell their own stories, because they haven’t been [able to] for a very long time.’

“This from Texas Isaiah captures so much of what I hope more storytellers absorb and adopt in their own artistic practices, which is to resist asserting themselves into a person’s story, and instead, serve as an accomplice to help make their’s known. Asking the question: ‘How is what I’m creating entering into this culture and the greater collection of works?’

“It is often the case that a specific focus is driven forward from personal and systematic curiosity that unintentionally replicates or recycles unchallenged assumptions and expectations, instead of redirecting focus back onto the people at the center.”

Tip #2: Actively Work Against Stereotypes

Avoid StereotypesStereotypes are the catalyst for disaster concerning any group of people — trans and non-binary individuals included. Image by Beatriz Vera.

“Photographers and image makers play a key role in determining the lens and focus through which people’s stories are shared,” Schmider says. “What’s important to think about as the visual narrator is that no matter how much one might work to distance or intimate themselves with their subject, projecting onto people and communities that one may not know or be a part of can happen.’

Provide an Accurate RepresentationProvide a definitive representation of the subject you’re covering. Image by Alpana Aras-King.

“In thinking about storytelling, it must be considered if and what filters and gazes may unintentionally fog a storyteller’s viewfinder and influence how a subject, person, or community is ultimately refracted, rather than truly reflected and ultimately seen.”

These implicit filters can include those based on the narrow and inaccurate historical depictions of trans people that he spoke about earlier. DISCLOSURE is a great place to start in our journey towards understanding how gender-expansive people have been portrayed in the media — and how we can begin to do better.

Tip #3: Open the Lines of Communication

Encourage Model Participation\Invite your model to participate in the choreographing of the shoot. Image by Cavan Images

Part of inviting participation and collaboration is checking in with your model throughout the shoot. Kermode tells us, “When photographing people whose gender is uncertain or unfamiliar to you, it’s useful to discuss any gendered presentation techniques you might use — such as getting women to tilt their heads to one side in portrait photography — in order to ensure that you’re presenting them in a way they’re comfortable with.’

“You should also ask if they have any bodily features they’re uncomfortable about which they’d like you to play down. For instance, a trans man who hasn’t had his breasts removed might prefer you to shoot him straight on so that they’re less noticeable.”

For stock photographers, that communication process doesn’t end once the session is over. It also means consulting your model about keywords that accurately represent who they are. For example, gender identity and sexual orientation shouldn’t be confused, and it’s not okay to tag every photo of a non-binary or trans person “gay” or “lesbian” unless it’s accurate and relevant.

Use Appropriate PronounsClarify the appropriate pronoun to use when keywording your model’s description. Image by Mina Sarenac.

It’s also imperative to avoid misgendering people in your keywords. Transgender women are women and transgender men are men, so they should be tagged appropriately. A model release will give you a good idea of what pronouns a person uses, but always be sure before you upload your images. The terms might also vary based on the individual, so listen to what they use to describe themselves. If they prefer “transgender,” use that instead of “transsexual,” and vice versa.

Finally, in your descriptions, only use “transgender” or the comparable word as an adjective, not a noun. The correct adjective is always “transgender” without an “-ed” added to the end. These keywording guidelines apply to customer searches, as well.

Tip #4: Highlight the Everyday

Transgender and Non-Binary Imagery - Highlight the EverydayDemonstrate authenticity in your images by highlighting real, everyday stories. Image by Konstantin Rassokhin / Clique Images

“Our aim is to help publishers, program-makers, and advertisers portray trans and non-binary people with accuracy, dignity, and respect,” Kermode tells us. “One thing that we’re keen to see more of is people who are incidentally trans or non-binary. That is, representations where gender isn’t the focus of the story.’

“This can mean anything from visibly trans extras in the background of a program to non-binary game show contestants. Representations like this help to get across the point that being trans or non-binary is nothing sensational and that people like this are just ordinary human beings who exist throughout society.”

When discussing stock photos, that means looking beyond sessions that are specifically about gender, and including trans and non-binary people in lifestyle shoots that center around themes of family, beauty, friendship, community, and more. Highlight real, everyday stories.

Tip #5: Keep It Real

Transgender and Non-Binary Imagery - Keep it RealInclude a variety of trans and non-binary people in your work. Image by Wavebreak Media.

“For a long time, the only images of trans and non-binary people we saw were of those who were thin, white, and able-bodied, but thankfully, that’s changing,” Kermode says. “At the same time, it’s so important to see a mixture of people who do and don’t have ‘passing privilege’ — the ability to look like cis people.’

“Those without the need to know that their bodies are still socially acceptable and perhaps beautiful, but we also need it to be understood that people being trans or non-binary isn’t always obvious. It’s great to see photographers making an effort to include a variety of trans and non-binary people. This helps to get the point across that trans and non-binary people exist throughout society.”

Cover a spectrum of experience rather than the same overly-emphasized tropes. Image by Alpana Aras-King

When photographing gender, it’s worth looking at what’s already out there. If you search for images using the keywords “transgender” or “non-binary,” what gaps do you notice? Does everyone look the same or fit a certain mold? If so, take that as a cue to create more diverse, representative, and authentic photos that cover the spectrum of experience.

There are so many educational resources available for photographers, journalists, and creatives, beginning with GLAAD’s Resources for Media Professionals and Help for the Media from Trans Media Watch. It’s also worth connecting or collaborating with local experts who can help support fair coverage and representation.

“There are lots of local trans support groups out there,” Kermode says. “Most are happy to help photographers find subjects, as long as they know that they can trust you. It’s not uncommon for trans and non-binary people to have had bad experiences with photographers and journalists, so it’s important to be patient and provide references, if you can.”

Portray Diversity in Your CraftFor ultimate representation, include a wide diversity of trans and non-binary people. Image by Beatriz Vera.

Multi-dimensional representation can mean more acceptance and, in the end, it’s a collective effort. Everyone has a role to play, from the photographers who cast and produce the shoots to the brands who ultimately license the images.

“If the aim of advertising is to inform people of available products and services, the goal then must be to reach and reflect the world in which we live, which includes a wide diversity of trans people,” Schmider tells us.

Cover image via Wavebreak Media

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