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The Role of Photographers in Shifting Perspectives on Gender

March 31 marks the International Transgender Day of Visibility. Photography has long been a tool used to explore personal identity and expression; ...

March 31 marks the International Transgender Day of Visibility. Photography has long been a tool used to explore personal identity and expression; it has the power to humanize the unknown and teach. Just today the Human Rights Campaign published a collection of powerful photo essays showcasing the unique and personal stories of Allyn, Dorcas, Keelan, Micha and Samantha, six transgender and non-binary people. In viewing each of their words I was struck by how much the photos evoked the richness of their lived experiences. 

Here at PhotoShelter we live and breathe visual storytelling and firmly believe in the value of all stories. As photographers, we have a moral obligation to listen to and understand a story first before trying to tell it. But are we considering how our perspectives or personal experiences may affect our approach to telling the story?

The following essay is written by Danielle Villasana, an independent photojournalist based in Istanbul whose documentary work focuses on human rights, gender, displacement and health. It’s one of the many meaningful essays outlining the importance of inclusive photographic practices featured in The Photographer’s Guide to Inclusive Photography, a free educational guide we made in partnership with our friends at Authority Collective. Our hope is that Danielle’s story inspires you to think more critically about your own storytelling practices. 

Cover image by Danielle Villasana.

In 2011, through a personal project on LGBTQIA families in Texas, I met Nikki Araguz Lloyd, a person whose courageous and dynamic energy moved mountains. Nikki, a transgender widow who lost her husband in a fire, made history when she won an appeals case in a Texas court that validated their marriage and secured her spousal death benefits. A self-described “accidental activist,” Nikki fearlessly fought for the trans community and though she recently passed away in a tragedy that shook hundreds of people across the world, the paths she paved will be forever impactful. On a personal level, the passion she inspired in me is what continues to drive my documentary work. 

Since meeting Nikki, I’ve photographed communities of transgender women throughout Latin America—the region with the highest rate of trans homicides in the world—from Argentina and Peru to Central America and Mexico. As an outsider not only among trans women but also in Latin America, I began my work by first reading research on the causes and consequences of the life-threatening challenges trans women face in this region. When I was ready to start the chapter of my project in Lima, Peru, where I lived, I didn’t take pictures for the first few months despite my eagerness. Rather, I spent time getting to know people and letting them get to know me and slowly, I was welcomed by the community. Eventually I moved to their neighborhood and grew very close to several people, such as Tamara and Piojo. Investing time and sharing space is an important part of building any relationship and the connections I formed with women in this community are ones that still stand strong today. 

Mutual trust is essential to any healthy relationship and the same goes for photography. Building and maintaining trust is paramount and being trusted by someone to photograph them is sacred and should be honored and respected. Therefore, throughout the photographic practice, it’s incredibly important to abide by people’s wishes and clearly communicate your intentions. And, sharing your work with people you photograph can be a productive and enriching experience for everyone. Looking at photographs together with the women I’ve documented and listening to their opinions and feedback have been incredibly important for how I think about and approach my work. Because photography can so easily be a form of taking, one must also give as much as possible, even if it’s something so simple as sharing information and knowledge or moments together without picking up your camera. 

Another factor in my motivation for starting this long-term project was the realization that the majority of photo stories about trans women in the media narrowly and o fen superficially portray their lives by relying on stereotypes, such as sex work and pride parades. As a way to counteract these narratives and provide more context, I’ve tried to ensure balanced storytelling by documenting both the issues trans women face as a result of systemic transphobia, discrimination, and stigmatization as well as the joys, triumphs, and the connections with friends and famly in their daily lives. I continuously check back in with myself and have removed photos from my project in the past because of the potential to cause more harm than good if taken out of context. My hope is that by showing a more complete view of these communities, outsiders like me will have a more complete understanding of not only the obstacles trans women face—which are mostly caused by society and directly threaten their wellbeing—but also their resilience, strength, and perseverance in spite of these injustices. 

Though I pursued photojournalism because of a belief that one picture can change the world, I came to understand that by reiterating tropes of people and places, the media often contributes to the very problems we aim to bring attention to. In 2018, I published my first photo book, “A Light Inside,” which is the culmination of my years-long work documenting a community of trans women in Lima, Peru. My goal with “A Light Inside” was to use it as an educational tool that could be distributed free-of charge to people who have a direct impact on trans women’s lives in Lima. Partnering with Leyla Huerta, a prominent trans activist in Peru, founder of Féminas, and author of an essay in “A Light Inside,” we reached universities and health care facilities with a very simple message: that trans women deserve human rights. And, if their human rights continue to be denied by people who are meant to protect everyone—lawmakers, health care workers, law enforcement, and religious leaders to name a few—they will continue to incur harm at an alarming rate, as most trans women in Latin America do not live past 35 years old. 

“If people are dying, I’m not doing my job right,” said Dr. Eduardo Matos, an infectologist at one of Lima’s most important hospitals, during one of our interviews. The same year “A Light Inside” was published, Dr. Matos told me that Hospital Loayza was inaugurating the country’s first—and, to date, only—consultation area for trans women. This is a huge step in ensuring trans women in Lima receive healthcare with dignity and respect. The moment was bittersweet because the hospital was also where Tamara and Piojo passed away at a very young age from AIDS. For both Tamara and Piojo, acts of discrimination and utter fear of health care professionals played a part in either why they waited to receive care or why they stopped treatement. When I thanked Dr. Matos, he thanked me instead, explaining that it was only a fer learning about my work that he became aware of the dire conditions trans women endure. Knowing that photography has helped create positive pathways for a community that courageously shared their stories with the world is the type of impact and measures of success we should seek as storytellers. 

Download your free copy of The Photographer’s Guide to Inclusive Photography to read more stories from industry leaders like Danielle, and learn more about how to engage more generously with communities that are not your own.

Inside, you’ll find:

  • Definitions and historical context for issues related to photographing race, gender, the Global South and more
  • A list of helpful resources and questions photographers should ask themselves before their next project
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