National News

What Being Transgender Looks Like, According to Stock Photography

Posted October 25, 2018 5:22 p.m. EDT

Transgender people are appearing more often in advertisements and mass media. But when they do, it’s very often in stock photos that show them standing against a blank wall, or else they are hardly seen at all. The most used stock photos are close-ups of their hands holding the symbol for transgender pride, without their faces or other defining features visible.

Stock photographs — which appear in ads, brochures and magazines, and are supposed to seem familiar and inviting — are one measure of how a society sees itself. Transgender people exist, the photographs seem to say, but at a distance — not as full-fledged people, leading individual lives and interacting in the world.

Most people “are shown in relation to their abilities and relationships, whereas transgender individuals are just represented as being transgender,” said Giorgia Aiello, an associate professor at the University of Leeds in Britain, who has studied how Getty Images has shaped the politics of gender. “Mainstream society may be perfectly happy to visually include transgender and other nonconforming gender identities, as long as these individuals are not fully participating in social life.”

The issue of how transgender people are seen took on added urgency recently when the Trump administration proposed rules to erase their federal recognition by defining gender as a biological, unchangeable condition determined by a person’s genitalia at birth. In protests against the plan, transgender rights advocates used hashtags like #WontBeErased and #ThisIsWhatTransLooksLike.

An estimated 1.4 million Americans are transgender, and 4 in 10 Americans know someone who is, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Popular culture has depicted their lives in shows like “Transparent,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Pose.”

There has been a surge of interest in portraying transgender people, according to Getty Images, which offers one of the largest libraries of stock photos. Searches by Getty customers for “gender fluid” tripled from June 2017 to June 2018. Searches for “transgender couple” grew 150 percent, and those for “transgender teen” were up 129 percent. In March, another stock photo service, Adobe Stock, began offering a collection of photos portraying gender fluidity. It includes photos of transgender people by photographer Bex Day.

“As more transgender people are coming out and living authentically throughout this country, there’s going to be more progress, more attention and more discussion,” said Sarah McBride, the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, which promotes civil rights for LGBTQ people.

But the photos that customers most often choose show very little of subjects’ identities, abilities or relationships. The three most downloaded photos of transgender people from Getty Images in the year that ended in May were close-ups of hands with the transgender pride symbol, without showing faces or bodies. (In comparison, the most used photo for the search term “man” shows a man working at an office desk and smiling at something in the distance. The most used photo for “woman” shows a woman hiking in the mountains.)

Of the top dozen most used transgender photos, all the rest were portraits without much context, usually of a transgender person standing against a blank wall. Only three showed transgender people interacting with someone else, and two showed them out in the world, with a city street as the background. None showed them doing anything other than looking at the camera. Many of the models were white. And almost all were women.

One challenge is that being transgender is not necessarily visually obvious, and not all transgender people want to be easily identifiable as such. Advocates said photos should reflect that.

“What we need more of is visuals of transgender people existing in their communities, contextualized in their full humanity,” McBride said. “When we limit the photos we see to symbols or flags, we are able to more easily lose sight of the fact that at the center of this conversation are real people.” This is similar to how other minority groups were represented when they first began to appear in stock photography. In the 1930s, African-Americans were mostly shown as domestic servants, said John Grady, a professor emeritus at Wheaton College who has studied the sociology of imagery. That began to change in the 1960s, and eventually black people were shown in a wider variety of occupations and doing middle-class activities.

“It will always be filtered through the institutional interests of advertisers, which are always cautious about pushing the envelope too much and too quickly,” he said. “It wasn’t until white attitudes began to change, in part because of the civil rights movement, that advertising changed.”

Lesbians were shown either with another woman and wearing neutral clothes against a bland background, or else with a rainbow flag or spiky dyed hair to try to emphasize physical attributes, Aiello found in a 2012 analysis. There is more diversity now, she said, but it’s still comparatively limited in the range of activities depicted.

To portray transgender people in a fully realized way, it’s important for more transgender people to be both behind and in front of the camera lens, said Claudia Marks, senior art director at Getty Images. Marketers and journalists should look beyond simple, literal depictions and consider casting, storytelling, composition, styling and mood, she said.

GLAAD, the media advocacy group, recommends avoiding clichéd images that focus only on appearance, like a transgender woman putting on a wig or a man shaving. Show them living daily life, the group says — working, having relationships and doing hobbies — and use their photos to illustrate a variety of stories, not just those about gender.

Jess T. Dugan, a photographer who has chronicled older transgender people, says it’s important to include a diverse range of subjects — different ages, skin colors and ways of living — and show people whose identities might not align with traditional gender norms.

“When I was coming of age as a queer person and gender nonconforming person, I didn’t see a lot of representations of people who looked like me,” she said. “It can be really essential and validating to see images you can identify with in mainstream culture, so I think including images of a wide array of transgender people in more campaigns and media can be perhaps even more important than advertisers and companies fully realize.”