LGBTQ+ Representation in the age of Social Media: Why Authenticity Matters
*This blog post is a reflection of a real conversation between the 4 of us as friends and colleagues in response to an image being widely shared of two straight women labeled as a “same sex elopement”. We hope that this will serve as an opener to a greater conversation about LGBTQ+ representation and why authenticity matters. We recognize that we are a small population of LGBTQ-identified wedding photographers and we want this to be a space for open and honest dialogue, education and reflection. We would love to continue these posts and have more voices amplified, we welcome opinions from all folks and would love to hear from you.
These are questions that we have received after we each posted on Instagram asking our communities to reflect on queer representation, promoting yourself as an LGBTQ friendly business, and stylized wedding shoots using models over authentic LGBTQ couples.
Q: I’m not LGBTQ identified, but I want to show that I am LGBTQ friendly to future clients, how do I do this?
Steph: Hold a full day of mini sessions for LGBTQ+ people in your area. Here’s the kicker…give the sessions away for FREE until you have a solid portfolio. Better yet…ask for a donation from couples and donate to a local LGBTQ+ organization. Once upon a time I gave a free wedding away to a special couple to celebrate marriage equality. There are so many ways to do this you just have to get creative and have fun in the process.
Tara: Tara: I completely agree with Steph! Yes! Reach out to your community and “shoot what you want to show!” It’s important to show that you are inclusive of all walks of like, and not just pretty, skinny, white people. To have a diverse portfolio you must also be shooting a diverse group. If you’re in a part of the country where you think that there aren’t many LGBTQIA people around, just put out a message on your social media accounts…we are everywhere!
Kelly: I completely agree with both Steph and Tara. And even if you don’t live in a country, or town that has any LGBTQIA around, there are many on social media. So even beginning to follow some top queer influencers and commenting on their IG asking if they’d like to shoot is an amazing place to start.
Jamie: LGBTQ+ clients are often most attracted to photographers that outwardly show their support for the community via copy, content, and imagery, consistently. The most important and impactful way to do this is by showing LGBTQ couples consistently in your portfolio. This means not just having one photo of a queer couple on your website, but putting them on your landing page, in your galleries, and regularly on your instagram. It shows prospective clients that you are not only inclusive and accepting, but that know how to work with their community. It allows them to see themselves reflected in your imagery, and will make them more inclined to want to work with you. And of course, the more diverse the better! The LGBTQ community is filled with so many amazing folks of all differing identities, ethnicities and backgrounds. That’s what makes us so beautiful!
Q: How can I make my business more LGBTQ friendly?
Steph: Remind them that you are there for them and that they are loved.
Tara: I believe that inclusivity goes beyond just your business. Becoming vocal about your political views, and your morals on your business social media accounts will help show to your followers that you’re a legitimate ally. It’s not enough to just post a photograph you’ve taken of an LGBTQIA couple – no matter how beautiful it may be. Being vocal is always better than staying silent.
Kelly: Tara said the biggest, be vocal. State your openness to the community. Reach out and be friendly. I think also what you can do for your business and your community is go to a Pride in any nearby city. Take pics of the couples there. Tag the pictures in pride. That would absolutely show the LGBTQ community that you are wanting to be a part of it and are LGBTQ friendly, better yet, an ally.
Jamie: Be a better ally in your everyday life. Make sure your language/contracts/forms on your site is inclusive– especially if you are a wedding photographer. Language is so important and it can be very hetero-centered which can make some couples feel uncomfortable. Explicitly post something on your “about me” page. I have a company values piece in my “about” page, because even though I think it’s pretty blatantly obvious that I’m queer and my business is revolving around LGBTQ folks, I also want anyone who comes to my business to know exactly what I stand for. It’s so intimidating for many LGBTQ couples to reach out to vendors, and saving someone that anxiety by simply stating your values in your business makes the world of difference.
Q: What if I don’t know any LGBTQ couples? How do I get them into my portfolio?
Kelly: I see photographers doing giveaways, or searching for couples for their “mentor” shoots all the time. It is so simple to specify what kind of giveaway or couples you are looking for by simply saying, hey doing a giveaway to any beautiful queer couples looking to get married, tag your friends, share…etc. I guarantee you will have an overwhelming amount of responses to those posts.
Tara: I agree with you Kelly! This is a wonderful idea! We have ALL done so much stuff for free when we are starting out. Even if you have a 10 year strong, successful business you may need to start “at the beginning” with new markets. Do stuff for free – advertise that you’re searching to expand your portfolio! Be honest about your intentions!
Jamie: Yes yes to all of this, model calls are the way to go! These are my dos and don’ts of searching for a real couple:
-Create a call out on your facebook/blog/instagram
-Ask friends/family/people you know to photograph them
-Specify that you’re looking for an LGBTQ couple
-Throw out your ideas of gender norms. Get to know your subjects well. Direct them instead of posing.
-tokenize the LGBTQ community or play into stereotypes. Let the couples be authentically who they are.
-use two straight models to try and look like an LGBTQ couple
Steph: Heck..shoot me a message. I will do my best to connect you with awesome people in your area doing big things to make the world a better place.
Q: Are all styled shoots bad?
Kelly: Personally, I am a bit on the fence with them. It matters so much to me how you execute them. I feel we have surpassed the age of fake advertising, fake news, fake Photoshop… We can be a part of that old age perspective or be better – higher, and make shoots and moments as real as possible, all the while advertising how your wedding can look like. That’s all what styled shoots are for – to help create a vision of what you can imagine your wedding to be. So let’s try to make it as real as possible. Because finding out that something isn’t real is misleading and in someway heartbreaking to the couple who wish they could be that. We want to tell them that you can.
Steph: Well said Kelly! See, I get the point…artist collaboration, maybe building a portfolio or possibly wanting to grow your following. No matter what it is be honest with yourself about your intentions then have that be reflected when you post the session. Sure they’re pretty to look at but I’m not really all about styled shoots. I’ve never done one before because it just seems like too much work for overly posed photos. I try to do everything in my power to have my images capture the complete opposite of that I encourage my couples to have their wedding & elopement represent their personalities and style…no need for a styled shoot when you have the real deal right there. What you see is what you get. They’re not a right fit FOR ME. I think if it makes sense for you and your business then heck yeah. Run full force with it…but please do yourself and all of us a favor and 1. get real life couples. There are so many out there. Your photos will turn out better and I can guarantee a couple will be stoked to get some gorgeous photos in return. 2. If you insist on hiring models don’t be misleading about it in any way and you won’t have to worry about anything.
Tara: I think styled shoots can be really fun, and an awesome way to collaborate with other wedding photography vendors! I also think that they are misleading to couples who are searching for wedding photographers. During a styled shoot everything is controlled. Everything is perfect. Everything is going to look amazing! However, on a wedding day, things can go wrong. So I think it’s really important to be showing actual work more often than a styled shoot. Show that you can be a badass under pressure if something goes wrong. ALSO – If you’re going to do an LGBTQIA intentioned styled shoot then PLEASE use actual LGBTQIA humans + couples! Would you want a white person to be playing a person of color in a movie?! NO!
Jamie: No, not at all. If you’re a beginner photographer and you need more work and practice for your portfolio, styled shoots can be a great way to do this. They’re even great for more seasoned photographers to collaborate with other vendors in the industry and work together to feed creativity or to establish trends. It can be hard because just like ads you see online, it’s not real. So for me, if I’m going to do a styled shoot, I want to have as many “real” elements as possible…. Especially if I’m going to photograph a couple. It’s so important to get real people in front of your camera, especially if you want to have more experience photographing folks who aren’t models, which are going to be primarily your clients if you’re going to be a wedding photographer. In any route that you go as far as a styled shoot, it’s important to maintain transparency about the photoshoot and be honest about your sources, models included.
Q: What do I do if someone else is planning an LGBTQ styled shoot and wants to use straight models/or use culturally appropriative elements in the shoot?
Steph: Offer advice on how you can make it more inclusive and REALISTIC and take that opportunity to educate.
Tara: Yes Steph! Exactly! Suggest that they search for a real LGBTQIA couple, or real LGBTQIA models. Representation + exposure is so so important.
Kelly: To me it’s common sense. If you’re creating a styled shoot for LGBTQIA. Then the models should be part of the community. Try reaching out to any LGBTQIA on social media. Take that extra step in making the styled shoot look as best as it can be.
Jamie: Stick with your gut. Speak out. Offer up other suggestions.
Q: What’s the big deal with hashtags? Aren’t photographers just putting huge blocks of them anyways?
Steph: One of the main reasons I have the following that I do on Instagram is because of hashtags. People are looking for LGBTQ+ wedding photographs and inspiration…because it’s important. We need to be visible and vocal for those who cannot. This is how they find us. Sometimes what we post has the power to save a life, to make a couple feel comfortable and most of all spread authentic love to give others hope. I do not take that lightly. Obviously, which is why I get so passionate and worked up about what I do. Truth is, I have messed up on Instagram. It’s easy to do. I have been called out by clients before for not using the appropriate hashtags under their photo. Here’s what we do: IMMEDIATELY… check yourself. Apologize and have them educate you. Explain your thought process and make sure you have clarity. Remedy the situation. Thank them. Educate others to do the same. The most dangerous place to be is when you think you already know everything and have no room for mistakes and growth.
Tara: Hashtags are incredibly important when promoting your work + trying to the found by others on The Gram. Selecting your hashtags could make or break who sees your stuff. I have a bunch of hashtags I use over and over again because I usually just post my wedding work. The importance of hashtags in this conversation is that if someone who is searching for imagery that will inspire them, and heal their hearts in some way (maybe they are coming out of the closet for example) and they search for “LGBT Weddings,” they will find a ton of photographs. How HEARTBREAKING would it be for that person coming out to find out that their favorite photograph of an “LGBT couple” was actually a lie.
Kelly: Hashtags have come a long way from the pound sign for sure. Sometimes hashtags are now just used for specific communities to go see a photo. For example I’ve used #vsco or #fearlessphotographers just to show others in that community that I’ve posted a photo. However, some hashtags also explain the photo, I try my best to curate what hashtags I am using otherwise one may certainly get called out. So double check those hashtags for what you’re trying to portray for sure – they are another line of a caption.
Jamie: Yes to all of this. Hashtags are so important for getting your work out there, but they only do their job if used appropriately. Like many, I’ve screwed up before and assumed or put hashtags on photos that weren’t aligned with my couple/subjects identities. The best thing you can do is change them, apologize, and do better. I suggest to photographers who are working with vulnerable communities to make sure and check with their clients about what hashtags they feel ok with. If you are unsure or don’t have that information, stick to what you DO know. Hashtags may feel harmless or mindless at times, but it’s important that in this age of social media that we intentional about the work we put out there and how we do that.
Q: I got called out. I feel guilty and I’m sensitive to the criticism. Now what?
Steph: Welcome to real life. That’s part of it…part of being visible, part of having a large following and being human. It’s unfortunate that this specific photographer handled things incorrectly and took the brunt of a much bigger topic but hopefully we can avoid this in the future but addressing concerns head on. Ultimately, people don’t like feeling lied to or disregarded and I believe that is what sparked the negative comments. We put content and our thoughts out in the world. Trying our best every single day. Sometimes we slip up. Above all else OWN IT. Listen to feedback. Do not…I repeat, DO NOT delete comments/block people for asking basic questions about your work. Address them. Reach out for help if you need it. I have had 81,000 people on my site in one day… commenting like wild on this specific wedding that went viral. Negative comments, positive vibes, questions, voicing their opinions and some attacking…it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do but you have to be prepared to explain your intentions then hold on tight and brace yourself for the ride. It will be done a lot sooner if you try your very best to check all the ways you could’ve made things right. But the second you start deleting, blocking and going silent on your people you’ve started backpedaling which makes you look like you did something wrong. Chances are maybe you did and that’s ok. O W N I T. Do better. Move forward.
Kelly: I get it – no one likes to be told that they’re wrong. BUT, we have to always keep an open mind, and realize not all of us have the same perspective. It is a sensitive thing to experience. But you’re human, the person calling you out is human, so connect with them, apologize wholeheartedly, and begin the open dialect.
Tara: Growth is a part of life. If you made a mistake and you’re being “called out” for it then the best thing you can do is own up to your mistake sincerely, and apologize sincerely. It’s important to be humble, stay human, and continue to be open to growth. Also, like Steph said, if you’re posting things on social media you should automatically be open to criticism. It’s going to happen!
Jamie: The best apology that you can give is action. As someone who holds a lot of privilege as a cis, white, queer, I know that I will be called out/called in and I wouldn’t want it any other way. We are all learning and doing the best that we can. I always want to be the best person I can be for my community and for others. We all do our best until we know better, and then we know better… we do better. Try not to get caught up in over explaining or justifying…. Hear people out, invite in constructive conversation, listen, make changes, and learn from your mistakes.
What’s the best way to be an ally to the LGBTQ community?
Kelly: The most important thing first is to being open to befriending anyone part of the LGBTQIA community. Once you do connect and establish a friendship, don’t be afraid to ask them the hard questions. Educate yourself about their life, views, likes and dislikes,..aka be a friend. That’s the best and most heartfelt way of becoming an ally.
Tara: There’s nothing worse than someone who wants to be an ally because it will benefit them in some way. That is wrong. So, be sure that you actually love + respect all walks of life, and all LGBTQIA humans. Make sure that you’re an ally for all the right reasons, and not just because you could make a buck. LGBTQIA humans are still discriminated against, and we need our allies to be 100%.
Jamie: Be open minded and listen in all forms. Leave your stereotypes behind. Wholeheartedly believe that all peoples, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity deserve respect, compassion and dignity. Confront your own prejudice/privilege. (Especially if you are cisgender and straight. Confronting this can be uncomfortable, but in the long run it will make you a better ally). Speak up. Anti-LGBTQ comments and jokes are more prevalent than you think and are hurtful and triggering to our community. Learn about LGBTQ history and culture. Ask questions, look up articles and information, don’t rely solely on LGBTQ people in your life to educate you. Support QUEER BUSINESS OWNERS. Collaborate with them, buy their products, work in their coffee shops. Lead by example. Share your support on social media channels, and in your everyday life. Talk about things that are happening in the world with the LGBTQ community, and speak out against discrimination regularly.
Steph: Sometimes a video tells my exact response because I filmed and edited this story on the importance of vocal allies and an inclusive workplace. SEE STEPH’S VIDEO HERE.
Q: I’m scared to come out in my business or to post images of LGBTQ couples because of fear of backlash from my more conservative clients… how should I handle this?
Kelly: Honesty, you’d just have to take that leap of faith and be courageous. Try not to care about the unfollows or the backlash. If you feel something is right and you’re passionate about it, then that’s your motive. You’ll gain the following and support back from the people YOU respect more and who respects your work. As for the comments I’d just say you’re right to your opinion but I post what I feel is beautiful and full of love.
Tara: I think you need to come to terms with the fact that you will probably lose followers, you’ll lose some business, but the business you will gain + the followers you will gain from “coming out” will be incredible! You’ll also feel more free to share the work you really want to show, and be more vocal about personal subjects too!
Jamie: If you lose followers or clients, they aren’t for you! Sometimes this is hard, but I promise you that you will attract clients who align themselves with your values and vice versa.
Steph: I had zero confidence when I first started. I was terrified when I booked my first LGBTQ client. I was nervous about what others would say when I posted the images on my blog. I worried that not only would I lose clients but then have to explain the fact that I was gay and might also lose a lot of my family and friends that I had grown up with in church. I knew they would judge me for supporting these wonderful couples and sure enough I got some pretty hateful messages which I took to heart. At that point it was bigger than my photography…these people didn’t know that when they were throwing out hurtful words they were also talking about ME. I took those hateful messages and used them to fuel my energy into doing something positive. I’m sure glad I did. I learn something new every day. Most of all, through photography, I have learned how to be myself. I have figured out how to take what I am passionate about…what is close to my heart and run with it. That is truly when my career started taking off. I am now photographing the very thing that scared me & what I hid from when I first started.
How about styled shoots that use TQ+ models in place of a real couple? What if one identifies as bisexual and is in a relationship with a man?
Jamie: That’s again where being transparent about the shoot comes into play– if you are going to use models, even if they are individually queer identified, disclosing that it is not a real couple is important. It’s easy to do in the caption, such as “stylized shoot”, and then name/tag the models. But I encourage anyone who wants to photograph an LGBTQ couple to find a real couple….not only will it alleviate any stress of how to talk about the shoot, but you get the authentic chemistry between 2 people who are actually in love.
Kelly: I feel we can find real couples for styled shoots. Let’s go that extra mile you know. But if all else fails and we can’t, I agree with Jamie and we can and should be completely transparent to the viewer that this isn’t a real couple but created only to showcase the dress, shoot, etc.
Tara: I think that there are all kinds of LGBTQIA matchups that don’t look like a gay couple or a lesbian couple. It’s incredibly important to represent everyone, and every matchup. I had a couple this year that identified with the LGBTQIA community because he was bi-sexual and she was straight. I think that this is where detailed, honest, and clear captions and hashtags come into play. Exposure of all types of people within this community is so important!
Steph: Transparency is key. With a big following comes big responsibilities. Lots of eyes on us expecting us to lead the way as experts in our specific field. So do everything with love, speak up for others who cannot, allow yourself to feel your emotions and don’t back down when you believe you are doing the right thing
About the contributors:
Jamie: Jamie Thrower // 31, Currently moving from Oakland, CA to Portland, OR to marry the love of her life. Photographer, plant enthusiast, and lover of love since she was in diapers, but working as a full time photographer since 2012. Queer Femme, forever and ever. IG: @studioxiiiphotography
Steph: STEPH GRANT // 35, from Huntington Beach, CA residing in Dallas, TX. Photographing LGBTQ+ love stories since 2008. IG: @IMSTEPH
Tara: Tara Beth Robertson // 30, from West Chester, PA, residing in Asbury Park, NJ. Photographing LGBTQ+ love stories since 2012. IG:@TaraBethPhotography
Kelly: Kelly Balch // 31, Palmdale, California, residing in Los Angeles, Ca. Photographing LGBTQ+ love stories since 20012. IG: @KellyBalch