Increasing visibility of non-conforming gender communities in stock photos

March 26, 2019
A non-binary person using a laptop at work. Credit: Zackary Drucker/VICE

Whenever Lindsay Schrupp looked for stock photos of transgender people to illustrate stories  for Vice, she found stereotypical images: trans and non-binary people applying makeup, or trying on a bra. There is little diversity when it comes to race or body size—“they are almost always women, and usually white,” Schrupp, editor in chief of Vice’s Broadly, says. Stock images do not portray trans and non-binary people playing sports, or going to work. Broadly contributed to that erasure by running images of trans and non-binary people that were selectively cropped, to isolate body parts or not show faces, Schrupp says. “If we wanted to write about Trump administration’s attack on trans rights, we were limited in actually who we could show,” she adds.

Frustrated by those limitations, Schrupp and her Broadly colleagues created a stock photo library with images of transgender and non-binary people, to increase the visibility of those communities. The stock photo library, which is called The Gender Spectrum Collection: Stock Photos Beyond the Binary, debuts today, and consists of 180 photos of trans and non-binary people. One photo shows an African-American model wearing a white shirt, sitting behind a desk, and using a laptop. Another shows a model undergoing a physical exam at a doctor’s office. On every photo there is a description of the image, including the gender identity of the person or people in the photo to avoid misgendering by the users of this service.

Photoshoots, Schrupp says, were organized around themes: work, relationships, technology, health, lifestyle, and moods. “We really wanted to show that trans people are real people with fully lived lives,” Schrupp says. “And we wanted to represent trans and non-binary people in positions of power, as doctors and CEOs.”

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A 2016 Williams Institute study estimated that 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender.  Still, Schrupp says, gender non-conforming communities are not sufficiently represented in stock-image collections. The New York Times reported last year that Getty, the largest library of stock photos, saw a threefold increase in searches for images of “gender fluid” from June 2017 to June 2018. In March 2018, Adobe shared a stock-image gallery titled “The Fluid Self,” to better provide what it termed “a broad and fluid spectrum of identities.”

Vice will open its stock-photo library under a Creative Commons license for use by other media organizations. “We wanted to start helping the rest of the industry hold themselves accountable, too,” Schrupp says. “And we know that the media can still do better in avoiding harmful stereotypes by not misgendering.”

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Rachel Schallom, Vice’s managing editor, says that working with transgender and non-binary people was an integral part of this project, especially because their images will be free to use online. “Since we were already dealing with a marginalized community, we wanted to make sure that our models clearly understood all the risks involved,” she says. Vice discussed these risks with all the models. Vice also worked with photographer Zackary Drucker, a trans woman, as well as trans and non-binary illustrators and editors. “My main concern as a photographer is making sure that my subjects are at ease, especially when you are dealing with subjects who are always viewed as outsiders,” Drucker says.

Broadly’s work is far from done, Schrupp says. She hopes the library will grow over time and they intend to reach out to other media outlets to encourage them to use their images.

But Schrupp hopes the project will help other media outlets to come up with similar projects and  think critically about how they portray people. “By limiting our representation of trans and non-binary people, we also limit the range of stories we can imagine them in,” she says.”Stock photos can do more than just illustrate. They have the power to shape perceptions of entire communities.”

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Zainab Sultan is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.