How to Represent a Community


Some photographers, while documenting the queer community, often make images from a certain perspective. How does one, especially those who are not from the community, represent their narrative correctly?

Answer by: Tanvi Dhulia, Features Writer, Better Photography

The first question to ask yourself when you feel the desire to photograph any marginalised community which you don’t belong to, is ‘why do I want to do this at all?’ Is it so that you can win woke points? Or is it something along the lines of wanting to contribute to awareness regarding their struggles? If it’s the latter (because you obviously won’t admit to the former), what makes you think you’ll do a decent job anyway? Does that sound harsh? Good.

Extensive research, sensitivity, and sincerity go a long way in shaping work that deals with subjects of this nature. You must tread carefully while depicting individuals belonging to marginalised groups, simply because they are already likely to be underrepresented, and incredibly misunderstood in the public consciousness.

A recent example from the literary circle, of damage done by a seemingly well-meaning cis-het writer, would be Invisible Men by Nandini Krishnan. The author, who interviewed numerous transgender men in India about the intricate details of their lives and journeys, came under fire for various transgressions in the book that was commissioned by a prestigious publishing house. Beginning with a deeply offensive foreword written by a cisgender heterosexual man, who appeared to have no knowledge of the queer community, to some of Krishnan’s own sensationalist words that brought despair to the people she claimed to represent, the book was largely considered harmful to trans people. However, it was only members of the community who were able to recognise these aspects, simply by virtue of having lived their lives as queer individuals.

It is surprisingly easy for our preconceived notions to colour the way we approach any subject, to the point that we may not even consider that another, more well-informed perspective exists. Hence, photographing or writing about such subjects is incredibly difficult, and requires cognizance on behalf of the person initiating such a project. Be prepared to hit walls due to lack of trust in you as an outsider, and have the basic human decency to understand that those walls have every right to be there. Ask for guidance from those who are queer themselves. No, not just your token GBF, but also artists and academics. Ask where you’re going wrong, and how you could more accurately depict them.

You could perhaps take a leaf out of Armin Linke’s book when it comes to documenting unfamiliar locations. “… it is always very important for my images to have some kind of Virgil—Dante’s guide, who escorts us through Limbo and can explain the place as the locals see it. Without a Virgil, I would always be in danger of seeing what I see from the perspective of a tourist.”