High School Seniors + Sports

LGBTQ+ Senior Portrait Clients: A Case for Inclusivity

August 4, 2021

By Mary Vance

It’s been a few minutes (or maybe 20 years…) since I was a high school senior, and the atmosphere around inclusivity has changed a lot since then. And as a high school senior photographer in 2021, my mission has shifted away from exclusive experiences to embrace a more inclusive mindset, especially as it applies to teens who identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

There are many ways I aim to embrace inclusion in my business, but instead of telling you my own stories, I’m going to tell you about my time spent photographing Oliver (names have been changed for this article to respect subject privacy), a transgender man and rising (or soon-to-be) high school senior. My experience with Oliver changed the way I view all humans who step in front of my lens, and I’ve been trying to incorporate the lessons I learned working with him into my photography, business and personal practices ever since.

[Read: How to Build an LGBTQ+ Inclusive Photo Business]

For me, Oliver’s story began not during the photo shoot but the day before. That evening, his mother scheduled a phone call. My assumption, at that point, was that she was calling to discuss the logistics of the session. Instead, her first words were, “We need to talk about Oliver.”

This took me by surprise. I don’t just mean the words—though those were odd, too; I mean the tone in which they were spoken. From the moment I said, “Hello,” she sounded like she was ready to go into battle. There was a palpable sense of defensiveness in her tone.

[Read: High School Senior Portraits—The Male Client Approach]

Wary at this point, I asked what specifically she wanted to discuss where Oliver was concerned.

“Oliver is a transgender man,” she said flatly.
“Oh, okay,” I replied. “What pronouns does Oliver prefer I use?”
As soon as I said that, I could hear Kate’s audible sigh. “He/him, please, and thank you so much for asking… No one else does.”

The whole tone of the conversation changed immediately. I realized this woman had called me expecting to have to figuratively fight for her son. She was prepared to face fierce opposition just to get me to accept that Oliver was, in fact, Oliver, and not Olivia.

[Read: How Photographers Can Improve Working with LGBTQ+ Community]

With pronouns parsed, I asked his mom what else we had to talk about. She told me she wanted to discuss wardrobe. She said Oliver’s fashion sense was a bit “out there.” He had chosen two outfit options: one that was “very Oliver” and one that was a bit more understated. I assured her that as long as Oliver was comfortable in it I could handle whatever he decided to wear. We ended the conversation with a promise that Oliver would “bring his A-game” the next day at his senior shoot.

Heading into the shoot, I knew Oliver’s fashion sense was unique, but I had no idea what type of “out there” it was going to be. He stepped out of the car with a fabulous magenta-red dye job, a full-length black fur coat, a crop top, gold lamé pants and knee-high, black stiletto boots.

LGBTQ+ senior portrait session outdoor shoot

I was delighted that he had so successfully risen to the challenge! It was one of my favorite shoots ever.

But you know what? The outfit didn’t really matter. What mattered was that throughout the entire shoot, Oliver was laughing, smiling, striking fabulous poses and simply overjoyed to be there.

[Read: How to Work with and Photograph Neurodiverse High School Seniors]

For many transgender teens, their senior photos would be the first time they’d have pictures that were specifically about them and how they identify. It doesn’t matter if someone’s gender matches their birth sex, or who and how you love. What matters is that each of these humans’ stories are worthy of being told. What matters is that this milestone moment in their lives, the transition into adulthood, is captured in a way that is true to them.

senior portrait session with trans photo subject

Here are my takeaways from working with Oliver and others who came after him:

  1. Maintain a growth mindset when it comes to inclusivity. There will be times that you mess up. That’s okay. Keep making the effort to correct yourself and be more accepting. If all else fails? Take a page out of the southern dictionary and use the universally inclusive y’all.
  2. Ask for someone’s pronouns if you aren’t sure. This is an easy way to practice inclusivity, and it’s becoming more common in workplaces and on social media. This immediately lets someone know you’re willing to accommodate them, regardless of identity.
  3. Remember that everyone is more comfortable when they aren’t being relegated to a stereotype. Let the senior establish who they are. If they, like Oliver, have an “out there,” sense of fashion, let them express themselves through their outfit. If they couldn’t care less what they wear and would rather discuss their favorite video game, don’t steamroll them in favor of talking about what you think they should find interesting.

[Read: 3 Ways Senior Portrait Photographers Can Connect with Clients Post-Pandemic]

I’d like to leave you with one last conclusion—this one not from Oliver but discovered while I was writing this article:

I like to think that I’m pretty good about accepting and including LGBTQ+ humans in person, but an internal audit has pointed out places where I have the opportunity to do better—my website, for example. When I first built my portfolios in 2015, senior photographers were advertising themselves as only taking clients of a particular gender. Girls- or boys-only was a common differentiator. Back then, I wanted everyone to know that I was happy to take both types of clients, thus, I divided my portfolio into “guys” and “gals” sections.

Now, however, I realize that my attempts to be inclusive may not have been as universally welcoming as I’d hoped. Writing this article has showed me that, as hard as I try, I still have a ways to go toward having the fully inclusive environment I want for my community. I’ve also learned that I can’t be afraid to pause, (re-)evaluate where I am, and make changes where I find myself lacking.

I know that moving forward, I’ll be working hard to bring myself up to inclusivity par, both for my own sake and for the Olivers of the world. I’d love to hear how you make your seniors feel included in your own businesses, too!

Mary Vance is a lifestyle senior photographer and educator based in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington. When not photographing seniors, she consults with creative small businesses to help them integrate their systems, workflows, and standard operating procedures.