How the Non-Binary Gaze is Changing the Face of Commercial Photography

How the Non-Binary Gaze is Changing the Face of Commercial Photography

How the Non-Binary Gaze is Changing the Face of Commercial Photography

by Desdemona Dallas

As non-binary perspectives become more visible, brands are changing how they use photography to represent gender.

Since the late 1970s, it has become common to talk in depth about the female and male gaze in art, advertising, film and photography. In recent years, as non-binary and transgender creators gain more visibility in the media, pop culture and the photographic industry, space is opening up a new way of seeing. A beautiful celebratory "non-binary gaze" is taking form and making itself known.
Brands like Orbitz, Mastercard, Starbucks, Nike, Apple and Sephora are running campaigns that bring these perspectives to the forefront. In a study done by GLAAD they found that 15 major brands collectively ran inclusive ads during the Super Bowl in 2020 and 2021 centering LGBTQIA+ people. Photographers who are approaching the non-binary and trans gaze specifically in commercial photography are influencing the narratives brands tell, both through their personal work, and larger brand campaigns.
Photographers Laurence Philomene and Liam Woods have a strong visual eye in their personal works and narratives sharing the stories of their communities. Weaving these in with brands they bring their queer community to the forefront.
“I always want to be educational. That's my number one goal, even though I do it through beauty and photography. I think that's a really powerful education tool.” says Philomene, whose new book Puberty, uses a bright, bold palette to document their personal transition journey.
Laurence Philomene's new book Puberty, published by Yoffy Press
This “gaze” comes from these photographers’ personal relationship to gender and their ability to see their subjects from a closer place of understanding. Woods discusses their relationship to photography and their gender expression: “My gender expression helps me view the world with an open heart and fresh perspective. I believe my own gaze differs as a Trans/Non-binary person because we have an understanding of how valuable it is to break out of the binary. When I apply it to my work, it can create a rich, diverse, colorful atmosphere of so many possibilities.”
Cassandra and Salma © Liam Woods
This sentiment is so clearly witnessed in their work for Apple’s ‘Hometown’ campaign. The series captures colorful and intimate portraits of their hometown community in Charlotte, NC.
For photographers entering into a dialogue with brands, it's important to keep their narratives clear and true to their communities.
Photographer Liam Woods used an iPhone 13 Pro to capture portraits of their friends, and give the world a glimpse into what it means to be TGNC today. © Liam Woods for Apple. via THEM
© Liam Woods for Apple's "Hometown" campaign
Woods explains their approach when working with brands: “I keep the boundary firm with authentic storytelling when speaking to all clients. We compare our needs, our ethics and exchange visual samples of representation to see if we are on the same page. Having this open dialogue has allowed me to create commercial work that still feels personable but also pleases the client.”
© Liam Woods for Apple
Brands opening to gender non-conforming voices offers a new depiction on how the world sees trans people and how trans people see themselves. “I really enjoy being able to have autonomy over my story,” explains Philomene, “and give inspiration to other folks to do the same with their story.”
© Laurence Philomene, 2019 for Beats by Dre
"Red" © Laurence Philomene for Apple
Using a personal story and narrative helps photographers to open up what is possible for individuals and highlights a community that was once overlooked. With more trans and non-binary people having say in the creative process it alters the direction of image making to be more inclusive across the board. “I put a huge emphasis on casting trans and non-binary people whenever I can,” says Desmond Picotte the new art director of Saks 5th Avenue, “because, besides getting them paid, it's also important to represent my community.”
Family Brunch © Desmond Picotte
A great example of a company that is getting this right is Folx Health. Their 2021 Pride campaign presented photographic work from established trans photographer Texas Isaiah. Their work for Folx Health demonstrates a softness and vulnerability between the photographer and subject. When covering trans subjects and trans stories this intimacy is an essential aspect of the photographic process to allow the subjects to feel at ease.
© Desmond Picotte for Folx Health
Queer the Lens, a new group established to bring queer photographers together is working towards more initiatives to help non-binary and trans photographers. The group has recently produced a survey in order to be able to better understand what it is their community needs, and how best to get more access into the photo industry for those who have difficulty finding a way in.
Amy Scott, a Luupe photographer and founding member of Queer the Lens, explains, “I'm really curious what it would look like for brands to specifically start to want to pursue working with trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming photographers in a way that is not just for Pride campaigns. In a way that is saying, ‘hey, we routinely want to incorporate your perspective and to learn from you, and what stories can we tell that we haven't even considered?’” (read The Luupe's interview with Amy HERE)
Personal work by Luupe photographer Amy Scott
As the creative industry is opening its doors to a wider diversity of photographers, these photographers must also have access to photographic narratives that are outside of their own communities. In 2019 Picotte made a post on Instagram talking about their experience of being mostly asked to photograph, queer people, queer stories and queer businesses and feeling pigeon-holed into that.
"I’ve noticed that I mainly get hired by editors to shoot queer content and not much else. I think it’s great that publications what to ensure such stories are told through the lens of the community, but I also can be hired for so much more. I wanted to take this opportunity to showcase some of the commissions I worked on this year and last that had nothing to do with queerness, in an effort to inspire people to hire me for other exciting projects. I love photographing food, I love photojournalism, and I love working with musicians! I can shoot executives just as well as drag queens, by the way!" - Desmond Picotte
“Pride campaigns are my bread and butter for better or for worse,” explains Picotte. “I make most of my money every year with pride campaigns. It's a great job in some ways, but then the rest of the year, it's a real struggle for me. I would like to be seen as more than just my identity. I want my portfolio to speak for itself, and I want people to look at my work and see something more than my sexuality and gender.”
The commercial industry needs to normalize trans people in holiday campaigns, and day to day life, not just during pride month. To show the queer experience for only one month a year stigmatizes the queer world and limits the breadth of its experience.

“What we collectively, as a society, fantasize about and dream about is shaped by the images that we engage with.” - Desmond Picotte

Citibank + Mastercard's 2019 True Name campaign, photographed by Luupe photographer Annie Tritt
In 2019 Mastercard, in partnership with CitiBank, launched the True Name Campaign, allowing non-binary and transgender customers to change the name of their bankcard. Since launching the program more than 6,900 customers have updated their CitiBank cards. Luupe photographer Annie Tritt captured images for the True Name campaign.
While Tritt shares excitement about the steps being made forward in the industry they also believe that there is more work to be done. Tritt stated that they “love that people are getting hired to photograph their own communities. But the default shouldn’t be: well, ‘it's not a Black subject so we don't need to hire a Black photographer.’ ” Tritt goes on to say, “I want people to be photographing their own communities and other communities.”
Citibank + Mastercard's 2019 True Name campaign, photographed by Luupe photographer Annie Tritt
Unfortunately, visibility does not always lead to safety. Although many brands are putting trans and non-binary experiences in front of the lens, on set, brands have a responsibility to make the working environment safe for LGBTQIA+ creatives.
“It becomes kind of difficult at times to feel seen and respected in my gender on set,” explains Picotte. “I definitely feel like I'm navigating how to just be like, oh by the way, these are my pronouns or by the way. I'm not a lady or can we put pronouns on the call sheet. Trying to ask for these little instances of respect can be really taxing, but also can cost me a job.”
The non-binary and trans community is one that is always pushing the boundaries of the societal narrative. They are looking beyond what is generally accepted and asking that we all try to understand what more could be shared. While there are huge strides in bringing these identities to the forefront of society there is still much to be done in making space for the non-binary gaze.
“We're really missing out in terms of being storytellers,” says Scott, “if we're not using the full spectrum of experiences and lives that are present here in the US. We're really missing out on the fullness of what can be shared.”
Desdemona Dallas
Desdemona Dallas is a multi-media storyteller who works and lives in New York City.