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How Photographers Can Better Represent Asexuality in Images

Misrepresenting asexuality in images is common. So, let’s dispel with the folklore and discuss how photographers should properly represent asexuality.

This article has been approved by Prism, a Shutterstock ERG (Employee Resource Group) committed to creating a supportive, diverse, and inclusive company culture for LGBTQ+ people globally.

As we continue to have conversations about gender identity and sexuality, it’s noticeable how brands and businesses are striving to make their marketing more inclusive. Gender and sexual representation have become more visual than ever. Images of transgender people, once mostly depicted as drag queens, are now more visually represented in everyday life. We’re moving past the idea that lesbians must be tomboys. Instead, we’re showcasing people in their everyday life.

However, there are aspects that need more attention and work. And, one of those key areas of LGBTQ+ representation is representing asexuality. 

Accurately Representing Asexuality
Asexuality is very much real and deserves photographs that accurately represent this sexuality. Image by Shawn Goldberg.

Asexuality has long been deemed “unreal.” To this day, many people stereotype folks who identify as asexual as too picky, too conservative, or just haven’t met the right person yet. As these toxic thoughts and grave misunderstandings continue to blossom, we also continue to struggle to depict asexuality in images — something quite important in a fairly visual world.

What is Asexuality? 

Perhaps the best way to explain asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction. When someone identifies as asexual, it means this person doesn’t experience sexual attraction towards other people. However, this doesn’t mean there’s a lack of connection.

Asexual Flag Colors
This design features the asexual colors and flag. Image by Grrrenadine.

An asexual person can still very much develop connections with others, including romantic connections. This is where we all need to remind ourselves that there’s a line between romance and sex. And, when it comes to showcasing asexuality in the world of photography, capitalizing on other human connections (such as romance) is a great approach rather than overt sexualization, which is what often happens in the world of LGBTQ+ photography.

Asexuality and Modeling are Two Different Things

As unfortunate as it is, sex typically sells in fashion and modeling. And, as photographers work on capturing images of their models, among the common lines include: “be more feminine” or “can you butch it up, please?” or “look into the camera like it’s your boyfriend.”

This may not sound like a big deal, but as gender capitalist Rain Dove puts it, “Don’t they know that sweat pants, a forward demeanor, and a furrow bushy brow IS feminine? Don’t they know that gliding across the room, soft skin, and pastel colors ARE butch?” And, like Rain Dove, when adhering to these requests, many asexual folks feel like they need to support thoughts and perceptions that aren’t true to them.

Rain Dove is an activist and a gender-nonconforming model who walks in both men’s and women’s runways. While they don’t identify as asexual, they’ve seen how sexuality and eroticism played roles in modeling. For Dove, an image becomes “more acceptable” if model has the freedom to express themself honestly. However, this, as Dove says, “means making it clear that regardless of the level of exposure a model may want to agree to, the model will still have a job.”

Comfort and Freedom of Expression Is Important 

Photographer Lexy Potts is also all about freedom of expression. “When you look at the subject’s eyes in an image, you can tell whether they feel comfortable or not. This isn’t something you can just Photoshop,” she shares.

Potts specializes in queer photography, covering events, studio shoots, and performances. In her line of work, comfort is vital. “If we want to use the example of trans people, not every trans woman is hyper femme. Many may actually feel uncomfortable being in something such as a big, pink, frilly dress. That’s because everyone has their own tastes, personality, and comfort zones,” says Potts. For asexual people, the resounding “sex sells” can be very uncomfortable, if not frustrating.

Comfort and Freedom of Expression Is Important
For asexual people, the resounding “sex sells” can be uncomfortable. Image by Nadia Snopek.

Photographers Play an Important Role in Visualizing Asexuality

It’s quite ironic how the fashion and modeling industries put so much pressure on models and how they should look, even before makeup. But, it seems there’s not enough pressure on photographers to make sure the models in their images are comfortable, and that their beliefs and future opportunities aren’t compromised.

Make the Model Comfortable
It’s the photographer’s job to ensure an asexual model is comfortable on set. Image by finwal89.

Potts shares how she’s seen many photographers ignore their role and responsibility “because our culture finds anything that has sexual undertones is good,” adding that having a sexualized subject doesn’t mean “the image was well taken … Confidence can be seen as sexy, but confidence is about the model feeling comfortable in their own skin. Confidence doesn’t mean a subject has to be sexual. This is what many photographers ignore.”

When photographers ignore this responsibility it affects the model, but it also impacts the greater public. See, we don’t have to read an entire book to fully understand something — seeing a photo of it gives us a good idea what it’s about. We grasp onto photos and the familiar aspects we see in it. When asexual people are misrepresented in magazine covers, ads, and billboards, this becomes a huge problem and it’s a problem we’re having now.

“If someone’s only experience in meeting or seeing an image of a person who is asexual is an image that is pushed to be sexualized, to the point the photographer creates dysphoria for the subject, the viewer will have the impression all asexual people are always feeling unease and not confident,” explains Potts.

Fashion Politics and Its New Face

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the model and fashion industries are now shifting. As traditional media dwindles down, society continues to explore the power they have. Now, “likes,” “follows,” and “shares” decide what and who is in or out. Now, people are demanding compassion, emotion, and connection before they click the buy button.

This, as Dove explains, has put the fashion industry in a “unique space,” adding that “as fashion brands try to figure out the appropriate balance between revolutionizing, caring, and selling products, it’s been a bumpy ride for many marginalized community members.”

While we’re now seeing changes and improvement, some habits are just hard to break.

Fashion Politics' New Face
There’s a difference between selling confidence and selling sexuality. Image by Rido.

“I’ve experienced a lot of unsavory adventures regarding hypersexualization,” shares Dove, adding that many designers seem to be fascinated with the fact that they have a “societally masc face, but also DD breasts.” Dove also noted that “showing them off in photos and emphasizing that curve in my body, while wearing ‘menswear,’ is an exhausted fetish.”

How to Shoot Better Images that Represent Asexuality

For starters, learn that sexuality and modeling are two different things. Remember that while showcasing the brand is important, it’s also important to pay attention to your model and whether or not they’re still comfortable with the shoot.

Potts shares that “talking about things you enjoy brings comfort, originality, and personality into a shoot,” encouraging photographers to “take the time to get to know someone so you know how they should be captured in a photograph … When someone who is asexual can feel comfortable while photographed, the image alone can spread positive representation instead of separation, as well as prove you can look confident and proud of how you identify, without sexual undertones needing to be a theme.”

Show Confident Relationships
Showing confident, positive relationships is possible without suggesting sex. Image by AlessandroBiascioli.

Let’s also note that shooting better has a lot to do with putting in the effort to add important pieces to the puzzle. It’s not just about avoiding misrepresentation of your models. It’s also about doing the work to make sure everyone, including asexuals, have a space in this field.

Consider shooting asexual and aromantic people in “positive relationships,” as Potts suggests. Additionally Potts recommends portraying “more positive representation to prove you can find relationships and that relationships come in all shapes and forms, and have value that doesn’t have to involve sexual and romantic elements.”

Sparking Change

As Rain Dove puts it: “WE are our own Vogue.” And they’re right. Today we have the power to demand better ads, better campaigns, and for brands, businesses, and agencies to do better in terms of representation. When we refuse to click on the buy button or refuse to share the post because this certain brand failed to showcase something we strongly believe in and support, they will feel it. Brands will notice that impact and recognize the power of consumers.

“In a world of social media, we suddenly have a power stronger than the tongue of Anna Wintour. When we raise someone up, it’s up to a brand to receive them,” says Dove.

For more on diversity-focused topics, check out these articles:

Top image by Daria Ermolina.

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