Why Raj Bandyopadhyay Uses Pronouns in his Photography Business
As the only CRM that has custom pronoun fields in our software to date, Sprout Studio set out to help educate and inform photographers on the importance of adding pronouns to their business.
If you haven't already, make sure to read about why photographers are adding pronouns in their business to better understand the topics discussed here.
To build upon that initial article, Jules, our Partnership and Outreach Coordinator conducted 5 interviews with Sprout users who include pronouns in their photography business. One of those users was Raj Bandyopadhyay (he/him)…
Who is Raj?
Born and raised in Mumbai, India, Raj Bandyopadhyay moved to the U.S. when he was 22 years old to complete his Ph.D. and pursue a career as a data scientist. A decade later, he had a comfortable job in Silicon Valley, but still felt a sense of dissatisfaction with his life.
It wasn't until his “mid-life re-evaluation” that Raj realized a career in tech was no longer for him. He began a journey of self-discovery that led him to completely change his path and become a photographer.
What inspired Raj to make this big change in life? His partner of 8 years coming out as transgender.
As his partner began transitioning, Raj saw how much joy they experienced in becoming their true self. This prompted Raj to ask himself the question: “What do I need to change in my life to feel true to myself?”
Looking for support during his husband's transition led Raj to find a sex and relationship coach, then later train as a coach himself. Although Raj chose to pursue photography instead, he realized a connection between sex/relationship coaching and photography – it's vulnerable.
Now as a full-time personal branding photographer, Raj takes authenticity very seriously with his clients. He believes that being vulnerable about all facets of who you are, including your gender identity, is what truly allows for the best storytelling imagery.
Raj explains that “from a young age, we associate a camera with smiling, but as humans with such a wide range of emotions, it's important to capture all of it because it's all part of our story.”
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His story truly shows us how radical acceptance of gender identities can improve your life, as well as the lives of so many others. And it all starts with pronouns.
The Power of Pronouns
Raj says his training as a relationship coach has helped him create a safe and supportive space for his clients.
“For the majority of people in the world, being photographed is an extremely vulnerable and awkward experience. We get in our own heads in front of the camera, we get self-conscious, all of our insecurities come up”
Raj explained how the range of emotions some people experience in front of the camera are very similar to feelings often experienced in sex and dating.
“Talking about sex can be an uncomfortable experience, so as a sex and relationship coach, your job is to listen and help them get comfortable talking about the most intimate and awkward parts of themselves. Which is really not that different from a photographer. Ultimately, you are trying to get your clients to relax and be able to share some very vulnerable things about themselves.”
Photography is about connecting with your audience, sharing who you are, and proudly representing all you have to offer.
Raj points out that one of the best ways for inspiring others to be true to themselves is by encouraging and normalizing pronoun use.
“We think of pronouns as these little words, but they actually mean a lot to the people who are transitioning,” Raj explains. He says that asking for someone's pronouns is “probably the easiest and the most effective way to show support to someone.”
“Respecting their pronouns, respecting their identity, however they identify, and not questioning it.”
“It's not your business to question, it's your business to respect” – Raj Bandyopadhyay
“And yes, it can take an effort, especially if you are close to the person. It took me a while to go from saying ‘she' to ‘he' for my partner. There was definitely a grace period, but once everyone started using ‘he', I could see what a difference that it made [to him] because it was validating.”
Raj also touched on some of the social challenges he and his partner faced through his transition.
“I identify as straight, but I am in a marriage where I am now perceived as queer, which was an interesting identity shift for me.”
“It kind of brings to the forefront how we have an internal identity, which is the way we see ourselves, then we have a social identity of how we are perceived. And for most of us it matches, but for some of us it doesn't. And that's something most queer people have to experience in their lives, but as a straight person having to experience that, it was not something I really knew existed or how to handle initially.”
“Now I tell people who ask, I'm a straight guy in a queer marriage, deal with it” – Raj Bandyopadhyay
Raj described how a post he made on LinkedIn about his relationship went viral during Pride Month last year.
The post had over 17,000 likes and hundreds of comments. Unfortunately, not all of those comments were positive. Although Raj chose not to engage in the hate, it speaks to the lack of acceptance of gender identity in professional settings, being that LinkedIn is a business platform.
Raj said he was more impressed by how much support he received from young people in India.
“That blew my mind. And a lot of private messages I got were from queer people in India who are not necessarily publicly out, but they were just like, thank you for sharing this, this is very inspiring, that sort of thing. That was very heartwarming for me.”
“I think the fact that my partner and I were in a position of privilege to be able to share our story means it's almost an obligation that we do as much as possible because it's inspiring to the people who can't share.”
Why are pronouns important in business?
When asked what advice he has for photographers looking to show support and incorporate pronouns in their business, Raj explains that adding them to your email signature and collecting that information from your clients is a great start. But true allyship goes deeper than that.
“Even going a little bit beyond pronouns…from a broader point, I think something I've learned, especially working with my partner as he transitioned, is that photography was an important part of his journey. Capturing the process, capturing changes in his body.”
“But I had to almost coach him into looking more like a man in photos with posing because if you don't grow up with that, your body is used to doing certain things. So I often found myself like, okay how do I sit, how do I coach that to him?”
“Photography is a very, very gendered craft” – Raj Bandyopadhyay
“One thing that I realized when I was learning photography, the online courses I took and the books I read early on…Photography is a very, very gendered craft. We always have books and courses like, this is how you pose women, this is how you light women, and then men you light from the side with more hard lighting. There are all these conventions that are extremely gendered and they have been around for over 100 years in photography.”
“But what about the people who don't fit that binary? If you're working with a trans woman who has never done more feminine poses in her life, how do you coach that person?”
Raj explained that his approach to photography instead is to “start with a story.”
“I'm gonna work with you to see how your body expresses that story, and not try to stuff you into like some standard poses like, oh, these are feminine poses, you're a woman so you have to do that pose.”
“That's the attitude I'm trying to get away from. That's what will let photographers be more inclusive of all the people who are not, who were not, captured by those binaries. And right now there's just no education around how you can work with that.”
“If you're a cis woman, if you are very feminine, yes, the way you naturally express yourself will probably be aligned with those more female postures that you may want to show off, like more curve or more softness. And if you are a man that was more masculine, there are certain things that may align with the male poses. But I don't think as a photographer that we should be enforcing that on clients”
“We should start with, how do you express your story and what does your body naturally do?”
“I think it's something that as photography is evolving as an art form and a craft, I think we all will have to cultivate more of.”
Raj explains that in order to be more inclusive with our photography, it involves photographing people who we're not normally meeting in everyday life, or whom we may not actually be familiar with.
“Even if I don't have that experience of being LGBTQ, I should as a photographer still be able to work with them” – Raj Bandyopadhyay
Have your clients given you any feedback on this approach?
“I worked with a couple of queer clients and they have appreciated the angle I have taken.”
“There's one client I worked with last year, she is a lesbian woman who goes by ‘she' but can look very masculine. She's a lawyer and loves dressing in these extremely well-tailored, dapper suits. And it was very interesting working with her because she was like, ‘I'm not a typical woman, I don't necessarily like feminine poses, most of the time I wear these suits and I like more masculine and open kinds of poses, but I still don't want to look like a man.' So that was an interesting challenge for me to work with. But the feedback I got from her and her wife was that I just really captured her because previous headshots went too much in either direction, where it was either too feminine or just made her look very masculine.”
Raj explained what made that connection possible was “a lot of getting to know her, her mood board, through her stories, and really understanding what she wanted. Then working with her body, instead of trying to push her into poses.”
“I know in photography we have the, you know, the tendency that a lot of artists have. It's like, I'm the artist and I want to have my style and I'm gonna [photograph] it like that. But especially if we are working with clients and individuals from different genders and expressions, we have to be a little more humble.”
“I'm willing to be like, you know what, I might not know everything about how to pose this person, so let me learn from them because they are the experts in their own body and experience.”
How would you explain the importance of using pronouns to someone who may not understand?
“It's like how when we were kids, you're supposed to be taught good manners. I have to say please and thank you and all that, and you don't question that any more, right? When someone gives you something, you say thank you, it's just a thing we do. And pronouns are just the same thing, it's part of good manners.”
“It should be a matter of respect. Everyone is a person, you as a person want to be seen for who you are and everyone wants to be seen for who they are.”
What takeaway do you hope readers have by the end of this interview?
“I want to kind of reiterate the idea of being more inclusive, not just in the way we use pronouns, but also in the way we approach photography as a craft,” Raj said, “Like noticing the assumptions we make about our clients or subjects, noticing where we are kind of pushing them into poses or lighting them based on what we've been taught about men versus women.”
“Try to be more open and see what happens if we break those assumptions and just start working with people individually as humans.”
Raj continued, “That's not easy because it goes against, you know, 100 years of photography education, but I think pronouns are the future and it's important for all of us to participate. Also, even if you're doing it creatively, let's try to diversify our portfolios. Not just working with, you know, only certain kinds of bodies or people, but seeing what happens if you are more inclusive. I think we're just gonna continue to grow creatively.”
“I think pronouns are the future and it's important for all of us to participate” – Raj Bandyopadhyay
Throughout this interview, Raj was open, vulnerable, and honest – all the things he strives to capture in his images.
By sharing his lived experiences with us, we gained a better understanding of the importance of pronoun use in all areas of life. His story shines a light on the challenges that gender non-conforming folks experience, pointing to why it's so important that we as photographers, and as a society, must begin normalizing pronouns.
Other Impactful Stories
Check out our other interviews with equally inspirational, yet beautifully unique stories about pronoun use and gender identity!