An average day for Zoya Thomas Lobo (26) would entail waking up and heading to the Mumbai local trains to beg for money to earn a livelihood.
But all that changed when the curfew was announced in Mumbai last year, cemented by the COVID-19 lockdown across the country in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. As a majority of the transgender community was facing a mammoth challenge to survive, some wellwishers began rations to help Lobo due to her loss of income.
On her way to pick up rations after the lockdown was extended, she noticed a huge crowd of over 2,000 people at Bandra station. “They were migrant labourers who were protesting because they wanted to go back to their villages,” says Lobo. Spotting the opportunity, she rushed home to grab her camera, took some exclusive visuals and also interviewed a few workers. Her pictures were then picked up by the national press that later gained international attention from publications and agencies. “Some of them used my pictures, some even gave me a byline, and that was when I got introduced to photojournalism,” she says.
Despite receiving accolades for her work, Lobo has still been struggling to secure a full-time job as a photojournalist. She currently works as a freelancer for a print publication but does not get paid for the same. However, with her press pass, she is able to get access to other places from where she can report.
A passion for photography
Lobo’s journey thus far to become India’s first trans photojournalist has been a long-winded one. After spotting a few mistakes in the film Hijra: Shrap ki Vardan, Lobo reached out to the director who then offered her a small role in the sequel. At a function to facilitate the artists, Lobo met the editor of an education publication who later offered her the role of a reporter and helped her hone her photography skills.
However, procuring assignments as a journalist has been difficult and she still has to resort to begging to make ends meet. While many corporates have adopted ‘diversity and inclusion’ as their mantra, the reality looks starkly different. Lobo recalls that at an award function for photojournalists where she was being felicitated, she was the only transgender person there. “There were maybe six-seven women, rest everyone was male,” she says.
Needs and concerns of transgender people
Many from the trans community have reiterated that stories relating to the community should be told by people with that lived experience. Zoya agrees, and she feels she brings her unique perspective of being a transwoman when she tells stories through her photography.
Over the past year, Lobo has focused on shedding light on how the pandemic has impacted the community that already struggles with societal acceptance and financial stability. After several untoward incidents caused by male journalists and professionals, she notes that the community has shied away from interacting with people who do not respect them and their stories.
“I want to work to uplift my community,” she says, “I would love to teach them the art of photojournalism.” She hopes that by equipping them with skills and empowering them to tell their own stories, they would gain more acceptance in a society that has otherwise shunned them.
“We need more social awareness about the transgender community,” she says. Even on the rare chance of being accepted by their families, trans persons face other challenges. She goes on to narrate the story of another trans woman who had gone home but was asked by her family to stay in her room and not be present during a religious festival.
“Even when we go to hospitals, they are confused whether to place us in their men’s or the women’s ward,” she laments about the transphobia they face. She highlights incidents of the community facing negative responses while using women’s facilities like washrooms.
With a high rate of violence and discrimination against transgender people reported in the country, there is a need for better sensitisation among the population. “I want to be a mirror, to show the truth,” says Lobo about her aspirations. Looking forward to better opportunities, she hopes that she can chronicle real experiences and stories of people with her photography.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)