“Make Us Visible 365 Days Of The Year,” Says India’s First Trans Photojournalist Zoya Thomas Lobo

Zoya gives us a glimpse into her life, shares her daily challenges and urges that inclusivity needs to go beyond Pride Month.

Published On Jun 06, 2023 | Updated On Mar 08, 2024


Zoya Thomas Lobo, a 28-year-old transgender woman based in Mumbai, is still struggling to make ends meet. Life hasn’t changed for her even after being recognised as India’s first transgender photojournalist. The challenges still remain the same, as Zoya says, “I still collect alms on the Mumbai local trains. Nothing has changed. I haven't got any assignments for months.”

Her stint with journalism started with capturing the misery of migrant workers during India’s Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Her work was picked up by La Presse Canadienne, a Canadian news agency, followed by assignments with brands such as Google India, Kay Beauty and HSBC.

Zoya recounts, “My journey into journalism started after I featured in the sequel of a short film titled Hijra Shap Ki Vardan: Part 1. Then I got an opportunity to work as India’s first trans journalist with Police Chitrapath and Akshraaj. I had a second-hand camera with no clue about what to do on the field. I was not aware of photography and what is street photography but I had the passion to own a camera and click pictures. So every Sunday, I used to take a break from Mumbai locals and go to Borivali National Park to take pictures.” One day when Zoya was out on the field to cover a pink rally for the trans community, she met senior photojournalist Divyakant Solanki from European Press Photo Agency. “He taught me what journalism is. He’s my mentor,” recalls Zoya.

Despite being given a press card by a local Hindi-language newspaper in Mumbai, featuring in a short film and some of the biggest brands, does Zoya have a stable job? The answer is no. Zoya says, “Today, I have fame, but not a stable occupation. I am struggling for my daily bread and butter in the Mumbai local trains, where I somehow manage to collect alms and run my daily life.”

However, the issues she’s facing on the field as a photographer are not as much as the ones she faces when she’s dressed in a saree. Zoya shares, “As a trans person, when I am in my traditional outfit like a saree and if I have to go to a showroom and shop, I am always being stopped. Even at one of the McDonald's outlets, I was mistreated and told, ‘Aage jao!’. We are in 2023, and we speak so much about trans inclusivity and diversity but still, there's a lack of acceptance. Trans people suffer 365 days of mental harassment and torture and it’s a very bad situation for us.”

She continues, “I dropped out from a convent school in class five. But growing up in a catholic society has helped me to get fluent in English. Whenever I am on the train, people think I am uneducated. When they pass comments and I answer back in English, they get shocked.” However, she was never forced to beg. For her, it was always a choice. She says, “I chose to beg because I didn’t want to get into addiction or human trafficking. Whatever I am earning, if I can make a decent earning, why not?”

Referring to cis actors playing trans roles and the problematic representation of trans people in Indian cinema, Zoya questions, “Why don’t we get to play ourselves on screen? When you see the film industry, the role where we should act as an actor or play a certain role is getting killed. A male actor is cast for the role. Whereas, if a trans person gets that opportunity that particular act or film would get a fine art and structure. Training a cis person to dance with our mannerisms is taking away so many opportunities from us.”

Highlighting the need to celebrate the community beyond the month of June and not just as an annual homage, Zoya believes inclusivity should be about every single day. She asks, “When the month of June comes, Pride Month is closer, trans or LGBTQIA+ are highlighted only for the month of June, why?” She urges, “We should be visible for 365 days of our life. You make us visible during a wedding or special occasion, but is society ready to make us visible in their day-to-day life? We are also human beings living on this earth. Today, we are a part of LGBTQIA+, it’s a god’s gift, nature’s gift, then why are we not getting opportunities? Why don’t you see a particular person’s art? Give that person also a chance? A person may not have millions of Instagram followers but can be good at performing and promoting your brand. Why is that not taken into consideration?”

Zoya has been awarded by the Bombay News Photography Association for her work during the covid pandemic. This year, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, she’s also been honoured with Savitri Bai Phule award for breaking stereotypes and coming ahead in society by becoming India’s first trans photojournalist. Inspired by Indian journalists Ravish Kumar and Barkha Dutt, she says, “Barkha gives me that strength to go on the field and fight for the right, reality and truth. In photography, it was always my dream to meet Danish Siddiqui who passed away.”

As a photojournalist, Zoya likes to shoot general news, but keeping that aside, she’s very passionate about wildlife photography. She’s hopeful that more brands would collaborate with her in future. “I have kept a strong hope of getting a chance to work with a publication. If I get an opportunity, I would want to work with Thomson Reuters,” she says.

Zoya has had her share of heartbreaks. She shares, “I have gone through nine breakups in my life. I have realised that people can only give us love within four walls, they can’t accept us publicly.” Even if the Supreme Court judgement comes in the favour of the LGBTQIA+ community, she believes, “The relationship should be strong enough and the partner should also have the guts to stay with us.”

With so many campaigns and initiatives being taken, what can help to bring in a genuine and substantial change in the mindsets? Zoya stresses how only a few of her community people are educated and others are not. “Society should take that step ahead to also educate and guide them. There are so many people in my community who are immensely talented. Some are into cooking, some are into fashion, styling, beauty, dancing, art or acting. Why are they not getting the opportunity?”

Disheartened by the never-ending struggles of battling prejudice and bigotry, she emphasises the lack of empathy towards her community in particular. Adding further on the lack of guidance, and love, she says, “People like to adopt pets and kids but no one wants to adopt a trans person. Nobody wants to give time to a trans person. Nobody has the guts. Adopt us in a way where you can be our guardian, don’t adopt us just for the sake of it. We are not asking for financial support, but adopt us and give us that encouragement, support, love and care. Be the person who can guide us and be there for us in difficult times.”

“When we say pride, are you seriously and proudly giving us that right to live in society? Are you giving us that courage to live pridefully amongst you? If you support us to live amongst you, consider and treat us as equal human beings, be proud to accept us,” Zoya signs off. 

Photo: Instagram/Zoya Thomas Lobo