I’ve been a wedding photography educator for many years and within our wedding photography education community on Facebook, I have been teaching a lot about performative allyship in the wedding industry. It’s crucial that photographers – people who are capturing extremely intimate moments of a couple’s life – use the word ‘ally’ only when they are fully aware of what it means to be an ally.
My team and I have had the pleasure of capturing hundreds of Toronto weddings, Durham region weddings, Cambridge weddings, as well as other celebrations across all of southern Ontario and we, have had the privilege of capturing genuine love stories between couples who feel deeply, love strong and celebrate with the most beautiful intensity. This article is about sharing what we have learned and is meant as an entry point for those seeking to understand what performative allyship in the wedding industry looks like as well as how to become a better ally. It’s worth noting there isn’t a single article out there in the world that will teach you everything you need to know; learning to be a better ally is an ongoing investment in one’s learning. For that reason, I’ve linked some of my favorite resources below to help you continue your education on the matter.
What is allyship?
At its most basic, allyship is authentic support of a marginalized group from an individual who is outside of that marginalized group. As a business owner, authentic support happens both within your role as a business owner and within your personal life, too.
An ally is someone who advocates for marginalized individuals and communities whether that advocacy is directed at an individual or at a system-level problem but outside of advocacy an ally is someone who puts in the work, who is continually learning, and who knows when to listen rather than justifying.
As an ally, you can use the privileges that you have to fight for equity and equality – you care genuinely and deeply about the issues the marginalized group is facing to the point that it becomes your fight, too.
What are marginalized communities?
Before we start to talk about allyship and performative allyship, we need to recognize what a marginalized community is. A marginalized community is a group of individuals who experience discrimination and exclusion at not only an individual level but at a systemic level. Examples of marginalized groups include those who have been excluded due to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, body size, age, physical ability, cognitive ability, and/or language amongst more.
It’s important to note that there are people who may not appear to be in one of these groups who very much are in one of these groups. This can include white-passing individuals who they themselves may appear white but do not have white parents, folks who appear to be neurotypical but who are neurodiverse (ie: ADS/ADHD) and straight-passing couples who do not identify as straight (ie: one or both is bisexual, trans, aromatic, etc.).
If you think inclusion only matters when people “look” like a marginalized community – you’ve come to the right place to start your education.
What is performative allyship?
Performative allyship happens when someone is saying that they are an ally but they are acting in a way that is not supporting the marginalized communities that they claim to be fighting for. These actions can be within the business itself or in the business owner’s personal life outside of the business.
- An example of performative allyship within a business would be a business that says they are an “inclusive” business, but has the terms “bride and groom” all over their website rather than “couple”.
- An example of performative allyship outside of a business would be a business that, again, is marketing themselves as “inclusive” but supporting political parties who have policies that are not in the best interest and incredibly harmful to some of those marginalized communities.
Performative allyship is like essentially saying “I support you until I have to do something that is inconvenient for me, then I’ll ultimately choose me.”
Why is performative allyship in the wedding industry a problem?
Performative allyship is a problem in the wedding industry because many vendors are doing the bare minimum to try to acquire marginalized couples’ money, but that’s where their interest in the marginalized community stops. Seeing marginalized couples as opportunities (whether it’s financial or for your ‘portfolio’) borderlines on predatory. Groups of people who have faced individual and systemic oppression throughout their entire existence should not be viewed as ‘opportunities’ for a business owner.
Performative allyship in the wedding industry is very problematic among wedding photographers, too, due to the unique job a wedding photographer has. To be photographed on your wedding day means you’re consenting to let an individual be present to document an extremely intimate day. When someone is in a position of vulnerability; whether that’s physical vulnerability (like having someone present during getting ready photos when clothing changes may happen) or emotional vulnerability, knowing that they are surrounded by people who truly respect and value them as individuals is key to making those situations feel safe.
How to spot performative allyship in the wedding industry
There are some obvious signs of spotting performative allyship in the wedding industry and then there are some not-so-subtle signs that involve deep dives into websites and conversations with the individuals
- Optics – making surface-level posts about your “unbelievable sadness” over an event and then never speaking of it again, never making changes because of it and moving on.
- Saving their LGBTQIA+ content to be published in pride month or only posting about LGBTQIA+ content during pride month.
- Actively seeking out models from marginalized communities for styled sessions with the expectation that their time is not compensated for appropriately for the risk they are taking to be the ‘face’ of diversity for that business
- Including BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities in your portfolio but leaving out other marginalized communities (this signals performative actions and outs you as ageist, ableist, fatphobic, etc.)
- Playing it “safe” with your brand and not taking risks to hold yourself and others in your industry accountable for their behaviours.
- Only creating social media posts/commentary about indigenous issues when they are the trending topic in the news because “Everyone is doing it”. The issues of marginalized communities exist before and after you make your post – if you aren’t doing anything about it before and after that post then you’re simply being performative.
- Virtue signalling – finding ways to show your followers ‘how inclusive you are’ for the purpose of trying to gain popularity within that maginalized community rather than it being a natural part of your behaviours (Even if the struggles of that particular group are not ‘trending’ in the news at that moment)
- Specific to wedding photographers; performative allyship also looks like only using marginalized couples who fit the widely accepted western standard of beauty into their portfolio.
- Showing marginalized groups of individuals within your portfolio is fantastic; but if you’re only showing those that you deem are a certain beauty standard, are in smaller bodies, are wearing designer clothing or have worked with high-end vendors or who are able bodied, you can appear to be very performative because you’re essentially saying “I’m going to use you in my portfolio because you still fit these other criteria that I have deemed acceptable.”
What if my personal values don’t align with some of these viewpoints?
A lot of people will happily call themselves allies until they are forced to make decisions that will impact themselves. This can often be seen when politics begin to be discussed. An example is “Well, I support the LGBTQIA+ community, but I’m fiscally conservative so I need to vote that way even though I know that Conservatives have a history of being anti-LGBTQIA+.”
And to that I say: I personally don’t understand how human rights issues are even up for debate – for me, it’s a no-brainer that human rights should always be values and not be made into political agendas. I genuinely do not understand how someone can make decisions that further negatively impact already marginalized groups however if you are choosing to make those decisions do not do it while actively claiming to also be an ally. This is immediately creating an unsafe space for those marginalized folks.
This in no way means that you should refuse to accept marginalized communities as clients. In fact, in Canada, it is illegal to do so. What I”m saying is that if your personal views do not align with those that are actively trying to protect and uplift marginalized communities, do not call yourself inclusive or an ally. There still may be some folks from marginalized communities who want to work with you and if they feel safe doing so, they can – but you can’t use the term “ally” if you are not actually one.
Allyship and Diversity Training for the Wedding Industry
There’s no doubt that performative allyship in the wedding industry is a problem, but it’s not limited to just the wedding industry either. Performative allyship is everywhere and each and every one of us needs to do our part to learn how to run an authentically more diverse business and be better for those who are happily taking money from it. Here are 3 phenomenal resources for you to start with as you further your education on diversity and allyship as a business owner.
- Dr. Tomayia Colvin: Anti-Racism for Photographers
- The Guide to Allyship
- The 7 Pillars Program from The Boudoir University – A fantastic resource for all genres of photographers
- EZ Powers – Open Facebook page (amazing resources accessible to all)
These are by no means the only resources out there, but they are where I would recommend starting. As each of us reflects on our own white fragility, internalized fatphobia, internalized racism, internalized homophobia and internalized ableism as well become better allies to those marginalized communities. As wedding vendors, who are providing services to couples on an incredibly emotional and vulnerable day, it’s of the utmost importance that we truly do our work if we are advertising ourselves as an ally.