The Power of Portrait

Photographer Caitlin (Katie) Barry set out to build queer community and provide authentic, sensitive portraiture with her LGBTQ Photo Pop-Ups.

I wanted to offer empowering portrait sessions to LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people. Many of us need headshots and would love portraits of ourselves, our partners, and our families, but professional photography can often result in our being misunderstood, misgendered, and/or misrepresented. I envisioned LGBTQ Photo Pop-Ups as the antidote, so in August 2017 I began holding the events with the help of my partner, KC Councilor, and some friends willing to volunteer their time.

I aimed to create a free event in a queer space where folks could come together around the act of being seen and leave with high-quality images of themselves. I imagined photography as a queer community act.

The radical impact of being seen struck me after my partner and I married in 2016. As I searched for a photographer, I found myself having to ask, “Are you comfortable shooting a queer wedding?” I’ll never forget one of the responses from (I’m assuming) a straight, white, cis man. He wrote back curtly, “I’m a professional photographer. I’ll photograph anything.” We didn’t go with him. 

The person we eventually found, Jen Gannigan, was able to make both of us feel understood and valued in front of her lens. This was an especially profound experience for my partner, who had just started using male pronouns and was newly identifying as trans. The act of being truly seen by Jen proved so validating for KC that it prompted him to begin hormonal therapy after years of waiting. I had been shown the power of photography. 

Many of us feel uncomfortable in front of a camera. LGBTQ, and especially trans and gender non-conforming folks, can have the hardest time, especially when photographed by straight, cis people with hetero-normative expectations. But photographs are our surest memorabilia. They bring us back to our earlier selves in a way nothing else can: they are powerful, magical items. And they speak to the world about how we see ourselves. 

If we are uncomfortable, insecure, or upset while being photographed, we will not like the photos—no matter how flattering they are. I’m dedicated to LGBTQ folks transcending their fear of the camera. I’m here to make them feel seen, whole, and gorgeous, and to provide images that align with their inner selves. 

The reality of the pop-ups has far exceeded my initial goal. With massive volunteer help, I’ve done four since last August, three of them at our shared queer art studio (Everyday Gay Holiday on Atwood Avenue). At our first Madison event, the response was overwhelming. I wound up shooting 36 portrait sessions in five hours. People milled around and got to know each other while they waited for their turn. 

As we’ve held subsequent pop-ups, people have returned to volunteer or just spend time with a community that has sprung up around the events. I’ve heard from many folks I’ve photographed that the experience was “actually really fun” (a huge compliment), empowering, and validating. I’ve watched countless interactions between new friends who met at a pop-up. I’ve seen queer people’s social media photos change from cell phone selfies to proper headshots they are proud of, and it is an amazing, humbling thing. I’ve even had the chance to collaborate with folks whose visions complement mine: in March, we had Wyatt Barton’s Resilience Over Silence project offer free hair and makeup to anyone being photographed. I set out intending to make photography a queer community act and, indeed, it has become one. 

Come join us at our next LGBTQ Photo Pop-Up at Everyday Gay Holiday, 2088 Atwood Avenue in Madison: Sunday, May 6 2:00–6:00 p.m. (sign-in starts at 1:00; first come, first served).

Caitlin Barry is a lifestyle and wedding photographer with a passion for documenting queer life and love. Before embracing photography as a full-time job, she owned and operated Madison-grown pet care business Take Paws. Caitlin and her partner KC will be moving to New Haven, Connecticut this summer, but she will be back in Madison often to visit family and friends and to hold occasional pop-up events. You can find her work and see more portraits from the LGBTQ Photo Pop-Ups at smoketreephotography.com.

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