In honor of Pride Month, Ames photographer will take free senior photos for LGBTQ+ youth

Isabella Rosario
Ames Tribune

When Jo Allen was in high school, they wore dresses in their senior photos because they "just had to look that way," they said. But they also took portraits in "more masculine clothing" that felt true to their identity.

Now, the 23-year-old photographer, who is queer and nonbinary, wants to give LGBTQ+ high school graduates pictures of themselves that they can also look back on with pride.

In honor of Pride Month, Allen is giving away two senior photo sessions for LGBTQ+ high schoolers in the class of 2021 or 2022 in the Ames and greater Des Moines area. Each winner, selected by a panel of LGBTQ+ central Iowans, will win a free one-hour session where they can wear two or three outfits and receive 25 edited photos. The link to enter can be found here.

"I want them to feel valued, celebrated and most importantly, visible ... so they can look at that photo and say, yeah, that's me — that's what I think of when I think of me being happy as a trans person or as a gay person or as a lesbian person," Allen said.

LGBTQ+ high school youth in the greater Des Moines and Ames area can enter to win a free senior photo session until 6 p.m. June 25.

A recent graduate of Iowa State University, Allen got the idea for the giveaway from one of their advisors in the CYstarters summer program. Allen is further developing their photography business Jovisuals with help from the ISU initiative.

"I'm an advocate for BIPOC communities and I'm an advocate for the LGBTQ community, and I just want those communities to know I'm always going to be a resource that is going to want to work with them," Allen said, adding that being Black, queer and nonbinary has given them "a very unique perspective on life."

Allen said they approach their photography with the goal of capturing "natural documentations of who (people) are," playing music clients like during shoots to make them feel more comfortable, so it's "not just ... going out there and taking pictures." 

Allen wants clients to be able to look back at photos of themselves and think, "that's a real smile — that's a real laugh," they said.

Related: We need to celebrate LGBTQ joy this Pride Month. Lives depend on it.

And they want to do the free photoshoots not only to give back to their communities but also to document people who are historically underrepresented or misrepresented in media.

"It always comes back to visibility, back to representation, because the more that we see of that, the better chance we have as a society to hopefully get along together," Allen said.

Through self-portraits, Allen has also documented the evolution of their own gender identity and presentation. Before being diagnosed with cancer in college, they said they dressed very femininely to conform to their peers.

Looking back at high school photos "when I was still identifying strictly as a woman and had my very, very long hair, I was so attached to it — like, I cared more about losing my hair during cancer than losing my life," Allen said.

Allen posts photos of themself and their clients presenting in gender-affirming ways, whether that be wearing a chest binder or a dress. They said even if people are unfamiliar with trans issues, seeing someone's joy in a photo can simply communicate the importance of letting people be who they are.

"We are proud to be here. We are proud to express ourselves. And I want especially for the youth to be able to feel that way," Allen said.

Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at irosario@gannett.com or on Twitter at @irosarioc.