Meet Mumbai’s first photojournalist from the transgender hijra community
Freelancer Zoya Lobo’s images have appeared in publications across India and beyond. ‘I have a message. I want to take this chance to say there is nothing a trans person can’t do,’ she says.
Zoya Lobo is a struggling freelance photographer, but that’s only part of the story. Nine years ago, at 18, she came out as transgender to her family and went in search of a guru from within the community in Mumbai. She found one, and began to seek alms on local trains, with others from the community. I decided to be open about my identity, she says.
In 2018, her life took a sudden and rather dramatic turn. She landed a role in a short film series by Vikas Mahajan (Hijada Shrap ki Vardan; or Trans People: Curse or Blessing) after she pointed out to Mahajan that there were no trans actors in his first film about life in the community. At an event later hosted by Mahajan for the cast and crew of his second film, she made a speech about the injustice inherent in how her community is treated, kept out of the mainstream and shunned by their families and society.
That event was attended by Shreenet Singh, editor of the local media outlet College Times. Impressed by her articulation, he offered her a job as a freelance journalist. She was also given access to the office cameras and, over a few months of practice, photography became her medium of storytelling.
In April 2020, her photos of protests by stranded migrant workers near Bandra station in Mumbai were picked up by major publications, including the Hindustan Times. This led to more regular work and even an assignment for the Canadian science magazine Quebec Science. Lobo, 27, is back to struggling amid the pandemic, with work slowing to a trickle. It’s been a rollercoaster ride she couldn’t have imagined, she says. Excerpts from an interview.
When did you realise your passion was photojournalism?
I knew very little about journalism or photography when I was offered the freelance job. While working on assignments, I slowly understood how to follow incidents and what works as a photo for news. Then I realised that I really want to do this and I decided to buy a camera. I started putting aside money from what I made begging on trains but that money was too little. Finally, around Diwali in 2019, I made some extra money and with that I eventually bought a Nikon D510.
Do you have an idol?
My idols are journalists Ravish Kumar and Barkha Dutt. I like how they go to the root of every story they do. They don’t just scratch the surface. When I go out for a story I think of the questions Ravish Kumar would ask and then follow the story. When I feel a little scared to follow something, I think of the kinds of threats Kumar would face and it helps me gather courage.
How has life changed for you since you became a photojournalist?
Financially, not much changed till last year. I still had to go begging on trains to make ends meet. And then with the lockdown, that too stopped. At one point, I thought I would have to sell the camera too. I was somehow managing with help from neighbours and people I got to know on the trains.
But it was during the pandemic that I got my first break with images of the protest of migrant workers in Bandra. After that a lot of senior photojournalists in the city praised my work and guided me on the use of lenses and other technicalities. I got more assignments.
But putting aside the money question, I enjoy being a journalist. I love walking the streets purposefully with my camera. When not looking for stories now, I take photos of birds and animals. One I treasure is from my recent trip to Amravati where I managed to click a kingfisher. It was thrilling to get the moment just right.
You wanted to send out a message about your community…
Yes, whenever I get a chance to speak, I point out that there is nothing that a trans person can’t do. If their families stop rejecting them, if we get a good education, we will lead lives like any other person, working in regular jobs and not begging on trains.