Skin color and the photography industry

[I held off on posting this, thinking we wouldn’t be adding much to the discussion…but after a week or so, there still hasn’t been much mention of organizations working to change the demographics of the photography industry]

There are a lot of white faces at all levels in the photography industry: in the editorial offices, in the business offices, behind the cameras, and in front of the cameras (well, in photojournalism it’s often dark suffering faces in front of the cameras, but that’s another conversation; rarely do black models feature prominently in fashion magazines, for instance.). What started as an observation at Reciprocity Failure turned into an incendiary accusation and “contest” at Duckrabbit and then blossomed into a conversation in the photography blog echo chamber. Prison Photography, Politics, Theory & Photography, APhotoADay, Conscientious, Photo Business News & Forum, and APhotoEditor all weighed in, and I’m sure there were others. Duckrabbit’s now added more fire to the flame…. Some of the best discussion I’ve seen on the topic occurred on lightstalkers and in APhotoEditor’s comments (though APE’s discussion got a little out of hand and comments have since been closed). I was also interested to read John Edwin Mason’s perspective about the lack of diversity at the just-finished Look3 festival in Charlottesville. This is a conversation that needs to happen. Photo District News started out as the target of the accusations of passive racism, and they have responded in the PDNPulse post “On Lack of Diversity in Photography, and in PDN.”

As some have pointed out, this is a problem far more pervasive than the jury for PDN’s Photo Annual. Looking at the jury for this year’s POYi, for instance, or the names of the BOP judges, the contests are controlled, primarily by white people (update June 23: thanks to a reader for pointing out that BOP counts a few African-Americans and latinos among their judges). World Press Photo, on the other hand, boasts a remarkably diverse roster of jurors. Here, I should say that I do not mean to impugn any of these talented judges or these contests; the work they reward is often well-deserving and the lack of the diversity, I think, indicates not a pernicious white supremacist power grab, but rather a passive exclusion of people of color endemic to the European and American mass media industry. That’s still a significant hurdle, but perhaps it’s better than it could be. Also, there’s a raft of black media organizations (old list, found in a suspect comment in APhotoEditor’s discussion), and I don’t want to disparage their efforts by suggesting the western media is only white. That list, too, suggests that the majority-white media world does not fill the market need for black Americans, and one suspects it doesn’t for other minorities in the US, either. That isn’t necessarily a problem either; media perhaps shouldn’t be all things to all people, and a multiplicity of publications aimed at varied audiences begets a broader and better perspective on the world than would a few magazines aimed at “the masses.”

The simple fact is that there needs to be more diversity throughout the photo industry at all levels. Programs such as the Angkor Photography Festival’s free workshops for young Asian photographers, the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop (interview about the workshop), Aina (a nonprofit geared toward creating a well-trained independent local media in Afghanistan; interview about the workshop), the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity (their photo contest deadline is today, by the way), the Young Photographer in the Caucusus Award (deadline June 15), and minority journalism programs and professional organizations (yes, they do matter!), begin to address the need for an entry point to photography to those from different backgrounds than the middle class white males dominating the industry. Programs such as Women in Photojournalism or the Photobetty collective (sadly, now seemingly defunct) begin to address gender disparity in photography. Organizations such as Majority World exhibitions such as ICP’s Snap Judgments, and blogs such as Asian Photography Blog, begin to show the world as viewed and photographed by its many cultures. And grant competitions such as National Geographic’s All Roads Photography Program begin the process of rewarding high-caliber photography by indigenous photographers. But this is only a beginning.

8 Responses to “Skin color and the photography industry”

  1. duckrabbit

    A brilliant, brilliant summation of the debate. Hats off to you guys.

    Just to clarify, if you read back, and despite common belief, duckrabbit never ourselves made an accusation in our original post, merely quoted what others had written and at the same time posed a question.

  2. John Edwin Mason

    Thanks very much for putting this list of links together. It’s great to be able to point people to a site where they can follow this conversation, as it developed. I also appreciate your list of organizations working for change.

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  4. Philly

    I’m glad you mentioned the Angkor Photography Festival and workshops which Gary Knight helped found. Unfortunately Gary’s work to encourage and support young Asian photographers has not been mentioned in the attacks on him.

  5. Ida

    As I’ve gotten to the discussion a little late to participate this time around, I’m very grateful for this summary and the extensive links. Well done.

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