PetaPixel

Photography’s Old White Guy Problem

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Photographer Daniel Shea recently penned an op/ed on sexism in editorial photography that generated an important discussion about women in photography. It is a topic that I’ve thought about for a while now, especially as it relates to the diversity (or lack thereof) of the photographers who are most often promoted by the industry at large, whether by the photo media or the companies that produce the equipment and gear that we all use.

To illustrate the point, here are just a few of those companies and the photographers they’ve selected to represent their brands:

Nikon’s Ambassadors for the United States:

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Canon’s Explorers of Light:

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X-Rite’s Colorati:

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Of the 111 people represented, there are 15 women (13% vs. 50.8% of the US general population), 2 blacks (1.8% vs 13.1% of the US general population), 1 hispanic (0.9% vs 16.9% of the US general population) and no Asians (0% vs 5.1% of the US general population).

My company has worked with many of these companies, and I can say nothing but good things about the people who manage them and their contributions to the photography industry more broadly. Moreover, they aren’t alone. Many other companies have similar makeups for their ambassador programs.

I also know many of these photographers personally, and I most definitely admire the quality of their work and the exemplary careers they’ve built. There is no question in my mind that these photographers deserve the distinction that these camera companies bestow upon them. On a merit-basis, no reasonable person could question individual selections.

Many of these photographers have been in the business for decades – long before the advent of digital. And I will concede that during the era of film, photography was a white male dominated profession for the most part. So on the one hand, we’re witnessing the aggregation of those “10,000 hourers.” But on the other hand these lists are problematic for that same reason – their homogeneity.

The problem isn’t dissimilar from any other institution that has a racial or gender inequality. Congress is a perfect example. But unlike Congress, where the ability to fundraise is intrinsically tied to winning, the solution to this problem is relatively easy to overcome. Namely, the selection committees of these various companies should simply consider diversification.

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But why does it really matter? When we look at a photo, we can’t tell who whether the photographer was a man or woman, white or black, young or old. And if all the photographers are great, and they were selected on merit, what is the problem?

It matters for two reasons. First, homogeneity often becomes subconsciously ingrained within institutions and reinforces stereotypes. (Look at the recent selection of Indian-American Nina Davuluri as Miss America, and the outcry on Twitter questioning her Americanism because she didn’t fit the historical mold.)

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If diversity is important to an institution, then it often has to try to become diverse – it rarely happens organically without some sort of push. “Old White Male Photographer A” might suggest “Old White Male Photographer B”, and the pattern continues.

Even when younger photographers are selected for these programs, we still don’t see much gender and minority representation. Why? Because, again, that would assume that diversity was important in the first place.

Diversity is important because old white guys aren’t representative of the people who are taking pictures today at the amateur or pro level. The low cost of digital photography has allowed a huge influx of creative talent to experiment and develop.

By excluding representation of women and people of color who are making photos, these companies are losing a potential connection to their audience. If you don’t buy the admittedly liberal idea that diversity is important, then perhaps you will agree that the marketing opportunity is tangible and real.

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When I was entering the photo industry, I had the opportunity to attend some conferences and see a 20-something Vincent Laforet speak. Seeing his images made me think that I could do it too. His youth connected with me in a way that hearing an older photographer didn’t. The same might be true for a woman or person of color.

Vince is now a middle-aged white guy, but I’m still Asian. Seeing the personal work of people like Michael Jang and understanding why and how they photograph is appealing to me. Even more so, no one wants to see the same speakers at every photo conference year after year.

Show me the Scout Tufankjians, Yunghi Kims, Rineke Dijkstras, Donna Ferratos, Ed Ous, Taryn Simons, Cass Birds, Nirrimi Firebraces, Emily Nathans and the Kareem Blacks of the world. Need more inspiration? Erin Patrice O’Brien just created her own great list of women photographers in response to Shea’s blog post.

There will be no calls for boycotts or letter writing campaigns. Let the conversation that’s been happening lately serve as a (re)awakening, a call to be more conscious of who we select to represent our industry. Let them not only reflect those who have been a part of it for decades, but also those who are joining us for the first time — and who represent our industry’s future.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.


Image credit: Header illustration based on Dr Salter’s Daydream Statue, Bermonsey – London. by Jim Linwood, Nina Davuluri photos by Bruce Vartan Boyajian/The Miss America Organization, Crowd by James Cridland


 
 
  • Daniel

    This article is on point and long overdue. Actually, a well known photographer responded to a post on his Ask Me Anything blog when someone asked about great photographers… the photographers response acknowledged the dearth of minority photographers getting exposure and then said, “…he’d like to discuss it more if anyone wanted to comment about it.”

    Well I sent him a question regarding this, I asked why does it seem that Matthew S. Jordan is the only black photographer on the speaker circuit etc (I love Matthew S. Jordan’s work). No response from the photographer, in fact I sent the question twice… three months ago…. No response. I assume he didn’t want to touch the topic because he’s now a brand ambassador for a major camera maker and doesn’t want to step out to from where he’s finally gotten. I understand that… kinda.

    There is indeed a good ole’ boy vibe and under-reresentation of all minorities in the industry… if you’re cute with long-hair there may be an exception. For those who claim that identifying the lack of diversity is racism itself, you’re wrong. If you constantly go to an event and notice, no one there looks like you… or read articles and it’s the same folks or ethnicity, one begins to think… what about us? Being a minority in anything you can’t help but notice the majority.

  • James Forge

    I just ran through the PhotoShelter Blog – the subsection title inspiration. The overwhelming majority of the profiles-interviews were with white male photographers, followed by female shooters. I found very few photographers of color in the blog. It does seem that the people who run the PhotoShelter blog are trying to show work from non-traditional (ie, white and male) photographers.

  • Final_Word

    Maybe women are not as good at photography. Or maybe they just don’t care as much.

  • Final_Word

    Looks like you missed the boat. You should have hired more old white guys.

  • Final_Word

    “much of the U.S.A. is still a hotbed of racist rednecks trying desperately to hold onto the same bunch of bad ideas that comprised redneck-speak over 50 years ago.”

    Oh give us a break. You don’t get out much do you?

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    look at X-Rite’s ambassadors for the whole of Asia, two white guys originally from England.

  • Buck_Ofama12

    Sounds like you just graduated one of our institutions of higher learning. You talk like a Marxist professor. How well has that worked out all through history…?

  • Bryan

    This reminds me of the push to get more women and minorities interested in engineering while I was in college. Look, I’m all for promoting diversity and giving everyone a fair chance. I mean this is America – where you should be able to pursue your goals and interests, but you can’t force people to have interests. We should certainly put forth an effort to make people feel welcome and not discourage them from following their heart, but why do people feel that every career/major/interest needs to be a perfect model of the US population?

  • Obvious Troll

    About the demographics, you missed one dog, one koala, and one optically camouflaged ninja.

  • nullhogarth

    “By excluding representation of women and people of color who are making
    photos, these companies are losing a potential connection to their
    audience.”
    This line seems to suggest that there has been a conscious decision to exclude women and minorities, but if the choice of who gets picked is based only on the quality of results, and this just happens to be the list of people whose photos are chosen, doesn’t it rather suggest that there is some difference in the content and quality of the images, rather than anything related to gender or race?

  • http://www.peterblaise.com/ peterblaise

    .
    No, it only suggests that the marketing department and publishing judges are old white guys and that they are blind to the language used and the stories told by women and minorities.
    .

  • http://www.peterblaise.com/ peterblaise

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    It’s a generational and cultural bigoted dismissal of equivalent consideration and human potential that cannot easily be eliminated in one season.

    .

  • Bart J Zoni

    I like how people frantically and awkwardly point out “lack of diversity” in all kinds of human pursuits, as if it’s some essential nutrient that all endeavours require. I wonder if the same people go to successful restaurants, and point out the lacking ingredients in the chef’s soup of the day. “Your soup is delicious, but it has only 4% buttermilk, and the general recipe population has 15% buttermilk. Let’s start a conversation about buttermilk in your soup.”