Photography’s Old White Guy Problem


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:


Canon’s Explorers of Light:


X-Rite’s Colorati:


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.


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.)


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.


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

  • Mike

    Sometimes it seems to me that the ones hiding behind words like “equality”, are even more racist than anyone else. How about we stop categorizing races and attaching percentages to them?

  • Michael Comeau

    Is the average photo hobbyist likely to be an old white guy? If so, it would explain a lot.

  • Fuzztographer

    Oh, for crying out loud, it’s not sexism if the pool from which to choose has roughly the same ratio of men to women (or white to brown to black, or whatever). What you’re advocating is affirmative action, which is just reverse racism. It spits in the face of merit and is ultimately detrimental to society.

  • Aiden

    I think it does explain a lot. Most of the people I meet out and about taking photos of birds are old white guys that have money and can afford the big lenses. The stereotype exists for a reason because as far as I can tell there are A LOT of old white guy photographers.

  • Aaron Lee Kafton

    If that’s the case, I say its classism. How many of them make less that 24K a year? How come us poor folk aren’t represented?!

  • Douchebag Rodeo

    If there are great discrepancies and diversity is not properly represented, it needs to be noted.

  • /CVP

    “Merit” is the shroud thrown over a mechanism of favoritism, preference, and privilege that seeks to maintain advantage the status quo to the exclusion of vast segments of ‘society’. Who has typically gotten to decide ‘merit’? Who are the judges of ‘merit’? People already in positions of authority.

  • /CVP

    Indeed, why not? Right, because when you’re in a position of power, the illusion of a meritocracy helps camouflage bias and exclusion.

  • Mike

    So when we want to represent equality, we need to pay MORE attention to race and gender, in order to make race and gender differences LESS noticeable? By masking them deliberately, just for the sake of doing so?
    A better solution would be to have a highly supervised authority that picks by examining the individual and his qualities, rather than saying “hmm..not enough people!”.

    Noticing inequalities is great. Pushing to “fix” them by pushing minorities up first and foremost because they are minorities is nothing more than good ol’ racism again.

  • Bret Linford

    Why must it be ‘noted’? Forcing people to have different opinions does not work. Inequities cannot be fixed overnight. There are about the same percentage of black people in the US as there were a 100 years ago. Look at how the black culture’s influence has dramatically changed since then. I think that’s a positive! Be patient.

  • derekdj

    I think you’ve raised the question at the tipping point in American society, even before the Miss America pageant (one wonders why we’re still having such a thing in the first place) was the Kellogg’s cereal commercial, with the depiction of a multi-racial family, a black father, white mother and mixed child. The angry reactions to the ad, the “controversy” showing a mixed family on prime time TV. Thankfully Kellogg’s stood their ground and continue airing the commercial, because it does show the shifting demographics of American society. It’s only a matter of time before advertisers display more courage in their work and realize that portraying the demographic realities won’t hurt sales.

    But, also along the same lines, the advertising industry is perhaps the most researched business in existence. There are plenty of studies that show even in homogenous cultural groups (ex, Japanese and Korean) the use of “white faces” in advertising does evoke senses of trust or savvy (depending on the product endorsement). It is no coincidence that you’ll see a constant stream of “white” models used in print and television trade ads overseas. These cultural perceptions evolve based on the economical and political trends of the time. Back in the early 80’s and 90’s the “asian” face was quite popular when promoting tech goods and services. I have Nikon USA catalogs from the mid 80’s featuring japanese and caucasians photographing japanese models.

  • junyo

    By even suggesting that there might be (or might have ever been) any bias towards Old White Guys you’ve just released the kraken.

    Oh, the comment count we’ll see!

  • Guest

    Let Merit be the only talking point…I come from a country where there are quotas for education…and trust me it has such damaging effects..
    If the amount of a certain section of the society in the Photographers pool is larger than their actual percentage should we then reduce the numbers…
    If going for minimum quotas should we fix Maximum quotas…
    I know they are stupid questions but these are what will arise when u start quoting numbers….

    Strive for perfection, never give importance to anything other than artistic Merit and If you feel injustice done to you or anyone around you…speak out….That is all that we can do

  • Jonathan Maniago

    This reminds me of a YouTube video wherein Thunderf00t reacts to the supposed sexism in videogaming circles. You’ve said it yourself: “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.”

    I’m an Asian, and I don’t really give a damn whether or not our kind has enough representation in the US. Let the works speak for themselves.

  • Cinekpol

    “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).”

    – Hm… I don’t get why people always suggest/assume that a spread of USA population should always reflect on a representation in every other discipline.
    How about instead of arguing how many white man are photographers we’ll argue how many black man are basketball players?

    “First, homogeneity often becomes subconsciously ingrained within institutions and reinforces stereotypes.”
    – There are any stereotypes on black/hispanic/asian photographers? Please, do educate me, cause I haven’t heard of any.

  • Andy Umbo

    …have to say: I’ve been a media department manager in the corporate world for years, and I’ve hired every type of racial, gender, and preference person in the world, and the only specific thing I look at is experience! In fact, the only time some of my selections have come to trouble is when someone in HR tries to make me hire someone based on race, gender, or preference. The only way to stop inequality in the work place is to disregard all race, gender or preference in the hiring process.

    You may think that there’s a ‘weighting’ of old white guys in this specific selection; but AS an old white guy, it’s almost impossible for me to keep being hired when the ‘hirers’ are young people, and in media, mostly women! I’ve had five or six of my professional contact lose their jobs in the last six months, for various ‘non-performance’ reasons; and they were all over fifty, and male, of racial backgrounds.

    In media, the number one unreported evil is AGEISM!

  • Banan Tarr

    Diversity is awesome. I’m just not so sure about “forced” diversity. I think the more important thing here is to try to be certain that a merit-based program like Canon’s Explorers of Light is being managed by a group of individuals who will do a proper job of ensuring they look at all available works equally.

  • jackpeterbuilt

    With the exception of the East and West coasts, and a few of the bigger cities inland, 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.

    “Old white guys” is who rednecks see themselves as, and therefore whom they repeatedly choose to reflect their image.

    So, there’s that.

    Thanks goodness for the two coasts, and for those “other race Americans” that can do things — like elect a President.

  • Cinekpol

    “Vince is now a middle-aged white guy, but I’m still Asian. (…) 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.”

    Fun fact to the author of an article: 2 of the most popular photographers in the world are Asian – that’s the Chris Niccolls and Kai Man Wong. So how exactly Asians are not being praised for their work? I doubt even 10% of people know ANYONE from this very long list of Canon, Nikon and X-Rite representatives, while probably 90% of people around here do recognize faces of both: Kai and Chris. I could argue now that Asians are overrepresented comparing to Hispanic and Black people. Or probably – even comparing to white people.

    I would also argue that in a group of famous photographers young people are significantly underrepresented.

    27.3% of U.S. population is below 20 years of age. Where’s their representation in a photography world?! I haven’t seen ANY photographer below 20yo being either notable person in a photographic community, or represented in various prestigious photographic companies. I know that experience does take years to learn, but we live in an era where people get their hands on cameras petty much before they can speak, so surely there are thousands of young people with very high experience and amazing talent (and after all – talent is also a key to photography, probably more important than experience) that never got their representation despite of being over a quarter of US population.

    Seriously – this article would have some merit if not few things that are taken completely out of the sky and make me wonder if author isn’t a racist himself.

  • Cinekpol

    Since when rednecks pick a Nikon Ambassadors or Canon Explorers of Light? I thought that these guys are picked mostly by people in Japan based on their photographic career.

  • Stephen Kent

    Can’t remember how many times I’ve been told, Your work is great, but we’re holding out for a woman or minority. My field is newspaper photojournalism. Been in it for over 30 years and understand the need for a well-rounded staff. Don’t know how it is in other areas of photography, but in the last 20 years at least, there’s been more opportunities or females in photojournalism than there have been applicants. The one figure I didn’t see in this article is the percentage of males to females in the photography industry as a whole. If the numbers are 50/50 then maybe the camera companies should try a little harder to be more well rounded. If they aren’t then you’ve just waisted everyone’s time. Rather than wringing hands over non-issues, how about we figure out how to stop the devaluation of our work as a whole. Now there’s a problem all of us need solved.

  • Mike

    Asian photographers use long lenses?
    I don’t know…this is moronic.

  • Eugene Chok

    to be honest these days… being a asian and being a photographer is almost a clihe :(, in regards to this subject i honestly don’t care and the numbers of women in this industry is growing so much. you should do this exact thing with “representative” government instead

  • Eugene Chok

    another thing, this positions would probably appeal to ‘tech nerd’ types and in my opinion people who are gear freaks tend to be male

  • pgb0517

    Absolutely. And it is something they can get away with so easily. You just overlook the resumes that indirectly reveal age — such a college graduations, years on a job, and so on.

  • Fred Bonilla

    The author’s intent is for the conversation to begin…so allow it to organically evolve without rancor, bitterness or ethnic put-downs. I agree with the author’s basic points, disagree on some of the finer points…should I put him down as a result? And being the co head of PhotoShelter, he speaks from an informed place.Bottom line…let the quality and content of one’s work be the ultimate criteria, no matter who it is…and that’s coming from an “old guy”!

  • Fuzztographer

    It *should* be defined as an impartial assessment of one’s skills, aptitude and purely relevant qualifications. Considering one’s gender, race, color or anything not immediately relevant is discrimination and sociological poison.

  • Rabi Abonour

    The problem is work *doesn’t* speak for itself. The photography industry is not a meritocracy.

  • beautox

    What next? Not enough gays and lesbians? Not enough disabled? Groan.

  • Matt

    To be frank, the author should have just championed photographers that they feel are not getting enough exposure. The topic should be look how great these photoraphers are! However, he slighted another group which is not the way to do it. He has now alienated people. Just look at the comments.

    Yes, I’m one of the old white guys. But, I’m not part of the problem. I firmly believe that people should be judged upon their actions and in the case of photography, the work they produce. I have no problem when someone from another “classification” makes a great photo, I enjoy the photo. But, the author seems like he would be prejudiced against me. Not that I’m any good, there is a reason I’m an amateur LOL.
    I do know what it is like to be an outcast, I have my own attributes that people have no issue in insulting. It sucks.

  • Jonathan360

    No asians!?

  • kassim

    What if… they are more men in photography than women?

  • The Oracle

    “I saw a terrific photo online last night, then I realized it was shot by an “old white guy”. That photo never looked the same after learning that fact.” Is something along these lines what the author is advocating?

    How can this be perceived as anything other than racism? Would you “feel” better if there was a “race of photographer” field in the EXIF data to make searching for your “preferred race” easier? Really?

    Blatant racism and should be call out for being such.

  • superduckz

    Wow. Seriously? Are you really paying attention? With the amazingly small barriers to entry today the average amateur/hobbyist is, well, anyone with a camera who has free time and an idea. From the amature enthusiast FB groups and meet-ups I attend (here in the big bad old white guy dominated deep south *eyeroll*) I’ve never noticed the variety of the cross-section of photographers out here… until I read this and did a head count… which is frankly doubly annoying.

    Now I can’t speak for the upper crust of the photographic elite but i’m not going to deny that the higher you climb the more locks you’ll see on the doors. That’s true in any industry regardless of race. But as the author said, there are very good marketing reasons for those ten thousand hour barriers to star toppling sooner rather than later and if my immediate impressions are any indication it’ll happen sooner rather than later. Considering the talent that I see all the time from every corner of race and genderdom, this should take care of itself in short order. And god bless the internet because the talent WILL find a way out only that much quicker.

  • superduckz

    You’re right. there aren’t nearly enough whites and asians or women represented in hip-hop. noted. So freaking what.

  • Aiden

    OK that’s nice but my comment is still valid and true.

  • superduckz

    If that’s true then it’s not a meritocracy. It’s simple old fashioned cronyism.

  • superduckz

    good grief.. how Orwellian can you get. Merit now means racism. Qualification now means “maintenance of status quo” Earning a position of judgment now implies being exclusionary. Practice your art encourage your friends and go kick down the doors with your talent. Quit wasting time whining.. .

  • Rabi Abonour

    He’s alienated people because people lack basic reading comprehension. At no point does he ever say that there is anything wrong with old white guys. The problem is that they dominate for reasons that are arguably not related to merit.

    It isn’t that he is prejudiced against you, it’s that the world is prejudiced *for* you (I say all of this as a white guy).

  • Rabi Abonour

    There are very few, if any, true meritocracies in this world. It’s naive to think otherwise.

  • Guest

    I’m and old white guy and I discriminate non stop every day and especially so where photography is concerned. I discriminate against work I don’t care for in order to spend more time enjoying work that I like. i must admit though that in most cases i don’t know the age, gender or race of the photographer unless i stop to take time to find out and even then sometimes I can’t tell. A place like 500pix can be very confusing for an old white discriminator like me… sigh..

  • Aaron Tsuru

    Sure! Why not? We should be pushing for the most diversity possible!

  • Aaron Tsuru

    Then let’s promote more women and encourage more future women photographers!

  • Stormin

    Anyone know the gender breakdown of photographer members of WPPI?

  • Robert

    But also look at certain niches of photography. Wedding photography is dominated by the ladies. I think because the brides relate to a lady and are more willing to posed for some of the more intimate poses. Not being sexist, but others have noticed the trend also.

  • Rabi Abonour

    No one is saying that people look at photos and think “I bet a woman made this so I don’t like it.” In the BUSINESS of photography, people don’t succeed just because of the quality of their images. They just don’t. Even if we assume there is absolutely no racism, you cannot deny things like basic charisma get people work.

  • Edward Crim

    I think Allen Murabayashi has imbibed too deeply of the spirit of the age and has the same problem all other drunks have; he appears wise in his own eyes, but the fool to all of us who are sober.

  • fatcatphoto

    Hanson Fong (Asian) is a Canon Explorer of light and his picture is in the group above. Wonder what else the author missed…

  • Stan B.

    Most whites are scared shtless of having an honest, open discussion concerning race (with people of other races, that is). They will avoid it at any and all cost. After all- They’re Not racists! They never owned any slaves! They never use the N-word (in public). In fact, some swear they don’t even see race… just don’t drop them off in the “wrong” neighborhood, or Hallelujah, Praise the Lord- Their eyes shall see!!!

    After all, it’s just coincidence, some would say ummm… the natural order of things- just coincidence that most professionals behind the camera are white, and that so many gritty, exotic subjects that help launch and make so many of their careers are black or brown in front of their lens- over and over again, the same coincidental pattern…

    Just a coincidence that there was one black photo gallerist in NYC back in the ’70s- and last I counted this year, this century… there was still only one— the very same one!

    It’s just a coincidence that so many workshops, so many juries, so many editorial staffs still feature only token minority representation, at best- except, of course, those that have evolved completely beyond the petty distinctions of race, and are completely 100% White.

    After all, really, who’s counting, it’s just business, it’s just coincidence- it’s just the natural order of things…

  • Wicked Witch of the south west

    Uhhh, Folks, sorry for the interruption. I do know that this may be a bit off topic . But after reading down through this first page, it is apparent that, a bit of sanity be offered in the form of sophomoric irrelevance. With that said: ” Do flatulence emissions have lumps ? ”
    Have a better than average day…………