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

  • Hugo Fonseca

    And why is “Old white guy” a term that you think is ok to use?

  • Hugo Fonseca

    Says you. No it doesn’t.

  • Hugo Fonseca

    Thank you.

  • Hugo Fonseca

    No. I’m not an old white guy. I work for a living. And i can afford any lens i want.

  • John Kantor

    Most black people are much too smart to waste their lives on photography.

  • Hugo Fonseca

    And would you use that term to describe Adams, Bresson, Evans?

  • Sarah Fried

    That’s like when rich people say, “how about we stop talking about money and how unfair it is.”

    Sure, it’s easy for someone in a position of power to not want to see the reality of the situation, but for the rest of us, it’s an issue.

    By your rationale, people like Martin Luther King Jr. would be a “racist” simply because he recognized inequality.

  • Sarah Fried

    Definitely merit should be the first priority. But in a field where artistic expression is often very subjective, it’s good to have more diverse views.

  • Sarah Fried

    Art is very subjective. What an individual chooses to express is based on their own experiences and diversity helps introduce us to different ideas and viewpoints.

  • foxyshadis

    The trouble with that is that these aren’t Olympic athletes competing on merits, they’re _ambassadors_ whose jobs are to bring new young people into photography. Yes, in a colorblind genderblind world no one would see anything about the speaker, but in the real world, we all connect most with the people most like us, inside and out.

    So how about admitting that if these companies are serious about getting photography out of the (admittedly very lucrative) old white upper-middle class man ghetto, they’re going to have to use more people who don’t come from that background. In fact, with our society slowly becoming more colorblind and genderblind, the _class_ differences may now be just as important as color and sex; while they stick to speaking to upper-middle class professionals, they’re losing the entire 80% of people less well off who are rapidly accepting a phone as the only camera they’ll every need. The less wealthy have still been a large revenue stream for camera companies, because everyone likes to capture a moment.

  • foxyshadis

    I’d wager 100% of those ambassadors are upper-middle class or higher. The rest of us will have to be satisfied with our cameraphones while we envy the elite, I suppose.

  • foxyshadis

    How do you define the merits of a photographer? Can you? Would your definition be the same as anyone else’s, someone from an entirely different background? (And I don’t just mean race.)

    Beyond that, the point of these programs isn’t to highlight the best of the best, in case you hadn’t noticed. It’s to connect with and inspire people new to the field, so that they eventually buy nice cameras, and people usually connect best with people most similar to themselves, inside and out. Companies are only shooting themselves in the foot if they make their ambassador crews bland.

    Though ultimately, engaging speaking ability is probably more important than any other factor.

  • Dafuq

    This makes as much sense as accusing the USA Olympic team of being racist just because 95% of the athletes are black.

    In other news, I went to a clothing factory the other day and there were only female seamstresses.


  • MMielech

    Personally, I am much more concerned about the almost total absence of Old White Guys performing rap music.

  • Bill Binns

    Perhaps the author would like to identify which “old white guys” should lose their jobs to make room for photographers of color.

  • Bill Binns

    Good point. I wonder what the hairstyling industry is doing about their “young gay guy problem”?

  • Bill Binns

    Anyone who can afford a cellphone can afford a used DSLR. Not to mention the fact that that an SLR is hardly neccesary these days. There has never been a time when the financial hurdle to getting into photography has been lower.

  • Gudrun

    I don’t know about Hanson Fong’s ancestry, but apparently he’s not asian enough for Allen to count him as such.

    As to equal representation, I’m not sure new photographers are looking to these company spokespeople as models. New photographers are more focused on creating photographs than on checking out who represents their monitor calibrator. By the time they discover these people, they’re usually well into photography.

    I have an issue with equal representation as a concept too. Sometimes certain groups of people are simply better suited to a job: men (generally) make better pilots because of their great visuo-spatial skills; woman (again, generally) make better nurses because of their nurturing natures. You could argue that there are similar factors at play in photography (certainly you might see these biases in the sub-disciplines of photography itself).

  • Christina

    This. Thank you.

    Championing individual photographers does nothing to start a conversation about misrepresentation of minorities in the photographic community.

  • damibru

    What an incredibly ignorant comment! Jeez, this isn’t about affermative action or some deluted version of it because that would suggest that anybody but a an old, pasty white guy would need some sort of help because they simply don’t qualify to do the job and in photography that is simply not the case. Look at what Creative Lighting is doing online; plenty women and minorities represented. No, this is about these companies broadening their scope and including minorities. This is as simple as making that choice and to be quite frank when I see a photo of a bunch of baby-boomer old, pasty white guys smiling who made sure their generation screwed my generation up by manifesting the greatest migration of wealth from the regular folks to their fat bellies,I just can’t take it serious anymore!

  • Lauren

    Don’t get me started on this topic. Too late. As a Pentax shooter, during women’s history week/month, Pentax/Ricoh tried to “showcase” female Pentaxians on their Facebook page. What did we get? Substandard imagery and fluffy photography and a woman-girl’s vacation photo-spread with point and shoot cameras. You, know, for the “female market segment”. When a few women, including myself complained, I was banned from making comments on the Facebook page. Every time I am out and about and people find out I am a photographer, I get the “Can you shoot a wedding?” or “Can you do glamour shots?” For crying out loud! I wouldn’t touch those assignments with a ten foot pole! Gender bias is everywhere, and in photography circles it can be just as bad or more so. Again, I could go on, but then the gender bias against my “on line tone” could be construed as being an “angry woman” instead of really asking or listening to what I have to say. As for the “photo-ambassadors” from various camera/photography companies? Notice how the women are at least reasonably attractive? No one wants a woman such as myself, portly/matronly with “an attitude” to represent anything. On the other hand, men can be quirky/fat/distinguished/facial hair – whatever – and that lends to their “intensity” or “credibility”. Ugh. Enough already. The original author of this article gets a pat-on-the-back for taking a moment out of his life to think about gender bias, and the second or two distraction to his life it took to do so.

  • Christina

    Equality is not about pretending that differences between people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, etc… do not exist. It’s about acknowledging these differences and furthermore treating and representing everyone equally and giving them equal opportunities.

    The fact that in a group of 111 photographers representing these major brands there are only 18 individuals who represent minorities and the rest are white males shows that there is a huge discrepancy in the kind of privilege that has been handed down (or not) to these groups.

    The point of this article was to start a conversation and I applaud the author for having the guts to write such a piece. Especially given the fact that so many comments have been very negative. Of course this only highlights how blind the privileged are to their privilege.

  • Chebro

    So racist. sooooo racist. smh

  • Christina


    Or can we talk about PDN’s idiotic attempt at releasing a “lady’s only” magazine filled with archaic, sexist stereotypes about women? I mean come on! Anyone who doesn’t agree with at least part of this article is simply a white male blinded by his privilege.

  • Rabi Abonour

    You could? Then do it. Give me one good reason why men would be inherently better suited to photography than women.

  • Rabi Abonour

    I’m truly shocked by the racism and sexism of this community. The comments here are a better argument for Murabayashi’s point than anything he actually said.

  • Caribbean Born

    Look at Creative Live! How many black photographers have they had teach the call other than Matthew Jordan Smith? I haven’t seen any other since him. Yet they bring the same white male and female photographers as those they are the top shooters in the industry. It’s a shame

  • Stan B.

    “I find it disappointing and sad that Photo District News would pick an all white jury for its 2009 Photography Awards.
    I’ve spend the last 3 years producing and directing “The Black List:
    Volume 1 and Volume 2″ (as well as photographing all of the subjects in
    the film). 40 remarkable, gifted, unique African-Americans, from Toni
    Morrison to Colin Powell to Chris Rock to Angela Davis, to name a few (see the project here).
    Working on this project has really opened my eyes. I remember showing
    “The Black List: Volume 1″ at a prominent film festival last year and
    after the screening we did a Q & A with the audience, which was
    about 50/50 black/white. To my amazement, the festival director only
    acknowledged questions from the white people in the audience. It was as
    if the African-Americans sitting right in front of him were invisible.
    There’s been some mumbling about “post-racial America” since the
    election in November, and maybe that’s the attitude PDN had when picking
    their jury. But having done The Black List, let me tell you, we’re not
    there yet.” -Timothy Greenfield-Sanders via APE

    Now, no one (ie- no White person) would believe that coming from the darker portion of that audience- just keep in mind the person stating this is a rather successful (and White) art and commercial photographer…

  • Jonathan Maniago

    I’m all for diversity of ideas, but I maintain that the representatives should be chosen based on what they have worked on. Whether the photographers happen to be part of a minority or not should be irrelevant.

  • Nathan

    Am I the only one that noticed that considering the sample size of roughly 100 people, this is pretty damn near accurate (except regarding women)?

    Like, is there even a problem here?

  • Mike

    Also Canon Explorer of light, Jen Wu (also Asian) is on the list.

  • Stan B.

    Pretty damn near accurate… what???

    Is there a problem that you wish to honestly confront? You can start with the one in the comment directly below…

  • Loren

    interesting article but your stats are apples and oranges. Better stats to use would be % of blacks, hispanics, asians, women, men etc. who graduate with degrees en route to becoming professional photographers, or who attempt to become professional photographers. Barring those stats which are hard to get I’m sure… you could look at enrollment numbers for designated institutions such as Brooks, or Art Center etc.

  • David Vaughn

    I’m struggling to see a solution here. If those companies were to bring more diversity into their ambassadors, then who’s to say it doesn’t go down like,

    “Okay, we need more black people. Old white man, you’re really good, but you’re not diverse enough, so we can’t choose you.”

    It’s the same argument that people use against affirmative action. If a white person has the same skills as a black person, then should the black person get the position just because they’re black? And if the company chooses the white person, does it make them racist?

    It’s a never-ending cycle of “Is it racist” that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Granted, my favorite photographer at the moment is Asian, but I don’t consciously think about how much diversity my favorite photographers have. I just think about their work and their expertise.

    WHY can’t we just think about the work and the expertise lol.

    And on a side note, as a white male, do I sound racist? I think I might…but I don’t mean to…

  • smoinpour

    I do still think there is still diverse representation in photography, but everyone may not have access to this

  • Stan B.

    It’s not a question of simply filling slots with unqualified brown, black and female faces for the sake of more equal representation- no one wants that! It’s a question of making the effort to find those qualified people of other races and sexes (to say they don’t exist IS racist, and sexist), it’s a question of making higher education affordable to everyone (we used to have a tuition free city university system in many US cities) instead of spending that money on bombs to make yet more wars- on brown and black faces.

  • Jim Turner

    The people that hire photographers should think about that, but there certainly shouldn’t be quotas

  • Justin Haugen

    They don’t have this problem in China.

  • Craig Arnold

    as an older white guy i remember going to industry events when i was in my 20s and seeing maybe 2 women, and no-one who wasn’t of anglo decent. it has definitely swung the other way in terms of gender here in Australia, there are stacks of very talented female photographers now making headway in this market and about time i think! as to the issue of ethnicity or background, that’s changing too and again i think that bodes well for the industry as a whole.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    What if total number of males that enjoy photography outweighs the total number of females that enjoy photography – would you have to start pushing women into it so the percentages got closer to matching? (hypothetically of course)

  • Larry McAllister II

    I think this is a great conversation to start, and to a degree, I don’t think it is necessarily saying that the photography industry is bad because there isn’t enough diversity within the photographer pool. The important piece of the conversation for me is that, by having a more diverse pool of photographers represented at the top of the field, we can get more people interested in photography and participating in the field.

  • bruce

    I wonder what the Canon Explorers of Light for Japan look like? Or, maybe the Nikon Ambassadors in Africa? Or if any of these companies have programs in Latin America? Part of the problem until recently was: Photography as a profession was not encouraged in certain communities – African-American and Asian. Because it was not considered a “professional” career option like law, medicine or corporate. Blaming “Old White Guys” is at best a cheap shot and a bid to gain more viewers for Photo Shelter’s leader and for PetaPixel. Because a bunch of people sweated it out, rose to the top of their careers and are spokespeople for camera companies, they are singled out. May photo editors need to take more chances with young photographer (and older) who are not white. But professionalism and the ability to deliver the goods come first. More Art Directors of color are needed as are photographers. But come on Allen – really. I expected more from you than a pandering commentary designed to anger people.

  • tired of you

    Funny how the nonsense claim there was some kind of “outcry” about the latest beauty pagent winner. Fact is those making those claim were a VERY small group. Yet that’s what is focused on. You, like so many others in the new and old media, misrepresented their impact when they voiced their racist views. Then continue to paint all of us with your wide brush. You’re too busy looking for people to blame for a problem that does not really exist. But that won’t stop you from making your slanted claims while rushing to look for unfairness while ignoring REAL experience and talent over those that have your preferred color of skin. I guess talent isn’t what counts with you. It’s all about pigment.

  • Lisa

    Great post. Photographs are made by the person behind the lens. The field will improve with a greater diversity of perspectives among those people.

  • Adam Cross

    Representation really matters

    It was a big deal when a nine year old Whoopi Goldberg first saw Nichelle Nichols on TV playing Uhura in Star Trek “everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” (you can google that for a source). If Whoopi hadn’t seen Nichelle on TV at such an early stage would she have gone on to become such a successful actress/comedian/personality? we can only speculate.

    It was a big deal when young black children FINALLY (in 2009!) got a lead black character in a Disney movie with Tiana in The Princess And The Frog. And you know it matters when you see photographs of groups of girls with Tiana at Disneyland

    It’s a big deal that Mindy Kaling directs, writes and stars in a show that she created (The Mindy Project) on Fox.

    And as mentioned in the article, it’s a big deal that Nina Davuluri won Miss America, Indian women have won Miss World and Miss Universe before, but never Miss America, women of colour have rarely ever won Miss America and there even used to be a rule until the 1950’s that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.”

    But of course the negative, under-representative racial biases are still hugely prevalent, for example, things that Beyonce and Rihanna will get vilified for Lady Gaga will be celebrated for; the way they dress, attitudes, dance styles etc. And do I need to remind people of the amount of times that white models have been painted brown/black to illustrate “native” styles when they should’ve simply hired an appropriate model? 2013 New York fashion week just gone saw an all too regular 80% of models being white (you can google for that too). The 2013 85th Academy Awards is another example of racial bias, the only poc winner was Ang Lee for Life of Pie. Google “85th Academy Award nominees” and see the blanket of white faces. That shouldn’t surprise you when you know that (as of 2012, the year in which the 2013 winners were decided) the Academy had 5,765 members – 94% white, 77% men and 56% over the age of 60 (only 2% aged under 40) you can search for an LA Times article that will back up those numbers.

    Now, to actually get to my point, I know photographers aren’t immediately visible because we only see their work (which is why everything I’ve mentioned above is easier to take notice of), but when you know who the photographer is their work can take on a different meaning, or you’ll see a perspective there that wasn’t there before. Gordon Parks images, for example, may receive a different critique if you thought they were taken by a white man.

    I have many photographer friends who are of different races and ethnicities, and the way they react to work by photographers of their own race or ethnicity is entirely different to how they see similar work by white european or white american photographers because they have that particular perspective, a feeling, or just have a sense of identification, that they know what the photographer is trying to convey because they themselves may have had similar ideas or thoughts. I don’t think I can count the amount of times I’ve heard “finally, I can see some work by someone who is like me”.

    Representation really matters. White people are used to being represented to the point where representation no longer matters and isn’t even thought about and anyone pointing it out to them is usually met with confusion and sometimes defensive anger and denials of racism (because we all know white people are scared to death of being called racists). We white people have a huge privilege in the fact that we really don’t have to think about or worry about being represented in any field of study or creativity because we are favoured. It’s that simple. Read a magazine, watch a movie, it’s all right in front of you. You don’t hear executives talk about the fact that they were pressured to include more white characters in their movie or tv series.

    Of course, the quality of the photography is always the most important factor when choosing ambassadors for brands etc. But is it really representative of the world we live in that white people are somehow better at photography? I don’t think so. Is it more likely that the people who choose the ambassadors see their personal portrait or make assumptions based on their name? maybe. maybe not. It would, however, be interesting to see who the members of these companies are that eventually choose these ambassadors and to see what majority their race or ethnicity is. And also to see how many people of colour are shortlisted and eventually discarded in favour of the white photographers who make up the absolute clear majority of brand ambassadors. X-Rite, for example, have only two ambassadors for the whole of Asia and they are both two white men originally from England, just something to think about. Or maybe there just aren’t as many women/people colour who put in applications, it could be that simple, but I somehow doubt it.

  • Adam Cross

    you’re absolutely right. people down-voting this are simply in denial. There’s proof in 2009 when the University of California got rid of it’s policy to take SAT scores into consideration when accepting applicants – that policy of meritocracy favoured Asian Americans who always did better than White applicants and why a majority of their students were Asian Americans but removing that policy meant that there were less successful Asian American applicants with a bias towards white applicants. It was supposed to be that removing the SAT part of the application would increase black and latino applications, I’m sure the increase in white applications had nothing to do with it ;) I’m sure that stopping the dominance of Asian success had nothing to do with it ;)

  • Adam Cross

    what about the fact that the two men that X-Rite choose for their coloratti as ambassadors for Asia (Asia is huge, why only two people?) are two white men both originally from England. Are there not any native people of Asia who would better represent Asia? I would bet my house on it. Are the majority of photographers in Asia white men? I would hazard a guess at NO, but still two white men are chosen to represent the whole of Asia.

  • Stan B.

    Well put, Adam. Those with open minds will get it, others will deny, and kick, and scream till they die. They don’t “see” any problem long as everything remains overwhelmingly White- normal in ‘their world.’ Once things even start to represent the true racial proportions in the real world, they start to get mighty uncomfortable- after all, all things being equal, you can’t ever possibly expect those mud people to be as smart, as professional, as experienced as your tried and true White Pros.

  • Human

    The fact you even notice the difference between ethnicities is racist by definition.

  • bruce sayshi

    Cheap crass attempt to build more views.