By now, we understand the need to cultivate diversity in conservation photography and filmmaking. Scientific analyses urge diversity across multiple disciplines. Countless articles criticize and dissect the lack of minorities in photography. Conversations like #blacklivesmatter are rising in volume.
So why do we still have a diversity problem in nature photography? A large part of it is because we don’t quite understand it. We don’t know how to begin. We don’t know how to address things without the situation becoming uncomfortable. We don’t know how to take action.
That’s why for this article, we sat down with Girls Who Click (GWC) partner photographers Inka Cresswell, Karen Kasmauski, and Amy Marquis, and GWC Ambassador Celina Chien, to talk about the issue, their experiences as women of color, and specific actions that we all can take to create a more inclusive environment.
1. See the Bigger Problem
We’re at a point right now where the photography industry is shifting. Most people want to help solve the problem, as buzzwords like diversity and inclusion get tossed around. But what we often miss is that biases are everywhere.
For example, let’s explore Karen’s experience with exclusion in today’s digital era.
“The issue that I’m finding right now has nothing to do with my ethnic background, it has to do with my age.” she said. “I feel like I have to not ever say how old I am. I have to always act like I can do whatever it takes, and I just think that has to do with the changing technology. There’s just a perception that the digital world is for the younger generation.”
And the barriers Karen face go deeper than just appearances. Through our talk, Karen showed that everywhere we look, there are siloes. She talked about the challenges of switching from Japanese culture photography to global health photography. She talked about how she wanted to transfer from photography to management and hiring, but was shut out. “We have a hard time seeing people beyond what they’re known for.” she said.
We have a hard time seeing people beyond their labels, and what their labels are connected to. We automatically assume old people and technology don’t go well together. We assume women aren’t able to take on physically demanding assignments. We assume that people of color can’t be nature photographers.
Why? Our perceptions are shaped by the things we hear growing up. They’re shaped by people we surround ourselves with. They’re shaped by narratives that are seared into our brain by society, and kept in place by ancient systems. We need to understand that exclusion, such as racism, are not isolated incidents. It’s ingrained in the system we live in.
We have a hard time seeing people beyond what they’re known for.
– Karen Kasmauski
2. Look at Yourself
So how can we change something that’s embedded in our unconscious and our society? It starts with ourselves.
Amy Marquis explained: “I spent the first 20 years of my career seeking acceptance and validation from my white peers and superiors. It’s the game most emerging filmmakers, regardless of race, feel like they have to play. And as a result, we often do a terrible job of checking ourselves.”
She talks about how the BLM uprising in June 2020 forced her to reexamine her own blind spots as a filmmaker working within the nature/adventure/conservation space. Even though her focus has always been to amplify underrepresented stories from BIPOC communities, she was rarely hiring BIPOC crew. They simply weren’t visible in her immediate circle. She realized that in doing this, she was perpetuating the system of white supremacy, not to mention the usually well-intentioned yet undeniably colonialist behavior of all-white crews striding into non-white communities and making a career— and potentially even a profit— off of BIPOC struggles.
“I had this amazing opportunity to take full responsibility for my actions,” Amy says. “And it meant dealing first and foremost with my own white fragility— which, as a half-Indonesian adopted into white America, and encouraged from a young age to assimilate into white culture— felt extra confusing to unpack. Once I understood it, and forgave myself for it, my own personal path to dismantling the system became crystal clear. I’ve since learned to see myself as an unapologetically BIPOC filmmaker who can use my films to encourage hard conversations about racism and help guide my white community onto a more conscious path.”
She goes on to say: “Once we learn to stop blaming others for our emotional struggles, and choose to take full responsibility for our own behavior, we become aware of what we as individuals have the power to disrupt. It’s a life lesson that extends well beyond just filmmaking and photography.”
So look within yourself. Have uncomfortable conversations. Listen, ask questions, talk to all sorts of people. Because chances are, you have your own biases, and the only way to un-learn them is to know where they are, and actively create new definitions.
Once we learn to stop blaming others for our emotional struggles, and choose to take full responsibility for our own behavior, we become aware of what we as individuals have the power to disrupt. It’s a life lesson that extends well beyond just filmmaking and photography.
– Amy Marquis
3. Empower the Next Generation
“When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we’re talking about it too late.” said Inka Cresswell.
When we usually talk about diversity in photography, we’re talking about the photographers themselves. We talk about why these prestigious programs don’t have more people of color. We talk about how the majority of nature photographers are white males.
But, a lot of conversations are missing a key point, the youth.
“We need to be empowering people at that young age when they are a teenager,” said Inka, “when they have their first opportunity to pick up a camera or are getting involved in science and thinking about what kind of career they want to pursue.”
Think about it. We all had those experiences early in our lives that shaped who we are today. Whether it was a grade-school teacher that saw your potential. Or it was a local nature walk that inspired your love for animals and conservation. Or maybe it was your parents who gave you your first camera. We all got our start somewhere.
Now imagine if those opportunities were taken away. Would you still be an advocate for conservation? Would you still be a nature photographer?
That’s why creating opportunities for all youth to learn about the environment and photography is an important action to take. Without it, we lose a whole suite of voices before we even get to the hiring process.
When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we’re talking about it too late.
– Inka Cresswell
4. Diversify Editors
Photography is a complex interconnected system, and a vicious cycle. Success in this field is heavily dependent on connections and networking, as most jobs aren’t advertised on formal job boards. Instead, photographers get pushed up the ranks through mentorships and connections. Editors hire who they know. Opportunities go to the people who are most conveniently placed within this network. Stories that get published are from the same perspectives, shown to the same people who want to hear the same things.
So instead of just asking “how we can include more diverse photographers?”, we need to start looking at diversity in the bigger picture, and work from there.
For example, Karen emphasized the importance of diverse editors.
“To me, the call of action is not having more diverse photographers. It is having more diverse editors.” she said, “You’ve got to have people who are running the show to be diverse. The people who are doing the hiring have to be diverse. Because as a photographer, you have no real power.“
Photo editors and the leaders in conservation are essentially gatekeepers of nature photography. They get to decide what stories and how an environmental story is portrayed. They are the ones who decide which photographers are going to get the opportunities that propel them to success. So having diverse editors who are connected to diverse photographers and who are open to unique perspectives on issues is a big step in the right direction.
You’ve got to have people who are running the show to be diverse. The people who are doing the hiring have to be diverse. Because as a photographer, you have no real power.
– Karen Kasmauski
5. Diversify at All Levels
Another example is fostering diversity in the STEM industry, and breaking barriers there.
“[Young photographers and filmmakers breaking into conservation careers] have to get through not only their undergrad, but possibly also through grad school to be in a position where they are qualified for an entry-level role.” said Inka, “so if you’re only addressing diversity at that entry-level or management position in the professional world, you’re not going to have many applicants, because we’ve lost them at stage one, early education.” We need to address diversity at “all levels”.
But what if you’re not a scientist? Great question. As storytellers, there is one thing that we can all do, and that is to foster diversity in the voices and stories that we tell.
Inka explained how she does this in her work:
“Whenever I’m traveling abroad, if possible, I try to give back to that local community in some way. Whether that’s giving a conservation talk to local kids or in the local dive shop that’s put online and advertised that anyone can attend. I think we have a duty to share our knowledge.”
She’s right. As conservation storytellers, we have a duty to share our message. So that they can be passed on, become someone else’s message, someone else’s story. We can break the cycle.
Whenever I’m traveling abroad, if possible, I try to give back to that local community in some way…I think we have a duty to share our knowledge.
– Inka Cresswell
6. Actively Reach Out, and Lift Each Other Up
“I was talking to one of the world’s most prestigious photo competitions about [diversity] because they notoriously have very few women featured in their exhibition featured as winners. And so they’re asking me ‘what can we do?’. And I said ‘you have to actively invite women.’” said Celina Chien.
Usually, it’s not enough to just say “I’m in favor of diversity”, and hope that photographers come to you. If you really want to make change, you have to put in the effort.
For example, one of the biggest complaints that editors have when cultivating diversity is that they aren’t able to find diverse photographers. They don’t exist, they would say.
However, when Brent Lewis and Andrea Wise posted a call specifically asking for photographers of colour in 2017, he received over a one thousand five hundred responses (Read more in this New York Times blog).
But it’s doing that not only as an organization, but also as an individual.
Change starts from you. As individuals, we all have the capacity to inspire and lift up the ones around us. In the diversity sense, that means making an effort to get to know photographers from all backgrounds, and reaching out to them personally to encourage them to apply to programs and photo contests. It means bringing along a friend who might not have the same opportunities as you when a photo or filming gig arises. It means putting your friend forward when you have conversations with higher management like a photo editor or director of an NGO. It means letting them know that they are wanted and needed. That they deserve to be seen and heard.
Because it’s all about collaboration, and lifting each other up. Only then, can we really start fostering a diverse community. As Celina said: “Everything is always made better if you do it all together.”
Everything is always made better if you do it all together.
– Celina Chien
7. Embrace your own voice
A large part of finding your career in photography is finding your voice. We preferentially are drawn to particular narratives.
However, many will lose their voices along the way, and say what’s always been said. Because that’s what gets published.
So for this last action, here are some wise words from Amy Marquis:
“Don’t be ashamed of who you are— white, BIPOC, female, trans, whatever. Denying your own identity is to deny the diversity of thought and experiences and creativity and unique perspectives that humanity must learn to celebrate and pool in order to rise above these insane global challenges right now. Stop believing that you have to shapeshift to fit old and outdated pieces of this industry to be successful. Maybe it worked for some people, but at what cost?”
So find your own voice. Break the status quo. Embrace your own diversity, and empower others to do so as well.
Stop believing that you have to shapeshift to fit old and outdated pieces of this industry to be successful. Maybe it worked for some people, but at what cost?
– Amy Marquis
Diversity, racism, and systemic disparities are enormous topics, which we can’t exactly cover fully within this blog post. But hopefully, with these few actionable items, this will help your journey in creating a more inclusive environment for all photographers and storytellers.
Here is a great starting point by 500px on how the photo industry can help BIPOC photographers. We also listed some organizations that are encouraging diversity below.
Check Out These Organizations That are Encouraging Diversity
Diversify Photo, an organization devoted to “creating a place where people can come and see photographers of color, to know they are out there and they exist, and to provide editors with the ability to find people not in their circles.”
Photographers Without Borders: a community of photographers/filmmakers that are aiming to make storytelling more accessible for communities around the world who are contributing to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and UNDRIP.
Girls Who Click: We’ve been working to close the gender gap by providing mentorship and workshops to young girls. This year we also created our Ambassador Program, which targets female and female identified photographers of diverse cutlural and socio-economic backgrounds. The program pairs these young photographers from all over the world with an experienced mentor, and helps them gain professional knowledge of the photography field.
Women Photograph: a website that highlights the work of female editorial photographers with at least five years of working experience.
Her Wild Vision: a searchable directory that makes it easy for editors to find and hire women and women-identifying photographers/filmmakers in conservation and environment.
Wild Idea Lab: a membership community where conservation visual storytellers find creativity, community and support for their wildest work. Wild Idea Lab offers a partial-scholarship program, which provides a reduced membership rate to photographers and filmmakers who are underrepresented in conservation visual storytelling and have a financial barrier to joining.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
About the author: Alice Sun is a Blog Writer and Coordinator Intern at Girls Who Click. Growing up, Alice’s dream was to become a National Geographic photographer. This passion led her to spend much of her high school years photographing and sharing stories of wildlife in her own backyard, which earned her a spot in the 2016 NANPA High School Scholarship Program. She then went on to pursue a degree in environmental biology and a graduate certificate in environmental visual communication, sharpening her skills and building a foundation for a career in visual storytelling. Today, she is a freelance science communicator and conservation storyteller based in Vancouver, Canada. Inspiring young people to pursue the same dream she had is something that Alice is passionate about, and why she’s extremely happy to be on the Girls Who Click team! Visit Alice’s website to see the stories she has told over the years.
This article was also published here.