Photography’s Old White Guy Problem

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 we’ve thought about for a while at PhotoShelter, 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.

nikon

Canon’s Explorers of Light.

canon

X-Rite’s Colorati.

xrite

 

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).

We have 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 KimsRineke 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.

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There are 17 comments for this article
  1. mary at 1:55 pm

    Really, no Asians? That is ironic considering how much we love photography and the ubiquity of cameras amongst the Asian community. Its ok for me to state this observation because I am Asian so don’t get all offended at my comment.

  2. JC Ruiz at 3:15 pm

    To be honest I never really thought about the topic of this blog post in the way you laid it out. I figured that the photographer chosen for product ambassadors were because of what they offered etc. I’ll be honest I never truly looked to see that it was mostly middle aged white males etc. This article has now brought that to my attention and I hope others see that we need diversity.

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  4. Richard Wong at 3:26 pm

    You bring up great points Allen and I can relate obviously. I’ve seen the marketing data and Asians have the highest index in this country amongst ethic groups when it comes to digital camera purchases and yet we’re still invisible. To be honest though I think some of this is due to Asian culture valuing the work over self-promotion so we work hard, then go home to our families and prefer to keep to ourselves which is counter to how business works in this country.

  5. Rob Fisher at 9:34 pm

    This is a subject I was thinking about yesterday, and I as a white guy, almost 40 I am always amazed by. Photography has always been elitist, It costs a lot of money, it takes a lot of time. Most pro photographers I worked for in my 6 years as a photo assistant in my 20’s I noticed were (unlike me) upper-upper middle class. I’m from a working class family, and to spend thousands on gear and time has always taken its toll. Most if not all the guys in camera clubs and industry sales’men’ are upper middle class and white. Its like a club, all sitting around polishing their Hasselblad’s and $50,000 digital kits. Great story Allen.

  6. Barry Schwartz at 2:56 am

    Good on you, Allen.

    Your linking to the broader implications implicit in the idea that “homogeneity often becomes subconsciously ingrained within institutions and reinforces stereotypes” is why this kind of discussion is important – and rare.

    Your post reminds me of when I saw the wonderful writer Frank McCourt lay into the judges who had nominated and awarded mostly men for the prestigious L.A. Times Book award, once again (and for many years) leaving out women and minorities who had produced equally high-quality work. He was the MC of the ceremony at the time he made this speech to the full house assembled at Royce Hall at UCLA. He was (righteously) pissed, and I was thrilled. Not so sure about the judges.

  7. Wombat of Underground at 10:14 am

    There is an elephant in the room. White people are better at everything . All the art. All the literature. All the science.

  8. Gabriel at 11:51 am

    Retarded topic. These people featured above are educators first of all. If you want to be out there and have your work picked apart these days are so many venues to show your work and your style. I don’t believe you have a point here. Front seats are not reserved for female, asian, middle eastern or black. No sir, work hard and you will be featured. RETARDED!

  9. Ken Cavanagh at 4:48 pm

    Talent and diversity should be given equal weight in a representative sample such as these ambassadors. There is a unique point of view in different cultures and backgrounds and we need to have them expressed and shared to help us understand each other and the world.

    More importantly, as image makers, we should be showing diversity in the images we create…which will have a much greater impact on offsetting the stereotypes.

  10. Frank Villafañe at 4:50 pm

    Thoughtful article, although I never really gave it a great deal of thought: as you (correctly) mention, when one views a photograph one doesn’t think of the racial makeup or gender of the photographer, rather the subject matter of the image. In other words, the demographic of the artist should have no bearing on the resulting artwork – true art transcends demographic (or at least, it should).

    And oddly enough, after deriding the makeup of the 111 photographers shown above, in your list of “to be featured” photographers NOT ONE is Hispanic. What happened to the 16.9%?

    This only underscores the obvious absurdity of absolute demographic representation – there will ALWAYS be yet another demographic demanding representation.

  11. James at 7:57 pm

    If we rearranged it so that there were 10 white men, 10 white women, 10 black men, 10 black women, 10 Asian men, 10 Asian women, 10 Hispanic men, 10 Hispanic women, 10 gay men and 10 lesbian women, would this be pleasing to the gentleman?

    Of all the things to get “affirmative action” on, photography must be one of the most ludicrous.

  12. Dawn at 6:52 pm

    @ James. Agreed! Let’s leave the BS politics and dated policies like affirmative action out of photography.

    @ Rob Fisher – Guess you’re in the club now. I won’t hold it against you.

    The author says “On a merit-basis, no reasonable person could question individual selections.” Then what’s his point? Is he a reasonable person? If they chose a pool of industry renowned professionals, based on their personal accomplishment, then where is the problem? Unless you are assuming that all photo-related marketing departments have some grand conspiratorial scheme to keep minorities from being in the spot light. It’s all seems very silly.

    The whole concept of the article assumes that all people who are not “old white guys” think the same. Meaning they are less likely to make buying decisions based on the merit of a product, but rather on the color, sex or creed of the advertising spokesperson.

    Since when does someone not purchase a service or product because the person in the ad wasn’t gay enough or hispanic enough? I know I don’t think that way. Some people tend to push their own racism, animosity or success-envy under the guise of diversity.

    Let’s promote the power and merit of the individual, rather than lumping people together for political causes. Let’s spread the values of hard work and achievement, rather than getting something because of what you look like. MLK preached for a color-blind society for ALL people — not a society where groups are boxed together and afforded privilege based on skin color.

    @ Author Do yourself a favor and read some of Dr. King’s speeches and writings. It will change your life .

    And in case you’re wondering, no I’m not an “old white guy”.

  13. Anonymous at 1:55 am

    I posted a link to this article on Facebook – twice. Simply stated, these companies should make an effort to include photographers from diverse ethnic groups. You can’t just let your buddies or people “just like you” into the circle. These corporations have to reach out. It ain’t easy … for some.

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