Reclaiming Photography at Photoville
Photoville is a mini outdoor pop-up photo exhibition/village that sprouts out of Brooklyn Bridge Park every September and the exhibits are accompanied by gear trials, educational programming and panel discussions and interviews with a variety of working photographers and editors discussing the current state of the industry, its challenges, and its potential. This past weekend's events reminded me of one the panel discussions that I had attended the week before: Reclaiming Photography. This panel discussion was led by Tara Pixley (a documentary photographer, editor, and visual media scholar) and featured Brent Lewis (senior editor of ESPN's The Undefeated and founder of Diversify.Photo), Daniella Zalcman (a documentary photographer and founder of Women Photograph), Austin Merrill (writer, editor, photographer, and co-founder of Everyday Projects), Laura Beltrán Villamizar (photo editor and founder of Native Agency), and Shahidul Alam (photojournalist and founder of Majority World, Drik agency, Chobi Mela Festival, and Pathsahala photo school). So clearly an amazing group of talented individuals [NOTE: please check out their full bios either on the Photoville event page, or their own sites as they are each incredibly driven and accomplished individuals fighting the good fight for diversity in photo].
Each of the panelists discussed the tipping point that pushed each of them into action to work against the underrepresentation and exclusion of minority voices in photojournalism and documentary photography. For some it was the watching assignments routinely going to male photographers rather than equally capable women; watching the sensationalisation of stories of war, poverty, devastation, and terror in the developing world rather than stories of its autonomy; watching the coverage of minority events and movements by entirely white male journalists; or the difficulty of breaking into an industry that requires a certain level of privilege at entry. They each described their frustration at watching the ways in which minority populations were depicted and packaged to the whole world through the eyes of select few who often have no experience in those communities or situations.
One of the points that was repeatedly raised was the issue of merit. America likes to proclaim itself a meritocracy and a key part of the American dream is the idea that through hard work and excellence anyone can achieve anything. However, that argument doesn't hold up when you place issues like systemic racism and sexism in the way of that drive for achievement. Breaking into photography can be an extremely expensive undertaking that often starts with getting a degree at a legacy school and then paying your dues working unpaid internships in expensive cities in hopes of learning all you can and making the connections that will help you rise. That is an expensive undertaking. I know because I did it. It requires that you have a financial safety net that is not available to many if not most people. In light of that understanding, advocating for diversity isn't giving a platform to the undeserving, it's a platform for the underrepresented
The issue of underrepresentation isn't about photography, it's about racism and sexism. Racism and sexism in the stories that get told and in the choices of the people to tell those stories. Not just the photographers, but also the editors, people who would never consider themselves to as racist or sexist but who make the hiring decisions that perpetuate the status quo. On average 15% of the photos that we see in the news are made by female photographers. Think about that in reference to all the photojournalistic images you encounter in a single day across a range of mediums telling an incredible range of stories. The numbers are different but the same holds true for photographers of color across the world. That doesn't mean that women and people of color are not talented photographers, as Nikon might have you believe (please see Daniella's epic twitter diatribe that takes Nikon to task here), it's that they are not known, can be difficult to find, or their work is not respected. But, as many panelists repeated "I don't know any or we couldn't find any" is not a good enough answer. It was the answer however that prompted the panelists to start their own agencies and databases aimed at educating these same editors about the wealth of talent and perspectives that exist throughout the world. Daniella Zalcman started Women Photograph, a database of over 500 female photographers in 87 countries who have all been working freelance photographers for at least 5 years. Laura Beltrán Villamizar founded Native, a platform, and agency for photographers from underrepresented regions to share and publicize their work. Brent Lewis founded the Diversity Photo a database of photographers 340 of color across America. Shahidul Alam formed Majority World, a photo agency for photographers from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Each of these people formed these agencies to help art directors, editors, art buyers, and really anyone who hires photographers find talented and professional photographers who are also women and minorities that they might never have been exposed to, known how to find or had the time to search out. They removed the excuse.
There has been much discussion recently about "fake news", but the bigger issue than alternative facts is how the person behind the camera is framing how the world looks at issues and people. When the world's stories are told through an almost exclusively white male lens we are effectively perpetuating colonial attitudes and we are perpetuating a potentially more dangerous form of the male gaze. Before anyone gets up in arms, this is not about hating men, this is about admitting that a minority of the world (straight white men) are the predominant voice in telling the stories of the rest of the world. We need to ask who has the right to tell these stories. The panelists were not calling for only insiders to tell stories, that's not effective either. They were calling for a blend of approaches so that we get coverage that is as nuanced as the stories are. This is imperative when educating the viewers, the people who are affected by the trajectory and outcome of these stories, and future generations. It is about how stereotypes are repackaged and resold to people, both to those that believe them and those who are falsely described by them. This is about being a responsible storytelling community. And how do you fix media without changing the storytellers?