We all know the importance of having representation in front of the camera, but what about behind the lens? In this time of social upheaval, when images of the historic events and tragedies unfolding on our streets shape our daily conservations — and our politicians’ actions — who, and where, are the Black documentary photographers?
The reality is that African American photographers have not always been valued and recognized for their artistry. In May, singer SZA turned down a magazine cover shoot after the unnamed publication allegedly refused to hire a Black photographer to take her portraits. That may be shocking, but it’s nothing new. Legendary model Naomi Campbell revealed that a 2019 cover shoot with The Guardian newspaper was the first time in 33 1/2 years a Black photographer had shot her image for a mainstream media outlet. In that spirit, today’s Fourth of July Sunday Magazine profiles the rising Black stars of photography, salutes the trailblazers who’ve gone before and lifts the lid on the enduring racism afflicting the photography industry to this day.
Toyloy Brown III, OZY Reporter
who’s shooting whom?
1. Overlooked, Ignored
These are just two of the words Black photographers use to describe what they’ve endured. Some are frustrated that they do not receive the same opportunities as their white counterparts, especially in instances when, in the eyes of many, a Black person has been photographed poorly as a result of bad lighting. When Vogue hired the famed Annie Leibovitz to photograph superstar gymnast Simone Biles for its August 2020 issue, the move was slammed in many quarters. “Vogue couldn’t idk hire a Black photographer to shoot this cover of Simone Biles?” wondered Polly Irungu, the founder of Black Women Photographers, on Twitter. Critiques from prominent photographers and photo editors charged that the lighting was crudely done and that ethically, a Black photographer would better understand how to properly light another Black person’s skin. Leibovitz and Vogue had previously faced backlash for a 2008 cover that featured LeBron James — the first-ever Black man to appear on its front — and supermodel Gisele Bündchen. Witnessing mishaps from established non-Black photographers can be disheartening for those who know they are capable of doing better. But just as important, Black photographers say they don’t want to be hired only for Black work when their passions and interests extend outside their race.
2. Sidelined Shooters
Sadly, the photography world is no different from other occupational fields when it comes to race. True, it may be balanced in terms of gender equality: Of the 186,000 photographers recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2020, 52.1% were female. But when race and ethnicity are factored in, the disparities become more prominent — much more. The same stats show the most common race within photography was white (non-Hispanic) at 84.9%; the second most common was Hispanic or Latino at 10%. Black photographers, for their part, were significantly underrepresented at just 6.7% (the percentage of Black people employed in the U.S. on the whole is 12.1%).
3. The Specter of Historic Racism
“The whole reason why there is so much racism, sexism, ageism, classism in the [photography] industry,” Danielle Scruggs, a picture desk editor for Getty Images and a freelance photographer, told Aperture magazine in 2020, “is because all of that exists in society.” Like many fields, the photo industry is a mirror reflecting back on the public and its ills, and thus finds itself ingrained with the same systemic racism as society on a wider scale. For example, racial and skin tone bias dates back to Kodak’s “Shirley Card,” an image of a white woman that served as the rubric for printing a perfected color image for decades, starting in the 1950s. Photographer and English professor Syreeta McFadden explained to NPR’s Tell Me More that much of the design of film and motion technology was intended to provide the best possible representation of white people — likely due to willful obliviousness.
Shot, beaten and profiled — all on camera. Black photographers have been deeply pained by the constant images, still and motion, which serve as triggers, as well as the deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement officers. Many have acted to document the movement for Black lives. Many have taken on the role of storytellers during the social uprisings of the past year, especially due to the history of Black voices being excluded, or their stories being told dishonestly by others. Black photographers say they want ownership of their people’s experience so that it can be preserved and framed accurately. Baltimore-based Devin Allen, who approaches his conflict photography by putting his own activism at the forefront of his work, is one to watch.
2. The Complexity of Protest Photography
Should non-Black photographers take pictures of Black Lives Matter protests? Should those images so easily attain front page prominence and acclaim? There is no consensus, but there is obvious tension. New York magazine chose a white conflict photographer’s image for the cover of its June 8, 2020, issue. Lindsay Peoples Wagner, now the editor-in-chief of Vox Media’s audio magazine The Cut, responded on Instagram: “Now I’m not saying all work about black people has to be shot by black people,” she wrote. “But as someone who used to work at nymag and is married to a black photographer this is beyond a shitty thing to do.”
3. Hire Black Photographers
All the while, the protest movement fueled an awakening around the importance of hiring photographers intimately familiar with issues experienced by Black people, wherever we are in the world. Photographers have raised concerns around the incidence of parachute photography. Whether traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Chicago, the idea of producing a prescripted “shot list” rather than focusing on the significant, organic scenes that are happening naturally is a trap many fall into. Editors often have a preconceived idea of the type of images they want, and that carries over to photographers and the work they produce. Last year, concerted efforts were made to illustrate to publications the wide range of talented Black photographers available and ready for the moment. One is a database established by Diversify Photo that includes over 1,000 Black photographers from around the world.
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Freelance photographer Shon Curtis is a storyteller at heart. He views his photos as extensions of his authentic storytelling, which is tied closely to his identity as a Black man from the unheralded city of Dayton, Ohio. Mainly a portrait photographer, Curtis is often tasked with taking pictures of people as their best selves. He views this responsibility differently, though. “I think what’s more important about my job is I have to show them that their truest self is their best self,” Curtis tells OZY. He has gone on to produce photos for The New York Times and was named to Diversify Photo’s Up Next photographers list. Looking ahead, the 32-year-old is working on building up a Black-owned photography agency in his hometown.
2. Sianeh Kpukuyou
“Everybody can take beautiful pictures, but if there’s not a story to that image, why [are] you taking the picture?” Sianeh Kpukuyou tells OZY. Kpukuyou, 22 and based in Accra, Ghana, focuses much of her work on telling African stories and featuring dark skin, which she views as significant due to the prominence of colorism. “I need to use this talent to change the media’s perspective on us as dark-skinned people,” Kpukuyou says. The accomplished documentary and lifestyle photographer and collage artist is currently working on an exhibition that draws attention to the professionalism of Black hair and African attire in the corporate space.
3. Polly Irungu
“You know what they say, [if] you don’t have a seat at the table, you build your own table.” That’s what Irungu tells OZY . . . and that’s exactly what the 26-year-old did. She specializes in fashion documentary-style photography and portraits, is a digital content editor at New York Public Radio and is the founder of Black Women Photographers — a global community and database of Black female and nonbinary photographers. The database is more than a networking tool. It’s also a resource to help companies hire more inclusively. Like the best photographers, Brooklyn-based Irungu has a sharp altruistic focus: She wants to make sure she leaves the profession in a state “better than I found it.”
4. Donavon Smallwood
With the pandemic restricting travel, many turned to the nature around them for respite amid lockdowns over the past year. New York-based Smallwood turned Central Park into his canvas, with Black visitors his muses. The 27-year-old, self-taught photographer wanted to explore “what it’s like to be a Black person in nature.” Surprisingly, he found many people willing to take part in his photo shoots. Unsurprisingly, his stunning portraits won the Aperture Portfolio Prize in May.
5. Aisha Seriki
Millions of college students around the world had their graduation ceremonies taken from them over the past year. For many Black families, the inability to watch their loved ones be celebrated by their peers was particularly difficult, since African American graduates are much more likely than their white counterparts to be first-generation students. Across the ocean in London, Nigerian photographer Aisha Seriki recognizes a similar issue among ethnic minorities in the U.K, which moved her to shoot a collection of graduation pictures of women of color who finished university in 2020 but didn’t get to participate in a ceremony. Of the project, titled “Undergrads,” she told U.K.-based visual arts publication Yellowzine: “For first-gen women of color, education is a particularly important accomplishment: one which I believe deserves a proper commemoration.”
A trailblazer defined. As a child in the early 1900s, Collins found herself forced to lie about her race simply to learn photography by working as an assistant to white photographers. But the New Orleans native made sure she paved the way for future generations of Black women. Early on, as the eldest of six children, she found herself forced to give up school to help with her family’s finances. By the time she opened her own photo studio, she no longer needed to claim to be white. In the 1920 U.S. Census, Collins was listed as one of only 101 African American female photographers in the country — and the only one in her city of more than 500,000 people. Ever the rebel, she moved out of her parents’ home before getting married. Her images captured life for Louisiana’s African American and Creole families at a time and in a place where being Black was far from easy.
2. Gordon Parks
Where to start? He’s a filmmaker, writer, musician and humanitarian but above all one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. The son of a struggling Kansas farmer, Parks smashed the color barrier as the first Black staff photographer at Life and a regular photographer for Vogue, photographing icons like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Before hitting the big time, Parks worked at the Farm Security Administration, where he employed his camera to capture the poverty and racism faced by African Americans. The camera, he said, was “a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.” It was a weapon he wielded with power and verve until his death in 2006.
3. Elizabeth “Tex” Williams
A Black female war photographer, Elizabeth Williams was drawn to the idea of capturing the battlefield during World War II. But in 1944, the 20-year-old found herself up against race and gender barriers when trying to join the Army. Undeterred, she was eventually able to join a group specializing in photography training. That allowed “Tex” to serve as a lab technician and an official Army photographer, capturing a unique point of view as a Black woman in a segregated military. She continued her photography after the war while working for U.S. defense and intelligence agencies — holding positions rarely obtained by women, let alone Black women, in those days.