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Oct 24, 2021
We all know the importance of having representation in front of the camera, but what about behind the lens? Amid a national reckoning on racial injustice, powerful images of the historic events and painful tragedies unfolding on our streets have shaped so much of our lives— even inspiring political action, So, who are the Black documentary photographers?
The reality is that Black photographers have long gone unrecognized and undervalued for their artistry. In May, singer SZA turned down a magazine cover shoot after an unnamed publication allegedly refused to hire a Black photographer to take her portraits. 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 Weekender celebrates the pioneers who’ve led the charge and reflects on the pervasive, enduring racism still impacting the industry today.
WHO’S BEHIND THE LENS?
1 - Illuminating Bias
Overlooked. Ignored. These are some of the sentiments Black photographers are reporting. 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 criticized by many fans online. “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 Vogue 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 only be hired only for Black work when their passions and interests lie outside their race.
2 - Neglected Talent
Sadly, the photography world is no different from many other industries 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%; followed by 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 - Mirror Image. An Ugly Reflection.
“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 in the 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.
THE LEGACY OF GEORGE FLOYD
1 - Artful Voices. Visualizing Voices.
Shot, beaten and profiled — all on camera. Black photographers have been deeply pained by the constant, triggering images, of 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 visual storytellers during the social uprisings of the past year, aware of the history of Black voice 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 out for.
2 - The Paradox 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.”
A trailblazer defined. As a child in the early 1900s, Collins found herself forcedto 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 women 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 warphotographer, 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.
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