Brent Lewis, a Senior Photo Editor at ESPN’s The Undefeated has realised that there aren’t enough ‘photographers of colour’ that he can commission for assignments, and believes that other editors have a similar problem. And his solution–classically technocratic and technological–is to create a ‘database’ of coloured photographers and, without ever once questioning or examining the more difficult structural and political reasons for the issue, resolve the issue. And in the process, albeit inadvertently, Lewis has entrenched the very problem of culturally, ethnically, and racially stereotyping photographers and restricting them to their little ghettoised speciality social, cultural, and physical geographies. He needs more black and brown people to go cover more black and brown events.
I have serious misgivings about this initiative.
There are a number of reasons, not the least of which is how the title – “Photographers of Colour” – works off the assumption of “White” universality as the norm, while others require to be defined in a ‘special category’. Whereas I can understand the instinct that gave birth to it, I am confused as to why this instinct was even considered valid and one worthy of an initiative of its own. I am surprised that more people did not raise an objection to the rather overt objectification of photographers of non-White origin this initiative demands. This entire effort requires people to self-identify themselves along ethnic and racial lines and is based on the belief that somehow ethnic and racial belonging gives them ‘credibility’ to cover stories and issues in regions of similar ethnic and racial spaces and geographies. This is a terrifying ghettoization of our craft, and in fact, reflected well in the example given in the introductory text alone where an editor’s need for African photographers to cover an AFROPUNK event – black people sent to cover black people – seems to have provoked the idea. Why would being African be enough of a qualification to cover this event?
(Note how the questionnaire does not even ask, until the very last question, the photographer’s race. And then to, as by US law, o a voluntary basis. So what’s the point in the first place? A generic questionnaire such as the one offered demands self-identification along ethnic and racial lines. That is, it demands that a human being reduce her/himself to merely her official race category. This is simply ridiculous to even demand, or to follow!)
But here is the most egregious problem with this effort: it absolutely ignores and/or veils the fact that it editor offices that are predominantly occupied by White / Caucasian people, and that it is here ethnic and intellectually diversity is most needed. To get and find a diverse set of photographers, you need to find a diverse set (by experience, by class, by intellect) set of editors!
The fact of the matter is that the lack of ‘diversity’ in our industry, specially photography and photojournalism, isn’t because editors cannot find non-White photographers – someone please alert Joseph Rodriguez, Wayne Lawrence, Ruddy Roy, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Lorna Simpson, Beian Palmer, Deana Lawson, Jamal Shabazz and dozens and dozens of others who have worked prodigiously in American media, but that our photography agencies, magazine editorial offices, curatorial spaces remain predominantly White.
Why does this matter?
Quite simply because these predominantly White spaces work through a very tight, close-knit, deeply network based social system where most everyone knows everyone else and assignments and stories move to photographers who can afford to and are able work inside this system. Those who do not have access to this close-knit circuit – either because they cannot afford to be in New York, for example, to network and pitch, work and promote themselves in it, are at a serious disadvantage.
This Whiteness of American media also constrains it ideologically, culturally, and socially – class, something we never talk about when it comes to photography, and the privileges it offers, is a powerful determinant of who gets noticed and who never gets contacted.
Class allegiance is that unspoken truth of when it comes to getting ‘into’ the network, because those who are not aligned to it ideologically are also most likely to offer uncomfortable and problematic perspectives and opinions. I argued this clash of world-view point in a piece I wrote earlier called “A Rainbow Prohibition” (see: http://www.asimrafiqui.com/…/2…/06/23/a-rainbow-prohibition/), where I argued:
“So perhaps photojournalism – a small segment of the broader media industry, one that is near exclusively owned by White, Male, Europeans deeply married to the nation-state and current political power, and deeply embedded in the culture and privileges of Western elitism – are not really policing ethnically, but are policing intellectually.” There is a reason all the major photo agencies are predominantly White, why all the major photo-editors are White, why almost all the ‘staff’ photographers at publications like National Geographic have historically been White. It’s not a coincidence. Or a lack of oversight. Or that no one else could be found. Please.
The lack of ‘colour’ in American editorial spaces, and the consistent commissioning of ‘photographer’s of colour’ to be assigned ‘work of colour’ was captured well in a recent piece by Howard French (see: https://www.theguardian.com/…/enduring-whiteness-of-america…), where he pointed out:
“The intersection between America’s age-old race problem and the crisis of race in journalism takes two forms. The first is a simple failure of integration: the news organisations that have traditionally comprised “mainstream” journalism have done little to welcome or encourage African-Americans, who are substantially underrepresented by comparison to their numbers in the overall population. This problem is obvious to anyone who cares to look – and it has become sufficiently embarrassing for a number of publications to make sporadic but ultimately ineffectual efforts to redress it. As soon as one or two hires are made, attention inevitably shifts elsewhere, much as the focus of the press drifted away from racial bias in the criminal justice system once a whiff of the campaign season could be sensed in the air. All signs point towards a tense and extraordinarily racialised campaign that will be a severe test for US journalism
But the second and more subtle issue is a persistent problem of typecasting – a deeply embedded view that regards certain topics as “black” and the rest as “white”. Those black people who make their way into the business are heavily concentrated in stereotypical roles. This has meant sport, entertainment and especially what is euphemistically called urban affairs, often meaning reporting on black people. By contrast, there are very few black journalists writing about politics and national security, international news, big business, culture (as opposed to entertainment) or science and technology – they are essentially absent from large swaths of coverage, and even more sparsely represented among the ranks of editors. This is not a trivial matter, or a subject of concern solely to journalists: the overwhelming whiteness of the media strongly but silently conditions how Americans understand their own country and the rest of the world.”
A failure of integration, and a problem of typecasting.
There is no evidence that a Kenyan photographer can cover anything in Kenya better, unless and only if, that judgement is based on her work, her eye, her intellect and her production. There are non-African photographers in Kenya who are racially White but know the country inside out. What other criteria would you ever use? There is no reason to think that works from places of ‘colour’ are somehow suited to photographer’s from ‘places of colour’.
On an individual by individual basis, there may be those who are more qualified, but their skin colour, ethnicity, or nationality can’t be that qualification. They are photographers. And just as White photographers are never asked to explain their experience before being sent of my the best magazines to cover months longs stories in the Middle East for example – do you speak the language, do you know the political history, can you even figure out a train schedule etc., suggesting that their ethnicity, their nationality, their ‘colour’ is absolutely of no consequence when it comes to giving them work across the globe, we can do the same with the rest of us – judge us for our work.
Participating in this initiative does nothing to address the fundamental reasons why editors ‘cannot find photographers of colour’, but perhaps offers us the greater danger of being stereotyped and type cast. There is a greater danger in being defined as a ‘Brown / Pakistani Photographer’, than in not being noticed at all. For after all, the latter liberates me from the suffocating banality of conversations with editors convinced that the only qualification I must have to produce a work is the colour of my skin, the legacy of my birth, the presumptions of my ethnicity – all issues that apparently are not valid for White photographers, and nor are they ever to be restricted because of them. And the horrifying racist practice of only ever calling me when there is work to be done in Pakistan.
We want recognition for our talents, our ideas, our intellect, our skills, our creativity, our hard work, our commitment, our efforts, our dedicated, our courage, our eye, our sensibility, our willingness to pursue and to create. We want recognition that does not ghettoize us, cut us to our birth, our skin colour or our presumed ‘cultural’ knowledge. We want to be recognised more completely, and not be ghettoized more precisely.
What must be torn down are the walls that protect editorial offices and keep them homogeneous and White. Only when that is done can we be sure that the broader industry will find the spaces for more diverse, more creative, different and exciting work that is intellectually, creative and ideologically challenging. But as long as we keep those ideological walls in place, as long as the network remains tight and close-knit, as long as we go around congratulating ourselves by giving each other awards and prizes, we will not change this situation. What we will do is just find ways to further segregate photographers.
Today, in an American where walls are being raised, where ‘communities of colour’ are being stigmatised and attacked, where ideas of what is ‘American’ is increasingly seen as ‘White’ and the rest of us are being defined and abused along ethnic and racial lines, it is imperative that we not introduce more initiatives – no matter how benign or well-meaning the producer’s intents, that further define and divide people along these lines. If anything, this is a moment for editorial self-reflection, not knee-jerk demands for racial self-identification.