Why Pigeonholing Minority and Women Photographers Limits Photo Industry Diversity

Like many businesses, the photography industry is grappling with questions of inequality, inclusion and perspective. Marginalized voices have pushed their way to the forefront in recent years. The grassroots networks that advocate for photographers of color and female photographers have grown. The push for inclusiveness has also come from the top: Advertisers have prodded agencies to diversify their staffs and cast a wider net when handing out photo assignments, and photography editors have made efforts to change their hiring practices, and to give assignments to people who can tell stories from within their own communities. Yet despite these efforts, progress has been slow.

Change, when it does come, often only replaces outright discrimination with something subtler. Though they are finding more opportunities, women and minority photographers say they typically get approached for assignments to photograph their “communities” or other minority and gendered subjects, but not to photograph general subject matter unrelated to their identity. Some say that they get assignments when there is a particular diversity-and-inclusion PR angle for their employer. 

Of course, all artists experience pigeonholing and many photographers struggle to break free of their established specialties or subject matter, but when race or gender is the metric by which they are compartmentalized, it becomes much harder to change the script.

© Marcus Smith
© Marcus Smith

Photographer Marcus Smith addressed this topic earlier this year when he posed a question to his peers on Facebook: 

“If you’re a black photographer, the assignments that you get commercially and editorially are to shoot mostly other black people, whereas our white counterparts are given the ability to dip in and out, which in turn widens the audience/clientele for them. Should it be our responsibility to show that we’re comfortable shooting more than just [people of color] or is it on the people hiring to see past that and only look for a clear voice/style?” 

In a conversation with PDN, Smith said that when editing the work in his portfolio, he considers race—a concern that he believes is unique to photographers of color. “My white peers definitely don’t look at their books or their Instagram and think, ‘Oh, no, I have too many pictures of white people in a row.’” Why, he asks, do the people making decisions think he can shoot LeBron James but not Tom Brady? Why does he have to battle assumptions that he isn’t interested in doing anything different?

“I’m largely considered a sports photographer,” Smith says bluntly. “That’s not how I regard myself, that’s something from the outside. I have had a hard time moving beyond that tag, but I have seen my white counterparts move from documenting skateboarding to shooting Fashion Week.”

Those same dynamics are also at work in photojournalism. “Historically, white journalists are the ones who’ve been granted the privilege to drift between [insider and outsider], while non-majority identity journalists so easily end up pigeonholed into their own communities (or worse, are told that they’re incapable of reporting from their own communities in an unbiased way),” says Daniella Zalcman, a Vietnamese-American photographer who is a fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation, and the founder of Women Photograph, an initiative working to elevate the voices of women and non-binary visual journalists.

© Eirik Umphrey
© Erik Umphery

Smith’s Facebook post was inspired by a conversation with LA-based photographer Erik Umphery. “You rarely see a black photographer make a leap from shooting black talent to shooting the masses,” Umphery points out. “You might get an opportunity to do a Vogue cover, but you won’t be shooting Angelina Jolie. You might get an opportunity to do a GQ cover, but you won’t be shooting Brad Pitt; you won’t even be shooting Denzel,” he chuckles, emphasizing that an assignment for a black photographer to shot a black A-list actor would be unlikely from some mainstream clients.

When opportunities to do other things come, Smith says, they are often tied to a desire for an “urban” perspective. Smith tells the story of a colleague, a black photographer with no personal experience in urban America, breaking into the industry only to find himself inundated with gritty, “hood” assignments. It was not that these were bad jobs (quite the opposite), Smith says, but editors assumed because of his race that he must be familiar with that milieu. Happy to be working, the photographer bluffed his way through the gigs and made a name for himself. The whole scenario brings to mind the 1987 satire Hollywood Shuffle, in which blackness is both one’s sole means of acting opportunities (there are black roles that need filling) and an inescapable prison (the roles are narrow and lead nowhere except to more of the same). It comes to mind again when Smith posits that, like his colleague, his current success is rooted in something that was put on him. He sees himself as a photographer, but he is Marcus Smith “black sports photographer” until editors and agencies say otherwise. 

When he came into the industry, Umphery says, he was thirsty for validation and had a mental checklist of stars he wanted to photograph and prestigious publications he wanted to work for. He wanted to do it all irrespective of race. So when he continued to see and hear people assume, in professional settings, that he could only shoot black people, it was frustrating. 

He battled that frustration by looking for validation from within, rather than from biased clients. “I finally got to a place where I said, ‘I love what I’m doing and I can’t burden myself with people’s perceptions of what I can and cannot do.’ I no longer have a need to shoot a certain person or brand that may or may not see my work as viable,” Umphery explains. And as the clients hiring him have diversified, he has seen his opportunities change. Occasionally Umphery will field an inquiry from a mainstream client he had always wanted to work for, and be surprised to learn that the person doing the hiring is of color. Even if the editor is asking him to photograph a black person, Umphery sees it as an opportunity rather than another instance of pigeonholing, because he believes a minority editor may give him a wider variety of work. “I feel like if I do a great job and build a relationship, I will get a call for everything else, too,” he explains.

© Driely S.
© Driely S.

As clients diversify their staffs, not only will opportunities grow for minority photographers to create a wider variety of work, but the industry will move towards a meritocracy, claims Brazilian photographer Driely S., who made her name photographing the likes of Alexander Wang, Pharell Williams and Kanye West for editorial and advertising clients.

“If you have a room with diverse creative directors and editors, coming from different angles, you are less likely to end up with something that is dull,” she says. 

“There needs to be equal opportunities and the [playing] field still has a long way to be even, but once we get there, I hope we can focus our energies on awarding jobs on the merits of the work,” she explains. For Driely, initiatives like “Girl Gaze,” the online community and job platform for women photographers, are a sort of gilded cage wherein her gender is expected to dictate her perspective or approach. Likewise, she isn’t interested in landing on anyone’s best “female” photographers list.

“More or less, when a client approaches me to shoot something and starts talking about ‘female’ anything, I take it as an insincere attempt to just make themselves look diverse because they need that right now.”

© Kiliii Yuyan
© Kiliii Yüyan

“We all benefit from insider and outsider perspectives within storytelling. Insiders give us a deep understanding of history . . . and outsiders can give us a widened perspective.”

— Daniella Zalcman

The difference between true diversity in the industry and just looking diverse also has to do with creative freedom and the way the work of women and minority photographers is edited. Kiliii Yüyan, a Chinese-American photographer of Nanai heritage who chronicles indigenous communities and conservation issues, understands that a certain amount of pigeonholing will accompany the specialties he’s chosen. He works primarily in and around the Arctic, “So it’s not like anyone can just step into this,” he notes. “There is a whole different set of skills you need so that you don’t die while you are up there.”

Yüyan strives to capture the world from indigenous perspectives, to tell the stories of these communities from the inside. But when it comes to what pitches get picked up and how they are edited, everything is tailored to the sensibilities of a different audience. When he was working with National Geographic to publish his story on Iñupiat whaling, he says, “The [edit] completely sidestepped something that is central to subsistence whaling culture, which is the whale! The [general] public doesn’t want to see pictures of dead whales,” Yüyan explains. “If I wanted to do a story about Inuit seal hunts in Canada, it would never fly. No one would pick up that story. The indigenous viewpoint—that sealing is an important cultural thing and is respectful of the seal—is one that is just way too far outside [mainstream media’s] colonial viewpoint.”

The question of whose gaze is valued and pushed is something that Zalcman also feels strongly about. It’s not about choosing one viewpoint over the other, she says, it’s about understanding that the more perspectives we are given, the fuller the picture. “We all benefit from insider and outsider perspectives within storytelling. Insiders give us a deep understanding of history, context and nuance that newcomers often miss,” Zalcman explains, “and outsiders can give us a widened perspective, or sometimes tell stories where it is unsafe or impossible for locals to take similar risks.”

While the industry might be slowly changing, photographers are not waiting passively. Organizations such as Women Photograph, Authority Collective, Diversify Photo and others are advocating tirelessly for equity in hiring practices, and making the unassailable case that increasing diversity in photography will widen the lens through which we collectively view the world.

“What I expect from clients, most of all, is to not water down these diverse voices they are looking to hire. I want art that is unapologetic, that questions the status-quo. Art that is not just pretty, but it has substance,” Driely insists. “So if you are making a point to create opportunity for more diverse voices, dare to let those voices make an artistic statement on whatever it is that they want to.”


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