Last week, one of the world's biggest camera manufacturers retweeted a short film of a Black Lives Matter protest shot on one of its cameras. Given that the company’s photography ambassadors for the country where the protest was staged are 19 white men and one white woman, how does it justify lending the movement its support?
The footage was a simple series of short clips from a protest in a major European city cut together to give a taste of the atmosphere and locations. The filmmaker shared it on Twitter, tagging the camera brand’s Twitter account for that country. Pleased to see a major manufacturer lending its voice to the Black Lives Matter movement, I then wondered whether this support was reflected more widely in the company’s public profile.
On its website, the brand lists ambassadors from around the world. For this specific country, 19 of the 20 ambassadors appear to be white men. The other is a white woman.
This is not to point an accusatory finger at any specific company (hence not identifying them) or to assume that there is an unconscious bias towards choosing a certain type of photographer over others. It’s far more complex than that. This is to draw attention to a pattern in the photography industry that is a reflection of a broader issue.
Who Has Keys to the Clubhouse?
Fstoppers’ Anete Lusina wrote persuasively last week that photography has never been so democratic. More people have access to powerful image-making tools than at any point in history, with a smartphone in everyone’s pocket and manufacturers making cameras with phenomenal abilities at ever-lower prices. “It’s a world open to anyone,” the title states, and to a degree, this is true. The article cited an excellent project by Historic England that deliberately sourced imagery from across the country, rather than drawing on the photographs of a small number of established professionals and artists as might often be the case.
However, despite programs such as this, photography remains much like golf. Sure, anyone can buy some weird sticks and hit a tiny ball, but not everyone gets to relax in the clubhouse afterward.
There are gatekeepers — curators, journalists, creative directors, magazine editors, and manufacturer executives who choose their company’s ambassadors — and for a wide range of reasons, it remains an exclusive club where very often everyone looks the same. Some of these reasons have nothing to do with race, color, privilege, or wealth; sometimes, it’s just an insular society that needs a little nudge to look outside of its immediate circle. Other times, there are systemic barriers at play.
History and habits aren’t necessarily consciously racist, but they tend to like the status quo. If you don’t have the right connections and look a certain way, the clubhouse is much more difficult to enter. To push this daft analogy to its limits, if you don’t already mix in the right circles and have the right appearance, you might end up smashing balls at a driving range for the rest of your life, despite the fact that you can plow a three iron 250 yards and land your ball on a tea cozy.
So, should this camera manufacturer immediately replace some of its ambassadors to create a more diverse collective? In short, no, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add people of color (and almost certainly increase gender diversity) so that the photographers who represent its brand are more representative of the people who use its cameras. Such a move would only increase its appeal and broaden its customer base. (If you think that their inclusion should be based solely on the quality of their work, I refer you back to my golf analogy.) This might strike some as a cynical reason for increasing a company’s social equity efforts, but it’s a better reason than none.
Beyond that, with its newfound awareness, the brand might want to consider more programs to create opportunities for those who do not enjoy the same privileges. Marketing executives from the likes of Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Fujifilm are already having conversations with organizations such as Women Photograph and Diversify Photo, who campaign and advocate for greater visibility for photographers who tend to be overlooked.
The conversation seems to be moving forward; it's just that ambassador roles are taking a while to catch up.
Lead image by Prime Cinematics.