Anyone can pick up a camera and learn how to shoot, regardless of sex or race. However, if you examine the top tiers of the genre, that basic tenet seems to be less assured. Why is photography seemingly dominated by white males?
Both Canon and Nikon have ambassador programs, whose primary focus is representing the brand and furthering photography education. Part of educating is passive; that is, educating is not just the act of passing forth information. It's also a matter of representation — the role model. Like it or not, we learn, both on a conscious and subconscious level, partly through mimicry and a constant feedback loop of comparison. This is particularly important for younger people and children, who lack some of the finer nuances of critical thinking necessary to separate ability, character, identity, and biology. Adults aren't particularly proficient at that either.
Let's look at the actual discrepancy first. Canon's Explorers of Light contains 41 ambassadors:
- Men: 34 (83 percent)
- Women: 7 (17 percent)
- White: 38 (93 percent)
- Black: 0 (0 percent)
- Asian: 2 (5 percent)
- Hispanic: 1 (2 percent)
Nikon's program contains 24 ambassadors:
- Men: 17 (71 percent)
- Women: 7 (29 percent)
- White: 23 (96 percent)
- Black: 1 (4 percent)
- Asian: 0 (0 percent)
- Hispanic: 0 (0 percent)
On the other hand, let's look at the U.S. population:
- Men: 49 percent
- Women: 51 percent
- White: 64 percent
- Black: 13 percent
- Asian: 5 percent
- Hispanic: 16 percent
A quick comparison of the ambassador program numbers to the U.S. population makes it immediately clear that white males are disproportionately over-represented, while women and minorities are underrepresented.
First off, the photographers who are represented by Canon and Nikon are all highly skilled and creative people and deserve the accolades bestowed upon them. That said, why are so many of them white males? Is it a top-down or bottom-up issue? Why does it matter?
Why It Matters
You might make the argument that when we look at photos, we're not looking at the photographer. We don't see the sex or race of the person who created that photo. That's true, but if you give 100 chefs the keys to a grocery store and tell them to prepare any dish and 95 of those chefs are Italian, do you think you'll get more pasta dishes or Pot-au-feu?
Photography is an art, and just like any other art, its individual instances of expression are subject to the eye of the creator, who carries with them the collective sum of their cultural experiences, along with other things. For example, my musical compositions are clearly derivative of the Western classical tradition as opposed to Eastern, African, or other music. That's because I was raised in an environment and culture where that was the music I was predominantly exposed to. I am a product of that culture and I exhibit that in the music I produce.
And thus, when we represent photography mostly by white males, we get mostly white male photography. That's not to say that the individuals within that group are inherently flawed, but rather that by over-representing that group, its collective culture becomes over-represented in its artistic output, which in turn perpetuates the illusion of said culture's prominence, which in turn influences the next generation of creators. In turn, other cultures and collective experiences become othered, and the idea of photography itself, the very intrinsic idea of the act, becomes misrepresented via disproportionate representation of its constituents. In photography's specific case, this has very real consequences beyond the idea of the photograph, the photographer, and the act of photographing.
Indeed, I simply Googled, "photographer," and the first six image results were white males. But photography is, like any other art, not self-contained; it is produced (for the most part) for consumption by those beyond its own practitioners. And while the misguided image of the photographer as white male is problematic enough in itself, the effects are far more reaching and influential when we consider the vehicle of photography itself: the photograph.
When photographs disproportionately carry the collective consciousness and culture of a specific group, they in turn disproportionately bias their consumers toward that group's ideas on anything from sexuality to social habits. Culture feeds into art feeds into culture. Culture feeds into advertising feeds into culture. Culture feeds into journalism feeds into culture.
This not only affects the outflux of culture, but also the influx. How can a company reasonably market the (what should be self-evident) idea that photography is as much for women as it for men when men represent their brand over women by a ratio of five to one? There's a critical mass – a bifurcation at which the cycle becomes self-sustaining.
To that point, I recently posed a question in a similar vein in another article, and literally every comment was from a male, most of whom said there was no problem. While they're certainly entitled to their opinions, it's tough to take any denial of any problem's existence as gospel when it comes from the mouth of those who benefit from or are at the very least unaffected by the imbalance, particularly when the imbalance is so severe as to effectively silence the other voice in many circumstances — a mathematical overwhelming. And while I can't claim to have conducted my own rigorous statistical studies, I can say anecdotally that I know more women with a legitimate interest in photography than I do men.
Top Down or Bottom Up
So now, the question becomes: is it an issue perpetuated by a top-down approach or bottom-up? That is, are those who are the "gatekeepers" responsible for perpetuating this representation of photography, the photographer, and the photograph via their choices of whom to put in those positions? Or is it that the subset of the population that has cameras and then proceeds to achieve an elite status through their work with them is somehow skewed? Certainly, minorities and women are not less creative than white males. Furthermore, while racial and gender income gaps are statistically well documented, capable photography gear is more attainable than ever. Simply put, I don't buy the bottom-up reasoning.
Rather, I think what we're seeing is a third mechanism: top-down by proxy. The lack of diversity in professional fields and representation in culture is well documented in the United States. Simply put, women and minorities are often not represented at a proportion equal to that of their proportion of the total population. For many, it is normalized, and because of that, they may operate with the sense that the skewed proportions are actually representative.
I'm treading dangerously close to claiming to know individual intentions of those who appoint the likes of camera ambassadors, which I obviously don't; so I'll take this chance to mention that this again harkens to the idea of the collective consciousness. And because of that collective consciousness, we experience a diffusion of responsibility, a sort of unconscious meta-bystander effect within the collective consciousness — social inertia, if you will.
A disproportionate representation of a group in an artistic realm results in a cultural deficit of expression, and when that art form often informs, shapes, and literally is popular culture and journalistic dissemination, that deficit in turn skews the culture itself and rewires the collective consciousness of its members. Skewed becomes normalized, and the art form becomes culturally insular, while that which it outputs becomes single-minded by inclusion and othering by exclusion.
Even if the art form itself experiences this phenomenon not as an internal event so much as the projection of a wider culture onto its existence, that does not prevent those who participate in it from working to correct disproportionate representation; indeed, if that art form can be insular in its cultural expression, surely it can be insular (with respect to the wider culture) in its rebuttal of said insularity.