Is Photography Overrun by White Males?

Is Photography Overrun by White Males?

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?

The Facts

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?

Photo by Chelsey Rogers

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.

photography-diversity-race-sex-gender-1

Photo by Paige Rosemond

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. 

Conclusion

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.

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427 Comments

Studio 403's picture

YIKES, can we move on please from this kind of rhetoric. Its an old hat that has worn out. But its America, land for the the 1st amendment.

Alex Cooke's picture

I would like to hear why you think we should no longer speak of it. That being said, I think it's important to distinguish "old" from "irrelevant." And with due respect, the "old rhetoric" argument is exactly why I gave hard statistics to support its enduring relevance.

Ken Flanagan's picture

personally, Im good with speaking about it. I am trying to figure out what about this article makes me, as a white, male, photographer who overuses commas, so immediately defensive.
My best guess is that articles like this make me want to feel bad for being something I can't change. I don't have a racist bone in my body. Weather my reaction is right, or wrong, this article makes me visualize our industry as a bunch white guys at a poker game. Probably because the term overrun was used. I do, however, have a tendency to use a lot of commas, and use them incorrectly, which I am sorry about.

Taking notice of a priviledge doesn't have to make you feel bad.

It just needs you to accept it and be aware of it when you see people without said priviledge.

Ken Flanagan's picture

I am privileged, and take notice regularly. I think that, in the end we are all privileged in one way or another. No matter who what color your skin is, your gender, how much money you have, what equipment you use, you should never look to see what others have, but look to see what you can offer them.

Louis C. K., among the very bad things he did, said in his series "Louie" talking to his daughter: "The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them."

Alex Cooke's picture

Ken, first, thanks for all your thoughtful and respectful comments. Second, I absolutely do not intend to make anyone feel bad for something they cannot change. And that was really my point with avoiding talking about individual intentions; most photographers I know are good, kind, accepting people. The point was rather to say "hey, here's a trend I noticed that has some hard statistical evidence to back it up. What's up with that? Is it a cultural issue?" I think before we can even talk about if we as individual photographers are capable or not of fixing an issue, we have to understand the issue. The idea is simply that by promoting awareness, perhaps we'll get a trickle-up effect. At the same time, I believe we can be agents of change as individuals. As you put in a comment below this, helping others discover the ability in themselves is huge; that's why I adore teaching. And that's really the point I was making about kids and role models; every kid deserves to have a role model, but itcan be very confusing when they look to something like an ambassador program and see almost nothing but the same type of individual.

Jeff West's picture

Using the explorers of light as your only statistical data might not be doing your due diligence. According to a study done by Onward Photo, by examining a group of over 3000 photographers they came up with a overall average of roughly 75% male vs 25% female. But when you dive into their data we can see that most of those photographers are much older. These gentlemen could be new to the industry but more than likely are older photogs who have made their entire career in the photo industry.

Interestingly if you look at photographers born since 1970, we see the Male/Female average move from 60/40 to almost 50/50. What would be interesting is the same statistics brought over the different fields of photography. I imagine the number of newborn photographers would tell an entirely different story. So yes, looking at 1 small piece of data might persuade you to think that the photography industry is dominated by males, but i would suggest widening your scope next time.

Alex Cooke's picture

Fair point, Jeff. My initial impulse was to speak of photography education, which is why I focused on ambassadors, but as I went on, I widened the scope, and as such, using a wider scope of statistics is called for. If anything, the modern 50/50 ratio makes me ask all the more why there's the disparity we see in these programs.

Jeff West's picture

But wouldn't it make sense if the Ambassadors are the best of the best, and probably the old guard, that they would be more male. These are photographers who made the craft possible for the rest of us. Saying there should be more diversity in the future makes sense, but to arbitrarily demand the diversity without looking at skill and how they have progressed the industry is silly. Look at the women who are the Canon ambassadors and I see people who have put their part of the industry on the map. They absolutely deserve it.

I used to teach at a college that was predominantly female. Butt with the programs that the college focused on, that made entire sense. The fact that this un-diverse group is attracting nearly 50/50 in the younger generations, speaks to the fact those ambassadors can voice their images across genders and cultures.

So moving forward the question becomes how can we stop focusing on the color of the skin, or the gender of our artists to see the beautiful works they create...

Alex Cooke's picture

I'm not sure that it makes sense, unless you're admitting that indeed there was bias when those ambassadors were coming up through the ranks, so to speak. If I'm misunderstanding what you're saying, definitely correct me.

I hope my tone in the article didn't come across as demanding arbitrary statistics be satisfied without looking at skill; as I mentioned in the article, every ambassador deserves their spot. My point was more to say "these are the demographic breakdowns of the United States. Why do they not align with the breakdowns of these ambassador programs?", a question which I actually left unanswered as I don't know the answer to it and I imagine it's an extraordinarily complex thing to answer.

Anyway, when you say "The fact that this un-diverse group is attracting nearly 50/50 in the younger generations, speaks to the fact those ambassadors can voice their images across genders and cultures.", that's an interesting perspective, and you could well be right about the power of photography to speak beyond its creator. While that may be true, my point is that the photography we're normalizing could be "white male" photography, so while it may be successful, there's more out there that can successful too. I also look at it as kids having identifiable role models, since these ambassador programs are supposed to focus on education.

That's really cool that you were a teacher. What did you teach?

Jeff West's picture

I used to teach backstage theatre: set & lighting design, but my background is engineering where there is a significant gap between the number of men and women. I hear time and time again that we need more women in engineering, and if you live in the midwest, there are multiple universities who will give free ride scholarships to women. There are so many of those scholarships available that most went unfulfilled. But the problem was much deeper that high school girls looking into engineering. We don't have a culture that lets little girls fall in love with science. The science that can grow their passions into a field like engineering.

Same as we have a lack of schools who make art a passion for its students. Those older ambassadors are mostly male, because the generation they grew up in didn't have nearly as many women committed to the work force. Moving on to today, I feel like the gender gap is nearly neutral, if not leaning the opposite way. There are actually very few male photographers in my area compared to women.

The issue of ethnicity however could be much more of a point. Less that the ambassadors are mostly white... Those things will change. The statistics that would be very insightful would be the breakdown of photographic art students in schools today. Are we teaching all of our kids the importance of the arts, or are some kids being left out...

Thank you for the discussion Alex!

Ken Flanagan's picture

Alex, dude, thanks for your response!
You cant be responsible for people's feelings on the subject you write about. People are responsible for their own actions. Most of the time people are just trying to figure out how to be the smartest guy in the room. I was only (initially) defensive, but took a step back and realized the complexity of the situation.

No matter how you shake it, whenever you use statistics, to generalize, people feel margainalized. It's not wrong to do so, it's just the way it works. Emotions are funny. If there were a way to do it, I would turn off comments for three days after someone's initial read then allow people to return with actual conversation when they had time to digest what they had read. Of course then you would have no comments, and user interaction would be at a minimum.
Anywho, it's all pretty simple, but that's the problem right? Statistics are numbers that are black and white (no reference to the above article), and unfortunately they paint a monochrome picture of a landscape that is, well, ...more complicated.
I've been rich, and I've been poor. I've been successful, and I've failed miserably. I have given and squandered, lost, and found, but I've never done any of it as an African American.
Thank you for your article.

Anonymous's picture

Everyone who feels defensive and attacked hearing that they are privileged should google "white fragility" now. Just because you don't like to hear it or don't believe it exists doesn't mean other people don't live it EVERY DAY OF THEIR LIVES!

Ken Flanagan's picture

My thoughts were really more geared toward myself. I asked myself why I would feel defensive.
Lol "white fragility". Everyones on the same boat man, and the sooner we all realize that, the sooner we stop drilling holes. I think everyones fragile (I think thats french) on some level.
I really don't mind hearing it, and I believe it exists. I like to discuss things that make people uncomfortable.
Stay well my friend.

Everyone is not on the same boat.

Ken Flanagan's picture

Ok, fair enough. Maybe we're all on separate boats, but in the same body of water.... maybe it's infested with dragons, and mosquitos. I lost where I was going with this.
Look, all I'm saying is that we are all human, some are good, and some kinda suck (refer to exhibit A/comments). However it panned out, we together create, or created this playground, so it's sour collective responsibility to treat each other the way we would like to be treated (golden rule, or something). I love the conversation, but as Plato once said, actions are way more better than words (I'm paraphrasing, and it might have been someone else). Can we put our resources together to make our passions more accessible to people who don't feel like they would have the opportunity otherwise? Wow this was a long response, my apologies.

Anonymous's picture

Only a white guy can say "we're all in the same boat." It is the perfect response that is so full of denial - as a non-white citizen, your boat is nowhere near mine. Not even the same sea.

Ken Flanagan's picture

Ok. I'm slightly northwest. I hope our boats meet ups sometime. I'd bee happy to learn more about your thoughts.

LOL at "everyone is on the same boat" - sigh! What Joshua said.

Ken Flanagan's picture

There seems to be a common thread through most of the comments on this post, by which every point of view has had a way to "mass-generalize" anyone who they feel would be their philosophical opponent. Did that make sense? I don't know about words sometimes... anyway (opening a can of worms here) I have a different viewpoint than most that is directly related to what I believe. (Oh boy, here it comes).
I believe that God created man, and we are all created in his image. So for anyone to put themselves over another group of people is wrong. My belief is that we are to love, and take care of each other no matter what. In that I look at everyone in the same boat. Of course we are all unique, and beautiful in our own ways, but that does not make one more special than another. If anything, I feel humbled by my life. For many reasons (mainly because I'm not that good, and I can only see out of one eye now thanks to my son thought it would be funny to stick his thumb to the back of my eye a few years ago, he was only 3 so it was all good, but I still only see blur), I actually feel fortunate to be able to do this for a living and I will help who I can do the same.
I don't know much, but I'm trying to learn. Ok, coffee is wearing off, geeez I'm long winded. If anyone is still reading this you deserve a coffee on me if your ever in the Colorado Springs.

DALLAS LOGAN's picture

I'm getting my coffee lol

Ken Flanagan's picture

Ha! I knew someone might read it!
Btw, your portfolio....amazing. Especially the one for Saks had me studying for like ten minutes (a personal record for concentration).

DALLAS LOGAN's picture

Thank you, Mr. Flanagan

Sorry, I could only read the first three sentences.

Ken Flanagan's picture

Lol, No judgement here.

Kofa Boyah's picture

"Old hat." says the white man. I love how these articles reveal who the racists in the room are.

"I'm tired of talking about racial inequality towards other races I've oppressed for 300+ years, can we just get back to football?"

Now that THAT's out of the way...

I don't believe these stats are a direct result of racial discrimination, per sey. As any artist would agree, pursing this path is a difficult one. Met with disdain and parents telling you that you'll be poor and miserable. Some of us struggle, yes, but many photographers come from a somewhat "stable" background where "my parents supported me" usually stem from their lips. This has nothing to do with race, but the type of upbringing that supports an alternative profession. It's difficult to support your son/daughter to be a photographer when your per capita income is less than 20k per year.

People in poverty (below 30k a year) stress education in the household, so their children will never go through what they are now. Black, latino and asian parents strongly support their kid going to college and pursuing a profession that sounds impressive at the dinner table. Not saying whites don't value education either. But the consensus is to arm your kids with all the tools they can because the white man dominates this world. At least, thats the perception that makes it difficult for one to pursue a life of artistry.

Speaking of old hat...

Prove it then. Should be easy to do.

Studio 403's picture

My goodness Kota, just read the "racist" rant. Labels, labels. Perhaps the tone of the dialogue could shift a tad. This reminds of the old dog who runs into the street to fetch a bone to chew. Not looking the dog got a resentent. The car ran over the dog, If only the dog had responded and not reacted to its hunger.

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