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

Previous comments

Sure, we can once the issue is resolved.. otherwise sit tight.. the conversation will go on..

We can never really address these issues becasue the knee jerk response when they are brought up is

...................."Can we just move on"

Jon Winkleman's picture

Yeah, it's old hat if you are a white male. If you are tired of the conversation do something about it to promote diversity and gender parity in the art community.

To me, it is refreshing that someone found it important enough, as well as necessary, to finally write about this topic.
Being an African American female in the photography world, I am often disheartened to see that we are so underrepresented. Underrepresented as a female,
and as an African American. I love it when people say "lets move on", or "there is no truth to this aurgument", and one could comment "if you only knew".
With that said, I don't blame anyone for it because it is how our country has been conditioned to think and react since the beginning. I do acknowledge
that some people (progressive minded) see the privileges bestowed upon them by their race and I'm smart enough to know, that's a move in the right direction.
I must admit when I began pursuing photography, I had no idea it was so white. I'm not saying this to be hurtful or negative, becuase I've met some of the
coolest and extremely talented white people ever at photography events. What I'm saying is this, I'm not represented. At first when attending a conference
and not seeing people of color presenting, or many in the audience...I didn't think much about it. But event after event a pattern emerged, and it was
impossible to ignore anymore. I then began asking people why they didn't attend conferences. Most said about when they did attend..."what I saw were
white people there telling me how great they are and trying to sell me on their products and services." Now, no one said that the photographers were'nt
good at what they did, on the contrary, they were very good. Some even bought products and service (just like me), but that was all. It's hard to form a
connection when you don't have a reason to connect, love for photography isn't enough. So, when I saw a list of Canon and Nikon Ambassadors for the first
time, I didn't even flinch, because I didn't expect much more. What I did say silently is, "I'll be the first Woman Ambassador of Color for Nikon", and left
it at that. That's how we do it. I could go on, but I won't...

I will say this...maybe soon we will start to see every race/ethnicity represented in classrooms, speaker forums, education, and articles etc. where
we will begin to feel like a part of the community and not merely a purchaser of services/products. Then maybe I'll find the excitement
I once had, to attend conferences/events and classes. Why, because finally I'll see myself and others like me represented fully in a class I paid for
or was selected for, and more importantly, as a presenter. That'll be a good day :).

By the way, my name is Marilyn, and I am a Photographer.

Ken Flanagan's picture

I don't get it. Is this supposed to create "awareness" of what people actually think is an issue? You can throw statistics all you want, but starting down this line of thinking is just going to create controversy for no good reason. Apparently only 1.8 percent of the NBA is comprised of Latinos (thanks google).
I kinda wish people would stop creating all this "awareness" and use that time to actually do something productive like teaching kids in the inner-city that there are options out there like photography.

Ken Flanagan's picture

I want to correct myself. I don't always think before I type.

I am a white male photographer. Realistically, there are a thousand ways to intemperate statistics, but in the end, I hope that something more than awareness comes out of it. I would love to find and support more ways for photography, as a career be more readily available to every race, and gender.

I would rather help someone discover the ability in themselves more than I do myself. Teaching the basics of photography is something every photographer can do, and should. From their, they can develop their own style, uniqueness and art.

Sammie Saxon's picture

I agree. I feel like if there were more funding in inner city schools for art programs, or the exposure to other career fields, we would have less issues with crime and drugs. - Speaking from experiences. All it took was my highschool art teacher to push me towards college to make me realize I could do something I loved as a career.

Sarah Mays's picture

Its nice to see someone who disagrees with the post take it into a meaningful conversation, not just an outrage. Thank you.

We're outraged because the conversation is tired.

Teshorn Jackson's picture

Perhaps if changes come there would be no need for the conversation.

Denys Polishchuk's picture

Oh for God's sake... this is important becaaause... oh wait, it isn't really.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Says the white guy...LoL

Denys Polishchuk's picture

Says the white guy who speaks 4 languages not because of "privilege", but because he studies a lot! Get it now?

DALLAS LOGAN's picture

You know I had to respond to this thread.

Denys Polishchuk's picture

I saw that coming. To you sir I say that being 13 years old teen I was working with my parents on the market selling sports clothes, and yet somehow I had enough time to go to school and read books. So it's a matter of choice. And this was the 90-s. Now the internet brings all the knowledge right into your hands. So you say that I'm "privileged" to use Google?.. I hope you see by now how laughable this whole idea is.
Please stop this ever so popular victimism!

Alex Cooke's picture

Good. Take all that knowledge you have and write me a substantiated response instead of an empty, sarcastic dismissal. I'll be happy to read it.

Trying to set a new standard for ironic comebacks?

Daniel Lee's picture

Oops responded to the wrong person. Disregards. Thanks.

Denys Polishchuk's picture

Alex, first of all let's not tell anyone what they should do, ok? I get your mood, but at the end of the day it wasn't me who posted this article. Have you noticed general public's response to this? It's mostly negative, and do you know why? To me this subject is like a dirty trick where somebody pokes you and when you try to answer runs away screaming how bad you gonna hurt him. Just a metaphor for you to "feel".
What do I think about the subject then? Weeell, I know that human being always has one thing, black or white or which ever color his skin is, and that thing is called freedom of choice. We chose what we do, we chose what we become. So if someone says to me that it's not his fault that he is this or that or he doesn't have something.. well, it's his choice, don't you agree?
Having more white men as photographers means nothing. It's like becoming frustrated by the fact that in some seas there are more yellow fishes than in others.
All that said, I really appreciate your work and enjoy reading your articles, but this one is totally unnecessary.
Cheers!

Anonymous's picture

It's not just a white privilege.

wait........what?!?!

Ummmm......what?!

who payed for your school?

Denys Polishchuk's picture

Our public schools in Ukraine were free.

Sarah Mays's picture

Well stated.. Thank you for approaching this. As a student in photography, experiencing this has been true for me and ive noticed a difference in teaching styles from having an african american woman to two white males. Their indiviualities, styles, cultures & differences were exemplified to me through their educating. Dont stop approaching this subject cause those who think its irrelevant, doesnt apply to them.

Chelsey Rogers's picture

yes people responding "it's important oh wait it's not" are... SURPRISE!!! White males!!! haha :)

Ken Flanagan's picture

Because 90 or so percent of us are in fact white men lol. I just read that somewhere.

Andrew Richardson's picture

I like this Ken-person guys, he's funny without being a dick and expresses an opinion without being an asshole. Can we get a a few more Kens on here?

Ken Flanagan's picture

Thanks for the compliment! I don't comment on much, but for some reason (most likely the Jamo in my office) I started talking. I wonder if someone did a statistical word survey of all the comments, what the results would be. Seems to be a lot of frustration and anger on all sides, but maybe it's just a symptom of the real problem. I dunno man, I just hope people level out a little, otherwise I see, ....lost my train of thought. My kiddos are yelling. I'll be back.

Ben Perrin's picture

Chelsey, it doesn't matter who you are you are allowed to have an opinion on the matter. To attack peoples comments because they are white males and not based on their merit is a major problem. Imagine if white people walked around saying "well you're just a black female". It would cause a stir and rightfully so. In conclusion stop judging people based on their skin and gender and judge them (if you must do so at all) on their actions.

Sad to say I will no longer be reading or subscribing to any Fstoppers content. If I wanted a daily dose of racist social justice warrior shaming I'd read buzzfeed or vice. I don't read those for a reason. I come here for photography.

Alex Cooke: take your race baiting, gender baiting politics of the brainwashed and shove it up you know where. Or go work for buzzfeed or gawker were you belong. Maybe you can write about golden showers and other fake news.

How many readers has Fstoppers lost because of you, I wonder?

By the way, the NBA appears to have a black People problem. Should we do something about it?

Broadway has too many gay people. How should we solve that one?

There are far to many women on Pinterest.

As white men we are subjected to this bullshit non-stop, everywhere we go, even if we just want to read about photography. And you hateful, brainwashed lunatics wonder why Trump won.

Just stop it, you're assholes. Reprehensible, awful, deplorable hate mongering assgoles. One day maybe you'll wake up and realise it.

This god damn insanity has got to stop.

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