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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DALLAS LOGAN's picture

Thank you so much for liking my work and thank you for your inquiry. Here is a link to my eBook:

www.dallasjlogan.com/ebook/

Jon Winkleman's picture

It is shameful that camera companies seem to mostly white male photographers as masters and exceptional artists. However historically within art photography, there have been fewer barriers to women artists when compared to women artists who paint or sculpt. Looking at the art world which is usually very white male, there are many women in the canon of great artist photographers, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Annie Leibowitz, Bunny Yeager, Margret Bourke White, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Francesca Woodman, Sally Mann, Carrie Mae Weems, Lisette Model, Lorna Simpson and the list goes on. Certainly photographic art history still skews towards men, however the field has long been well ahead of the gender equality curve. This makes Canon and Nikon's lack of female ambassedors far more egregious and out of touch with the photography community they sell to as there are so many accomplished woman in the field.

Scott Hays's picture

Like all research, it is how we research. I am not saying you researched to meet your articles criteria; however it sounds like you might have done some top searching. Meaning that without really looking into sites or looking further into the industry you might not have really seen what is going on.

I guess the first thing I would say is not knowing what field of photography you are talking about really plays a part, what part of the country, etc... There are a lot of criteria that can change the results. (Just saying these things to try to help quiet some of the hoards).

In regards to the Ambassador programs, I'm not sure how much weight I would let those carry. The day those programs are run by women, you will see those numbers turn around. I can tell you that those programs are quite heavily politically based as well. Not as in Democrat and Republican, but if you ever get involved in something like the PPA where the Ambassador program is also selecting from heavily, you will understand what I mean. It is who knows who, and who is doing what for who.

I know enough large successful studio owners that when I hear someone talk about this classification of photographer, we are talking 4+ photographers in their studio. Surprisingly enough almost all of the time, those photographers are females. The reason for that is people are much more comfortable with female photographers today, plus when they bring their teenage daughters in for their senior pictures, there is that feeling that the female photographer is "safer".

If you search by individual cities in different parts of the country, you will find a huge difference in who is doing what. Again, it is depending on what type of photography you are talking about. There are so many types of photography out there it is impossible to break it out in an article.

Now, this is going to sound so incredibly sexist but hang on and bear with me. I do know that a lot of young women who have worked for me who are incredible photographers and can do any type of work they want have gotten married within a couple of years after they left my employment. That isn't to say they couldn't have continued with their photography, but for some reason they chose not to. It was disappointing to see they didn't continue. I don't know if that was their choice or not. I am NOT saying that women don't photograph or don't go into the industry because they get married or have to make a choice. What I am saying is that like men and women a like I do believe there is a part in all of us that are artistic to say something along the lines of "my work will never be good enough"... "if I have a way to have the steady income"...."if I do "this" now, I can go back to my photography anytime". I do believe women have a much harder time getting support from family, friends, loved ones to pursue photography. Even if you are a man how many of us get that full support from people that say "Go for it... you will succeed and you will be rich and famous...' or anything even close? Not very many photographers have ever had any kind of full support from people. They usually look at us like we are crazy.

There are many more women out there than meets the eye. They may not be the ones with the web site, or their name on the web site, but I am here to tell you that in a lot of cases they are the reasons for keeping businesses afloat. There is still a good ol' boys club out there in this industry, make no mistake about it. Go to a PPA Annual Conference sometime. If you hit one that has 4000+ people at it, be ready to see some women photographers. These gals are true professionals. They are out there. They may not need to toot their horns as loud as the men.

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I would never have imagined to see an article like this. Photography and race?...... No...... just no. Photography and sex/gender, yes, there are definitely more males in photography than females, or at least it is thought of more as a masculine craft/industry.

What!? So we're not allowed to talk about the issue of racism, but we are allowed to talk about the issue of sexism? What a silly comment. And not 'just...no'. You have to qualify a comment like that. Why not? Why are you allowed to stand up for women (probably just white women though right?) but somebody isn't allowed to stand up against racism?

Please calm down. I stated my contextual point of view, that is all. If you read again, you will see that I didn't say anyone shouldn't state their own view, nor am I telling anyone what to talk about. I'm black African by the way, but I don't care about racism in the sense that I don't promote it. I'm used to sexism in the photography industry, towards myself too, but racism? Considering I live in a dominantly black country.... well...... I'm sure you get my point. The subject of this article is actually HIGHLY contextual, for people in America (I don't know where you are from, nor will I assume) the racial aspect makes sense, for people in Africa, it doesn't. Have a nice day!

It's a shame to see so much negativity in the comments section incited by this article. Best to keep race out of here to be honest. It has nothing to do with photography.