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.

Log in or register to post comments

427 Comments

Previous comments

You deleted my comment? Wow. Just wow.

Alex Cooke's picture

Actually, I didn't. I don't know who did; we have 60 people here with the ability to do that. Thanks for calling me a "racist coward," then hiding it by editing this comment. That I did see.

Not hiding it. The comment reappeared so I suspected you may not have been responsible after all and edited my words accordingly.

But for the record, your own record shows that you are a self-loathing racist and sexist, though perhaps not a coward.

@BankFruckman. Well said. Not a racist bone in my body. Yet constantly made to feel guilty, because I am a white male. WTF? I get it, on Gizmodo, Buzzfeed et al. So I have stopped reading them. Was kind of hoping sites like fstoppers would provide respite from that nonsense.

Grant Watkins's picture

Logged in to say this,

Enjoy your echo chamber!

Kian McKellar's picture

Actually we should do something about the NBA having a black people problem. We should be inspiring African Americans to do more things than just play basketball.

Broadway does have too many gay people because for a long time that was one of the few places that could feel free to express themselves. We should create a world that is more accepting of differences.

Women love pintestest. Fuck if I should know what to do about that.

Why though? Do you consider it a defect that black people like basketball? Hockey on the other hand is overrun with white people, maybe that's the bigger problem?

I don't buy this false claim that African Americans are in any way being discouraged from doing other things besides basketball and rap music. The outgoing President of the United States is black. The fact that he was terrible at it doesn't make it any less true. One of the candidates in the just passed election was a black man who also happened to be a brain surgeon who rose up from poverty. He would have made an incredible leader, I'm sure. But he has "wrong opinions" so the media told everyone to hate him. So give me a break with that stuff. It's patronizing, and it's insulting to black people.

I got news for you, Broadway is ALWAYS going to have "too many" gay people because gay people like Broadway. No amount of attempts at social engineering is going to reduce the number of gay people on Broadway or increase the number of straight people there to any significant degree.

Are there too many men working as "sanitation engineers"? Probably. Oddly no one is all that concerned equality in less pleasant occupations.

Martin Van Londen's picture

Alot of black and brown people love hockey.

Congrats on your true but irrelevant statement.

A lot of white people like basketball but they are being held back from playing due to black privilege and racial bias in basketball...right? I mean, think how underrepresented white people are on basketball teams. Also, how many white running backs are there in College and the NFL?

p.s. Obama likes basketball.

Martin Van Londen's picture

Im going to assume everything you are saying is sarcasm. It's hard to tell in a comments section. There are plenty of white all star level basketball players. Believe me there is no racial bias in basketball. And yes BO likes basketball. A lot of people like a lot of sports. You guys need to get out of your bubbles.

He was clearly being sarcastic.

There's obviously no racial bias in the NBA, just as there's no racial bias in photography.

White people and Asians are clearly underrepresented in the NBA though. Curiously, no one writes articles fretting about it as a problem needing fixing (and it isn't).

Kian McKellar's picture

Hahha. I don't think it is a defect that black people like basketball. Never said anything close to that. I do find it a defect that anyone likes hockey. ;)

I have to laugh at this because it is amazing. You do know that there is huge amounts of sexism in fields like sanitation engineers or construction? I mean do you mean to make my arguments for me?

Martin Van Londen's picture

Bank. (If that's your real name) I'd be willing to bet money, that you have never picked up a camera.

Makes sense. Having strong opinions on a topic other than photography is a definite indication I've never held a camera. If your logic isn't water tight, I don't know what is! And so original, too!

It must feel really empowering to post behind a fake name... also ironic that you call someone a coward.

Martin Van Londen's picture

Bank! The first comment you made on this site was 24 hours ago. There is a record of it. So that means the only thing you have contributed to this community is a bunch of trolling. Even if you have touched a camera, your words have no value to us.

If you had contributed to this community, and decided to communicate your opinion in a mature and positive way we would at least listen to you. But all you have done is troll. So I can't take you serious.

Oh no, how ever will I go on living knowing that Martin Van Nobody doesn't take me "serious".

Lol.

The overwhelming majority participating in this thread agree with me. It's good to know most of the world is still sane.

Martin Van Londen's picture

What's your real name?

Martin Van Londen's picture

Can we see some of your work? bank.

Sure. It's all over the internet.

You know what's really hilarious? You're asking because you've decided I must be a bad photographer. You've decided I'm a bad photographer because you don't like me. More to the point, you're *hoping* I'm a bad photographer because it will make you feel better about youself, plus you'll have an opportunity to mock me. No worries, human nature. Especially for people from Portland.

I'm actually a very good photographer. I don't think I'm excellent, I think I have tonnes of room to improve, and I'm by far my harshest critic.

But what's really hilarious is that you think any of that matters. I could be the worst photographer in the world and it wouldn't make me any less qualified to opine on this topic, which is only superficially related to photography. Photography is nothing more than a framing device for the author to regurgitate the intellectual diarhea he's being taught by his Marxist university professors. Deplorable, really.

Stay salty, my friend.

Martin Van Londen's picture

So you don't have a website? A flicker? Photo bucket? I'm just curious. You could be the best photogrpher in the world, but right now you look like a coward because you are commenting on here under a fake profile.

Oh darn.

Do you know what makes me happiest? For every one of the 73% of people who agree with me (check the downvotes on this idiotic article), there are probably five more whe agree silently but keep quiet because they don't want to deal with bullies like you.

It's an amazing feeling.

Kian McKellar's picture

What makes me happiest is teaching someone something new, making the world a better place, and helping a friend in need. Those are all amazing feelings.

Martin Van Londen's picture

So your not actually a photogrpher. You are not denying that fact. Cool.

You know I am, but you're pissed that I won't bow to your demands because you're an entitled little princess.

Whatever helps you sleep at night.

That's what's endlessly fascinating. Leftist "logic".

"omg this guy has an opinion about politics and it's different than mine, he can't possibly be a photographer".

It's hard. I know. You live in a bubble. You live in hipster Portland a pleasant, if wet, hipster paradise where everyone has the same haircut and the same opinions (publicly, anyway) and you never have to be confronted with anything you don't agree with. A sanctuary city for the feelings of privliged self-loathing brats.

Come for the donuts, stay for the white guilt!

Blue Moon Camera is great though.

Kian McKellar's picture

Actually everyone just calls it "logic."

The quotation marks are the important part.

More comments