This Is Why We Need Black Photographers to Document the Protests

This Is Why We Need Black Photographers to Document the Protests

As long as the protests are being documented, what does it matter if the people taking the photographs that we see in our newspapers are white?

On June 2, five of the U.S.A.’s largest newspapers featured photographs of the protests on their front pages. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal all featured dramatic imagery showing police in riot gear, children standing in front of murals, and tear gas. All of them were taken by male, non-black photographers. 

National Geographic’s Instagram feed showed a similar situation. A few days ago, there were around ten posts documenting the protests, of which one was taken by a person of color.

The first six posts on National Geographic's Instagram feed

The first six posts on National Geographic's Instagram feed, featuring photographes by Katie Orlinsky, John Stanmeyer, David Guttenfelder, Dina Litovsky, and Ismail Ferdous.

The protests mark what many hope will be a pivotal moment. Newspapers and agencies have their staffers, but, to paraphrase Vox photo editor Danielle A. Scruggs, if there was ever a time to hire black photographers to improve the reach and equality of representation of what’s happening on streets across the USA right now — this is it.

Photographs Shape Knowledge

The vast majority of Americans learn about the Civil Rights Movement through photographs, images published on major platforms that acquired a quiet power, shaping how events are perceived.  

If black representations of demands for social change do not become a true part of the record that determines our understanding, the archive will be incomplete. Social media might be full of images and clips that are in equal part alarming and inspiring, but this medium affords a degree of representation that is far less stable and far more ephemeral than mainstream publications. By contrast, the printed images acquire a currency of their own, revered by history books, helped along by the reinforcement of international competitions whose juries very often are predominantly not black, and celebrated on the walls of galleries and in the pages of coffee table books.

The Status Quo

Why are so few black people a part of the process of documenting the protest? Or, for that matter, part of how photographs are published in general? This is not a question of the chicken and the egg; there is a long-established status quo that is not overtly racist but has been shaped by an underlying, invisible system of discrimination that favors a certain type of person, whether it’s a simple fact of being able to afford a camera in the first place and then the time and space to learn a craft, to the guy handing out the internships being unconsciously more inclined to lean away from the woman with the black-sounding name at the top of her resume. A culture establishes itself, and it tends to like things the way it is.

Agencies and newsrooms tend to stick with a small selection of photographers, those who can be relied upon to throw themselves into any situation and document it objectively and without an agenda (to the extent that this is possible). This trust is essential to the quick delivery of images that could potentially guide public opinion, mold government policy, and create what will go on to become part of the historical record of critical events that shape a nation and beyond. It is for exactly these reasons that diversity is necessary and local representations are incorporated. It’s not that the view of the outsider, parachuting in heroically to capture daring images of violence and confrontation, is no longer valid; it’s that this view is incomplete. The existing crop of incredible photojournalists don’t need to be pushed aside; instead, space should be made for those who can tell the story from within.

With the democratization brought by the digital image, taking photographs is no longer the domain of a small, wealthy minority. By contrast, the systems that publish, venerate, and celebrate those photographs — thus granting them value — have yet to catch up. If there are few black photographers and photo editors with influential positions at publications and agencies today, it’s not because they’re not as talented or haven’t worked hard enough to achieve it; it’s because it’s not normal, and the current normal is a normality that resists change. Fortunately, the tens of thousands of people getting out in the streets are proof of the belief that a new and improved version of it can be achieved.

All of this matters because the telling of a story is not only about the story being told, but who is doing the telling. Who do we as a society, choose to empower to tell these stories, and why? There is an imbalance among the power structures that tell us who and what we are, and this could be the moment to redress it.

Finding Black Photographers

There are countless black photographers documenting the protests — and countless other things — but their work often remains unseen because they lack the visibility received by others. Here are some resources to help publications find images:

A large database of more than 300 black photographers documenting the protests has been compiled by Allison Davis ZauchaHaruka SakaguchiKate WarrenMaggie ShannonMichelle Groskopf, and Samantha Xu[The original version of this article mistakenly attributed this list to photographer Aaron Huey.]

Coinciding with this push for greater black visibility is a call for black female photographers to have their work published. A list of black female photographers is being compiled here by WomenPhotograph.

WomenPhotograph is also maintaining a database of major publications and the ratio of black and female photographers used in stories about the protests.

Time.com ran a photographic feature that used the work of Black photographers.

(National Geographic recently added photographs by Ruddy Roye to its Instagram feed.)

If you have more resources, please post them in the comments below.

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73 Comments

Previous comments
Yin Ze's picture

Wow your statement “ black rioter torching an auto- parts store and do it justice.” is
Very telling.

Scott Wardwell's picture

Yeah. Look up the images of the burning AutoZone store in Minneapolis and see for yourself.

Yin Ze's picture

there are no white rioter torching anything?

Scott Wardwell's picture

So you see my point.

Yin Ze's picture

not really. that is like saying only white photographer allowed to photograph white protestor being arrested when different people are arrested. your comment seems very specific as you try to claim only black man set fire. is this photographer allowed to shoot white man setting fire to since you only think african american male set things on fire?

https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/minneapolis-mn-may-29-agit...

https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/protesters-set-a-police-ve...

https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/demonstrators-set-a-fire-a...

https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/protestors-set-a-shop-on-f...

https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/protestors-set-a-shop-on-f...

Yin Ze's picture

In my country we are used to western journalists come in and take over as chief photographer to tell our story. Local photographer serve western "expat" as fixers and when it comes to big award time their names and contributions are never mentioned. even those who die to help the western journalist are forgotten. this is the current system and not much we can do.

Tony Northrup's picture

As a Texan, I'm always shocked at the dumb ideas people have about me, like I'm a hillbilly truck-driving cowboy who loves guns. When it comes to documenting culture, it should be obvious that you'll get truer and more meaningful results when the photographer is from the same culture. If you study enough photojournalism and documentary photography, eventually you'll appreciate the difference. It's just not the same to be on the outside looking in.

Yin Ze's picture

Hi Tony, the opportunity and support is not often available to those who would like to document issues in their own culture. often our photographers are not given respect or chances. i see major paper giving opportunity for people to document their own history at this point. but only for capturing this moment. other times they are not given opportunity. while others here say that there should not be a prerequisite to cover other cultures minority photographers are often not given the opportunity to do exactly what western photographer are demanding: freedom to cover anything.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Good documentary photography comes from a neutral point of view. So colour on the finger pushing the button doesn't matter if the eyes are seeing it with an appropriate viewpoint.

It is just as easy for one colour of person to shoot with an agenda as the other. But we don't want agendas, we want quality photography that reflects accurately what is happening.

If I hire anyone to do anything, it is because they're good at their job. Colour, race, background is never part of the criteria. And the second we make it so, is the second we say "You are different to me because you look different", and then we all take a step in the wrong direction.

And of course, colour of skin doesn't mean everyone of that colour has the same culture. This is a bigger world than that.

Yin Ze's picture

i guess color of skin doesn't matter when you are firefighter and saving a person from burning building. i guess 94% of western firefighter in new york city have a "neutral point of view" when it comes to saving lives. like wealthy people who say money means nothing, western man always say race doesn't matter because they have not experience bad things.

"Allegations of Race Discrimination
Over the years, the FDNY has faced and has settled numerous discrimination lawsuits alleging that the FDNY engages in a culture where hiring discrimination towards racial minorities and discrimination towards racial minorities employed by the FDNY by passing them over for raises and promotions is encouraged.[37] Most notably in 2014, the City of New York made a $98 million discrimination lawsuit settlement for a lawsuit brought by the Vulcan Society, an African-American firefighter fraternal organization.[38][39] There have also been investigations concerning FDNY firefighters engaging in bullying and harassing behavior of Muslim firefighters including behavior such as firefighters trying to slip pork products, which are prohibited under Islamic law, into the food of Muslim firefighters.[40][41] In another case, the son of a former FDNY commissioner was hired as a firefighter despite allegedly making comments of anti-semitic nature."

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/opinion/the-racism-inside-fire-depart...

Simon Patterson's picture

When it comes to photographing culture, it should be obvious that you'll get truer and more meaningful results when the photographer is a great documentary photographer. No matter where they're from or what skin colour they have.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

article stupid and racist

nick turner's picture

Maybe stick to talking about how Sony cameras help you shoot parkour...

Tony J's picture

As a black man I would like to say I disagree with the article. I love ALL Americans and I just want unity. I can only assume the author has good intentions. Side note: If people dont "fall in line" with a certain narrative they are pretty much ostrchized and thats sad. Be safe everyone

jim blair's picture

What's your next racist article, no more black and white photos?

MC G's picture

Just black photos, they will show you how to select and delete ALL white pixels! Black pixels matter only.

David Butler II's picture

I'm sure there are countless black writers writing about photography topics — and countless other things — but their work often remains unseen because they lack the visibility received by fstoppers others. Simply look at the articles on the main page and see how many black writers they have. Maybe Andy and others like him can step aside and give others a voice? Just a thought.

super steel_'s picture

wow, you dropped another notch in my book.
a new low for you.

JR Martinez's picture

The rationale that young people (mostly black and brown) leading current movements should be able to learn, practice and create their own documentation of what is happening seems to be hitting an "entitlement" nerve with you all doesn't it? hehe oh the irony of the fstoppers community, and I also agree with a previous comment that Fstoppers staff could probably put into better practice some of this work themselves.

MC G's picture

Make sure you hire someone based on the color of their skin! HOW PROGRESSIVE.

Trevor Tebone's picture

Andy Day, just checked your instagram feed. Disappointed by the lack of diversity.
Are you trying to tell us that black women can't do parkour?

N A's picture

My initial reaction was similar to most in this thread; gender, ethnicity and/or cultural association of the photographer shouldn't matter.

But maybe it does.

I shoot a lot of ethnically diverse events. I do find a certain bias in my preferred subjects. I tend to lock on to strong personalities with animated yet controlled facial expressions and vibrant clothing. More often than not I go for subjects I'm likely to get a great expression out of.

It's inevitable that from a 2-4 hour event I'll miss at least 10-20% of the subjects. The more subdued and innocuous the subject the less likely I'm going to get a good photo of them.

There's a subconcious component. By default I'm going to follow the person that will give me the best picture. Often they're the ones most comfortable with the camera. I have to consciously remind myself to shoot everyone.

It's no different than gravitating to a section of a protest where something is on fire. The bigger the fire, the more expressive the people, the more dramatic and memorable the image.

It's also equal parts time management and not creeping out quiet subjects with a 300 2.8 trained on them for minutes at time.

I don't have a skin tone preference but on the whole I capture more men than women. Guys can be underrepresented in some event photography so that's what I go for (we're just not as photogenic, let's be honest). It's about 60/40 men to women as far as shots go. The final set of images is as close to 1:1 as I can get.

From my own experience there is no such thing as neutral. You can try to control your bias but it can't be completely turned off.

The best strategy is to send in a team of technically skilled, mixed ethnicity and culturally diverse photographers of both sexes and see what happens. I think you'll see some pretty apparent biases in the output. Perhaps due to the access afforded to certain photographers because of their sameness as the crowd they're mingling in. That's not a bad thing imo if you can balance the biases in a way that makes a complete representation of the event.

Steven Weston's picture

Isn't it systemic racism to assume that white photographers are incapable of making unbiased photos documenting the situations they observe? Or sexism because they are males? Sure, I'd like to have non-white, non-male news photographers recording these historical events. But the news media has to work with what they've been given. BTW, who recorded George Floyd's murder? Answered by a later post: The video of George Floyd was made by a black videographer. Was his/her video biased? No, I don't think it was. The video documented exactly what it showed.

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