With the Golden Globes this past Sunday and the Oscars only a few weeks away from now the topic of representation and diversity, or the lack thereof, is back in the forefront. While the issue never really goes away it typically comes back en vogue during award season although it's a discussion and issue we should always be addressing. In my last blog post, I shared 16 photographers whose work inspired me during 2016. One thing that struck me pretty early on last year was the lack of adequate representation in fine art and fashion photography. It doesn't take much scrolling or swiping to see that the industry has a very homogenized perception of beauty or "the look", which in most instances translates to thin and white.
This lack of diversity manifests itself in the narrow, inaccurate, and often disparaging depiction of minorities and women we often see in the media and arts and is a direct result of the disproportionate underrepresentation of these groups behind the lenses and microphones that shape what we see and hear. A truly diverse media allows for the voices and images of the maligned and marginalized segments of our society to be heard and accurately depicted. Falling short of this ideal has potentially disastrous consequences and impacts us in ways that are far-reaching; some of which we have only recently come to understand.
In 2012, the academic journal Communication Research published a study by two Indiana University professors called “Racial and gender differences in the relationship between children’s television use and self-esteem: a longitudinal panel study.” After a year of following and carefully tracking the television viewing habits of 396 black and white preteens, the researchers came to the alarming conclusion that television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among white boys. While the results were not entirely surprising, the study made several headlines and also helped quantify the discussion surrounding media representation and inclusivity in a meaningful and impactful way (you can read more about the study here).
Just recently, Deddeh Howard, a Liberian-born, L.A.-based model and blogger, embarked on a project entitled "Black Mirror" that showcased her recreation of major ad campaigns from brands such as Chanel, Gucci, and Calvin Klein to draw attention to the lack of diversity in the world of high fashion (slideshow below). When asked by Buzzfeed news reporter Victoria Sanusi why she chose the title "Black Mirror", Howard replied, “I thought it was perfect because we are mirroring two images. When you [black women] look in the mirror you question: ‘This could be me, why is this not me?” Howard said the series, which took about three months to make, was inspired by the discrimination she faced as a model: “Agencies would often tell me, ‘We like your look but there’s a black girl already’. It shouldn’t be limited to just one black girl; there can be more than one!” She added: “It’s as if they [agencies] are ashamed to represent diversity. It’s very painful and it made me feel insecure and bad about myself.”
"Why is this not me?"
Projects such as Deddeh's and the wide appeal and commercial success of shows such as Atlanta, Scandal, Insecure, Black-ish, and Luke Cage or movies like Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Ghostbusters prove that women and people of color have stories and ideas that deserve just as much of an equal footing in our social conscious and appetite. Isolating ourselves from (or marginalizing) people with different perspectives, ideas, and thoughts nurtures the types of environments that give birth to a very insular and narrow perspective of the world. It goes something like this ... a white art director hires a white photographer and talent from a model agency made up almost entirely of white women for a project that's ultimately going to end up in a beauty or fashion magazine with a white editor who serves as the "guardian of the gate", having total control of the types of people and bodies that grace their pages. Fortunately, the tides are slowly changing, in 2016 52 of 147 covers (35.3%) from America's 10 leading fashion publications starred people of color, as compared to only 27 of 136 covers (19.8%) in 2015.
The ivory tower (pun intended) nature of fashion and the haute couture brands that guard the castle walls have pushed people of color to the fringes of the industry but necessity has always been the mother of invention. People of color have taken control of their narrative and created spaces that cater to them ... for us by us. Black spaces, queer spaces, latinx spaces and all their intersections have always been and will always be important, they are a haven for many people who would have nowhere else to turn otherwise. But I've always been torn, while I think it's important for us to have our own spaces I think the danger lies in us being viewed as a subset of "normal" culture ... the truth is we are culture ... our music, our food, our fashion, our dance, our vernacular have all been appropriated throughout history and repackaged as the "mainstream".
As I've gotten into portraiture I've learned that it's important to understand your relationship with your subject, Why do you want to take this person's picture? What are you trying to convey about them or yourself as the viewer? What makes this person unique and how can you depict that through your lens? Representation is personal to me, so much so that I've made it my mission statement ... I want to collaborate with people of color to create images that change the way the world sees us. But ultimately we all play a part ... what brands do you support and what is their stance on diversity and body positivity? How about in your own life ... who do you surround yourself with and how do you advocate for them if you enjoy some form of privilege? Think about it.