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Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography

See why, in an increasingly content-rich world, Black representation in stock photography is on the minds of businesses and individuals more than ever.

Having said that, the lack of quality diverse and inclusive photography available is a challenge that marketers and brands face daily. Even when photos seem to meet this criteria, they often appear cliched, stereotyped, or forced. This is equally true when it comes to Black representation in stock photography.

When we think of representation, it’s often in reference to who we see in front of the lens. But, who is behind the lens is equally important. According to the World Press Photo “The State of News Photography” 2018 survey of photojournalists from around the world, over half of participating photographers identified themselves as “Caucasian/White,” while only 1% classified themselves as “Black.”

To help close this gap both in front of and behind the camera, it’s important to have conversations on why Black representation in photography matters globally, and what we can do to address content gaps where they exist. 

ShADEs (Shutterstock Afro-Descendant Employees) is an Employee Resource Group (ERG) that is dedicated to the retention, development, advancement, and empowerment of Black employees at Shutterstock. This article shares some ideas and considerations on Black representation in stock photography, and where we want to see more Black representation in the content our contributors worldwide create. 

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — ShADEs

The changing scene of the modeling industry 

Looking back at Shutterstock’s photo collections from Fall/Winter 2020 Fashion Week earlier this year, the majority of top models photographed on the catwalk are white. However, there are signs the industry is changing.

According to The Fashion Spot, the Spring 2020 season was the most racially diverse on record. Out of the 7,390 model castings at over 200 major shows, over 40% were models of color. While that’s only a slight increase of under 38% since Fall 2019, industry observers consider this encouraging.

ShADEs sponsor Andrew James said he finds it encouraging compared to ten or more years ago. Then, when he looked at models, there were a small number of African American models with a designated look. Now, however, that whole “traditional” model look is out. “The definition of what’s considered beautiful has changed,” said Andrew, adding that ten-plus years ago, many people would say there’s no way “that individuals with a certain skin tone or hair style” could be a model.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when creating diverse and inclusive imagery.


Tip #1: Support a diverse modeling industry

When planning and selecting models for shoots, keep an open mind to new ideas of beauty that break down the traditional barriers of the past. This is your opportunity as a contributor to make your work speak to a new direction in the modeling industry.

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — Support a Diverse Modeling Industry
Diverse photos start with diverse models. Image by Merla.

Tip #2: Having more images doesn’t mean you have great images

When it comes to stock photography, ShADEs leader Amber Nobles said it’s important to remember that we don’t just want more Black representation, “we need to have great Black representation.” 

Andrew echoed Amber’s sentiment, saying he finds it hard to believe that a person couldn’t draw the line between the quality and essence of the content. “If it moves you, if it’s compelling — how do we set that bar that says anything you find when you come here is going to meet certain criteria?”

When planning your next shoot, keep this in mind so that your final work doesn’t just come off as ticking off the boxes. Rather, you want to create something that communicates to the audience it’s intended for.

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — Know the Community You are Creating For
Make content that moves you. Image by Horn Endrey.

Tip #3: Diversity is equally important behind the lens

While there may be more signs of diversity in some areas such as modeling, Amber hopes that it will become easier to find prominent Black contributors on stock photography websites. “I would love to feature these contributors and showcase how they are storytelling Black culture — especially when it relates to visually expressing the African American experience and narrative.”
 
ShADEs member Steven Russell said stock photography needs a heavier presence of Black artists, not just from America but from the diaspora as a whole. “There is Black culture in South America, UK and Asia,” he said. Russell added that stock could include more current editorial footage of the culture of today from events like AfroPunk or the Labor Day Parade.

The most important thing is to keep content authentic.

Having said that, both Amber and Andrew agree that the creator of the content doesn’t have to be of African American descent themselves in order for it to be authentic. Rather, as Amber points out, it’s the motivation behind the content: What is the creator trying to portray with this content?

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — Know What Message Your Content Sends
Your content sends a message. What is yours? Image by Jacob Lund.

Andrew added: “If the content is really compelling, it shouldn’t matter who it came from — it’s important what’s behind it and the impact it will have.”

As you go out and take pictures, keep this question in mind to help your final work come across as more authentic and meaningful.


Tip #4: Using the right keywords and descriptions on stock

Creating the image is one thing. But, as with all photography that sits on stock sites, it’s equally important to consider using the right keywords — especially if there are known biases or sensitivities associated with using the wrong keywords. It’s up to the photographer to be aware of this and make sure that he or she is using the appropriate language.

Amber said if a photographer may have the best of intentions for the idea behind his or her content, but that can be marred by the creator using keywords that don’t reflect the content.

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — Use the Right Keywords
Keywording will help get your content to the clients who need it. Image by GaudiLab.

For example, to make content more globally searchable, the contributor might want to consider avoiding the term “African American” for international content, as the term is very American-centric. That’s why it’s important to know your audience and who is searching for your content, and, ultimately, how easy it will be for them to find it.

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — Make Your Content Globally Relevant
Make your images globally relevant. Image by wavebreakmedia.

Tip #5: We’ve come so far, but have a long way to go

Well there has been some progress made in Black representation in front of and behind the camera, there’s still more to go. A good place to start is for people to educate themselves on Black representation. There are numerous organizations that offer a wealth of information and resources.

ShADEs member Kevin Patrick suggests looking to photography groups within Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as a place to start. These are institutions of higher education in the US that were established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with the intention of primarily serving the African-American community.

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — Educate Yourself on Black Representation
Learn the history and modern culture of Black communities. Image by CarlosDavid.

Andrew said the Greek system is very strong and influential, especially amongst its post graduate professionals. Therefore, stock photography collections could expand to include more imagery that is representative of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. The Council is made of the nine international, historically Black Greek lettered organizations (also known as the Divine Nine). 

He added that the Black Greek lettered organizations domestically and internationally have events and programs. These events would have value on stock photography sites as a primary source for content. In addition, members of each fraternity or sorority spend a lot of money to demonstrate their pride and support of their organizations. 

Other photography organizations include Washington D.C.-based The Exposure Group African American Photographers Association, UK-based Autograph Association of Black Photographers, and Flickr group Society of African & African American Photographers.


Making stock photography more diverse and inclusive

Recent movements such as the #OscarsSoWhite viral call-to-action surrounding the 2016 Academy Awards thrust the role of minorities in media into the spotlight and the lack of diversity in the Oscars.

Prior to 2015, only 1.1 percent of non-white females and 6.8 percent of non-white males won awards. While Black actors won supporting role awards in 2017, the issue of diversity arose again in 2020. That year Harriet star Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color nominated for an Oscar in the acting categories.

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — Minorities in the Spotlight
Cynthia Erivo on stage. Photo by Rob Latour/Shutterstock (10548150sv) Cynthia Erivo 92nd Annual Academy Awards, Los Angeles, USA. 09 Feb 2020.

Similarly, Black representation has some ways to go in photography. However, as Amber pointed out, diversity also applies to those who are searching for images. Additionally, she noted, “There’s the complexity of the narrative of Black history, the obstacles we overcame for those many significant achievements, and the uniqueness of our multifaceted culture: is there anything that could contain that wholly?”

Interested in learning more about diversity in stock? Check these articles out:

The post Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography appeared first on The Shutterstock Blog.

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