These Photographers Are Ensuring That Diversity Becomes More Than an Industry Trend
Photo by Brad Ogbonna. Courtesy of Diversify Photo.
Photo by Carmen Chan. Courtesy of The Lit List.
When Oriana Koren launched their career as a freelance photographer shooting weddings, they began to realize the lack of visibility for marginalized people in photography. “I had instances where I’d be on assignment for a magazine shooting a five-star restaurant, and I’d have all of this camera equipment on me, and inevitably, somebody would treat me like I was the help and push a wine glass into my hand or ask me to go get them something,” Koren told Artsy. (Koren identifies as non-binary and uses she/they pronouns.) “I think it really awakened what it meant for me to navigate the world in a black body.”
Koren recognizes that they are not the only marginalized person to experience barriers in the lens-based industry, which often has a predilection for a monotonous roster of white photographers that are called upon for consistent work. (Tyler Mitchell, for example, was the first black photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue; his September cover of Beyoncé was a milestone in the magazine’s 125-year history). To develop a community of support, Koren connected with a group of photographers of color from the U.S. and Canada who identify as women, femmes, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming for a symposium about the disparities they were facing in their respective careers.
A handful of them had been accepted into Women Photograph—a database and initiative with a goal to elevate the “plurality of feminine” voices in visual journalism, including trans, queer, and non-binary photographers. However, the attendees at the symposium shared similar experiences of exclusion. Koren said that they discussed the micro- and macro-aggressions that they faced in the industry, as well as the idea that a database for women does not necessarily ensure that underrepresented women would receive equal opportunities. Thus, from the symposium, they developed an actionable item, which they named Authority Collective.
Photo by Miranda Barnes. Courtesy of Diversify Photo.
With a mission to “empower marginalized artists with resources and community,” and to confront “systemic and individual abuses” in the world of photography and imaging, the collective has so far garnered 200 members. Like the entertainment industry and the art world, the lens-based industry is being dismantled by marginalized individuals who are making their voices heard: The power dynamics must shift in order to widen the range of perspective to appeal to people of varying backgrounds.
“People understand now that their audiences have changed, and are craving media that reflects their life experiences,” Andrea Wise, a co-founder of Diversify Photo, told Artsy via email. “The challenge is how to do that. If you’ve always looked to your prestigious college or workshop’s alumni network to find fresh new talent, and those networks are financially or otherwise inaccessible to people of color, then you need to find new ways to source talent. That’s where we come in.”
Inspired by Women Photograph, Wise and her fellow co-founder, Brent Lewis, launched Diversify Photo last year, creating a database of photographers of color as a resource for art buyers, creative directors, and photo editors.
“We like the idea that diversity is a not an item you can just check off your to-do list. ‘Diversify’ is a verb, it’s a movement,” Wise said, echoing the mission of the organization. “We’re also doing what we can to raise the profile of exceptional photographers….Eventually, we want to work on addressing more of the systemic barriers that keep people of color out of the rooms where important professional relationships begin.”
Photo by Gabriella Angotti Jones. Courtesy of The Lit List.
This summer, Authority Collective and Diversify Photo partnered to create the Lit List. After reaching what they call “peak maximum frustration” with annual lists that featured few marginalized photographers, Koren began to think of what an alternative list might look like.
Koren discussed with a group of peers—Brent Lewis, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Elias Williams, and Tony Luong—the overwhelming number of qualified photographers of color they believed had been overlooked for Photo District News (PDN)’s annual list of 30 emerging photographers. So, Koren created their own set of guidelines, and formed a jury of allies—including senior photo editor at The New Yorker, Siobhán Bohnacker; photo editor at Wired, Sara Urbaez; and photographer Zora J. Murff, among others—to recognize and award 30 under-the-radar photographers who were underrepresented in the industry.
To ensure that the guidelines were consistent with the goals of each organization and those of others advocating for inclusion in the industry, Koren eliminated eligibility restrictions such as age limits, with the understanding that marginalized individuals often face systemic barriers to resources and opportunities more easily accessed by their white peers. In that way, the list is similar to PDN’s 30—Holly Stuart Hughes, an editor at PDN, said that her team rejected requiring an age limit because it excluded emerging photographers outside of that age range, who might still be establishing their careers.
Where the lists differ is in their submission processes and the requirements to be considered. For PDN’s 30, photographers for the annual list are nominated by photo editors, art directors, curators, educators, and photographers, while others are invited by the editors based on work seen in promotions, portfolio reviews, or photo contests. Photographers considered for the list must have been shooting on their own for no more than five years, and possess “a distinctive vision, creativity and versatility.”
While the Lit List also seeks nominations—from industry leaders as well as photographers—there’s also an open call on Instagram. From the submissions, a diverse set of jurors were asked to choose 90 percent artists of color; they included white women photographers, as well, recognizing that they, too, face obstacles within photography. Finally, the jurors were asked to be considerate of the factors that might have stunted the nominees’ career trajectories—such as a lack of monetary support, sponsorship, and mentorship—and instead consider their potential for success. “We didn’t want to create an award that perpetuates the same sort of conventions that other awards do,” Koren said.
Diversity is also “keenly important” to PDN, Stuart Hughes told Artsy via email. This past year, PDN has had conversations about expanding its list of nominators in hopes of garnering a more inclusive set of submissions. Additionally, the publication has taken steps toward making its monthly content more inclusive, such as inviting photographers of color to be contributing writers. (For the latest issue, for example, Koren wrote an article on the lack of mentorship available to marginalized photographers.)
Stuart Hughes also noted the value that organizations such as Authority Collective, Diversify Photo, Women Photograph, and more add to the industry. “They’re valuable not only because they champion diverse photographers,” she said, “but because they get the people involved in selecting and nominating photographers excited about seeking out and supporting diverse talents.”
Since the release of the Lit List in August, the inaugural photographers have garnered much-deserved recognition. The list was sponsored by Format, Wonderful Machine, Mastin Labs, Artifact Uprising, and Moment, and it was covered by the Humble Arts Foundation and PDN’s “Photo of the Day.” The honorees also exhibited at Photoville, the annual photography festival in Brooklyn, New York; the exhibition was later mentioned in the New York Times. And, according to Wise, Diversify Photo is working on a discussion and exhibition for PDN’s PhotoPlus Expo.
Photo by Arlene Mejorado. Courtesy of The Lit List.
Although they each have just one year under their belts, both Authority Collective and Diversify Photo have already began to shift conversations within professional photography, ensuring that diversity does not just stop at one or two photographers of color being given one-off opportunities. Instead, they are in it for the long-haul.
“In order for any significant change to happen within the industry, there has to be a constant disruptive force holding it accountable for its racism, for its misogyny, for its exclusivity,” Koren said. Koren feels compelled to have these conversations with friends and colleagues, as well as with people in their network with decision-making power. “I’m constantly challenging them and calling them out on their bullshit.”
Perhaps what is most becoming about both organizations is their selflessness. The founders of both organizations volunteer their labor while also balancing their respective careers, and operate from a community-first approach. This is all in an effort to clear the path so that other marginalized artists will have an easier chance at consistent work, fair and equal treatment, and, hopefully, an opportunity to mentor others that follow.
Although both Authority Collective and Diversify Photo were started by marginalized photographers, they are aware that they can only do so much. Thus, Koren emphasizes that those with hiring power need to seek out diverse talent for all types of work, not just for the stories about subjects the photographers might seem to identify with (though that certainly matters, too). Koren asserted: “Our industry does not become inclusive without white people doing the work to dismantle all of the walls that they’ve built up, that don’t allow anyone who isn’t white and male or white and female to succeed.”
Correction: A previous version if this story incorrectly referred to Tony Luong as Tony Wong. It also incorrectly stated that Tony Wuong, Laylah Amatullah Barryan and Elias Williams were co-creators of the Lit List. Although they were involved in its ideation, Koren is the sole founder of Lit List. The text has been updated to reflect these changes.