Diversity in Photojournalism

The recent explosion of imagery on social media has unleashed a phenomenal depth of creativity and expressive talent, which has given voice to millions of people who previously had little opportunity to talk about their lives. This new phenomenon has introduced all of us to lives that we could only imagine; some of the material available may include trivial details of daily life, but there are also many new voices addressing profound issues of love, civil rights, economic realities, and even world news, including the Japanese tsunami, the Boston bombing, the protests in Ferguson, and Charlie Hebdo. Give someone a camera and you give them a voice. 

But much of the world is home to communities whose lives are still narrated and photographed by strangers. 

Many communities where I come from in Europe, and where I live in the USA, have little or no representation in the mass media or access to a broad and influential audience; theirs are marginal, disenfranchised voices. But I believe the greatest inequities are in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South East Asia, and Latin America. A significant number of great photographers with rich legacies hail from these regions, but they are from too narrow a socio-economic demographic to be representative, which is very similar to the situation in Western economies. Diversity cannot simply be defined—as is our habit—using reductive terminology based on religion, colour, ethnicity, and gender. We must seek out new voices, using a more complex set of definitions and work in communities that are disenfranchised for entrenched and habitual socio-economic and political reasons too.

Strangers—for the sake of full disclosure I am one of them—may have good intentions, but the life experiences they draw on do not necessarily leave them well equipped to narrate the lives of others. I know well from my own experience working on complex stories in countries I have visited over and over for decades that research and immersion are useful but can only get you so far. As an outside storyteller, you frequently have to draw on legacy knowledge perpetuated by other outsiders with a similar background to one’s own or on interlocutors, whose knowledge advantage may be linguistic but little else. I cannot count how many times I found myself working in a remote rural area of a country with a graduate student from the best university in the capital city as my guide who had less familiarity or instinctual feeling for the place we were in even than I did, leaving us both blind. More frustrating is learning that what you may have considered firm and established beliefs—gleaned over decades of reading journals and books authored by other foreigners—too often don’t stand up to minimal field research. Unless you grow up in a community or are immersed in it for many years, your knowledge will always be superficial. 

An outside perspective can be an important, even critical as a contribution to our understanding of the world, but it cannot be the only point of view. Communities need reliable and credible storytellers who come from within; they deserve the dignity of being able to represent themselves and manage their own histories and narratives. We, the photographic community at large, need to create opportunities that enable a more diverse and credible community of storytellers.

All of us who seek to understand the world with any sophistication or nuance can still struggle with individual or societal prejudice. Evidence of that can be found in the way Muslim societies have been represented in the media over the last decade or the continual—albeit often well meaning—portrayal of Africa using tropes and self-perpetuating clichés. With rapidly and dramatically evolving technologies, we are all more connected, and we should have no excuse for prejudice and clichés. 

Many economies in the Majority World have grown faster than those in Europe and the USA (eight of twenty of the fastest growing economies are in Africa and six in Asia). There are many young men and women who now have access to photography—and to the media and other means of dispersal—who can interrupt and challenge the established narrative; it is incumbent on us to support them where they ask for it and to respond to their asserted needs.

The photographic community at large must recognise that it is to our benefit to provide opportunities to photographers from diverse communities and that, by amplifying their voices, we amplify the voices of the people they represent. Thriving and healthy societies need a liberated and diligent media, and visual storytellers are an increasingly significant component of the media. We need to give them access to education and employment opportunities. Agencies like VII (my own agency), Magnum, Noor, and Getty need to do more to recognise the value of representing voices that do not mirror their own. Media organisations who create the demand for imagery should be helping to support sustainable communities of visual local storytellers and offering them the same opportunities, on equal terms, not simply for the sake of diversity but because it makes us all stronger and smarter.