Friday, 16 November 2007

Best Towns, White People

A while ago the following picture request came to me from a photo agency (which will be nameless) that links publishers and photographers world wide in a marketplace for stock photography. The heading was:


I am looking for stock images including restaurants, cafes and shops. I am also looking for the good looking men hanging out, having a good time with friends or alone. I am looking for images of cultural institutions and nightlife. The men must be Caucasian 25-45 years old if they are in the picture. I need lifestyle imagery, adventure sports and gorgeous landscape or town shots.

A list followed of places such as Camden ME, Creede CO, Santa Cruz CA and so on which recently have become noticed for the lifestyle they offer.

The way the photo library works gives the publisher anonymity (to protect the broker's interests naturally) but through a third party inside another photo agency I established the wording of the request has not been changed by the agency I subscribed to and it came from a US magazine with a circulation in excess of six million (and more with editions in other countries) which has won numerous awards and attracts leading writers and photographers. It pays top dollar for quality work.

I could have supplied some of images that fit the brief but didn't like the implications that the people had to be Caucasian. Unless the story concerns race, why be specific about colour? I am not naive. I understand there's a host of commercial reasons why an editor might want the 'best towns' in America to appear populated by good looking young men but everyone in editorial photography should know something is wrong with illustrating the '50 Best Towns in America’ with photos of Caucasians only. This kind of selectivity keeps Jim Crow dancing on the lightbox.

I wrote to the agent and asked how they felt about facilitating such racism. I got a reply a minute later: “Yes, I noticed this when the request was submitted, but was leery about doing anything.... It is impossible to be sure about the reasons why they specified "Caucasian" - the fact is we get regular requests for images where the subject must be "Asian" or "Afro-American" for instance, so (unless we get overly politically correct) what is wrong for asking for Caucasian?”

I can sympathise with the agent or with other photographers for not wanting to become alienated from this client by questioning their image requests but I am not afraid to question this. I wrote to and emailed the editor in the USA for a response but never got it.

If I was in the unfortunate position of having to concoct an excuse for this lapse of judgment, I would imagine it was an honest mistake where the picture researcher based the search criteria on the magazine’s demographics. Surely there is no crime in an accidental cut and paste from a typical blurb for the magazine? The agent told me later they suspected: “the editor probably specified Caucasian to the researcher but did not expect the researcher to then pass this on to agencies.”

But I cannot find any evidence that this magazine describes their readers as exclusively Caucasian. Men 25-45 certainly are amongst its readership and there is nothing wrong or immoral about targeting a readership by ethnicity or gender but actively censoring reportage images on a racial basis is at best dubious.

I sent the request to a leading image library specialising in 'social issues' to ask what they thought. In this instance they too prefer anonymity: "There's a lot of this low level racism. Hard to pin down but insidious" they said.

What the magazine should have done is what everyone else apparently does; just ask for images and then either subconsciously or discretely reject the black or brown faces. There may well be the excuse that these towns have mostly white populations so a predominance of black faces in a given photo may give a false impression of the local population but, as the list includes 50 towns all across the USA and Canada, I don’t think this can apply to all of them.

It's a matter many I know in this industry wish was swept under the carpet but those who monitor the frequency and the contexts of people of colour appearing in the media don't need any more proof such hidden racism exists. This case is a rarely visible example of many thousands of incidents occurring every day. 48 hours after the photo researcher put out this request, well over 500 images had been submitted via the agent. That is 500 instances of images being selected from a racial perspective starting with the photographers who sent them. Some may not have noticed the brief or wished to be subversive and sent images of people of colour anyway but I will get to that later.

It is my experience as a photojournalist, photo researcher and filmmaker that if a publication is targeted at a minority or there is a desire to appear balanced, publishers have to search specifically for images of minorities such as Asians or Afro-Americans to take affirmative action. I don't notice indexing keywords describing ‘Caucasian’ in images as often as those indicating other races. If doing an image search on most popular subjects, I can safely assume that 99% of images will have white people in them. A person’s colour is very rarely mentioned in the briefs I get unless race, geography or politics are the subject.

If you ask for a photo of a ‘doctor treating patient’ I can be certain that 90% of the photos will be white doctors and white patients. Testing the theory I went to a major image library and tried these searches:

Model released image searches (not news photographs):

“Doctor treating patient” 250 photos (all white except for 16 below)

“Doctor treating patient Caucasian” 95 photos

“Doctor treating patient black” photos 16 (but same model in 10 photos)

There are certainly plenty of images of black doctors but if you want one, you have to ask and look hard. Within those images certain taboos will be adhered to. Black people are rarely seen touching white people. Bi-racial couples are an exceptional rarity.

There have been vast strides forward in the lifetime of Rosa Parks. Images of minorities doing ordinary everyday things have become a specialist niche in stock photos because efforts are being made to redress the balance. Image libraries do provide publishers with positive images of minorities because there is a ready market for them but it appears as if images in magazines are still being selected on an discriminatory racial basis.

I am ashamed to say that US and UK photo editors have told me privately hundreds of times; "black people don't sell.” What they really mean is, with a few exceptions, they don’t ‘sell’ to white readers. I can attest, as a former celebrity photographer, that sales of photos of white celebrities far outstrip those who are from minorities in huge disproportion to the population, although no one’s really counting.

Before digital photography arrived, distributing film based images cost the news agencies that employed me serious money so it was necessary to ruthlessly weed out images which had fewer prospects of selling quickly as every image took time, space and money to physically obtain, store and distribute. This led to self censorship on the red carpet. It was no secret amongst the Hollywood 'rope-rats' that black actors and musicians - except the superstars - did not get as much exposure in magazines as white. So to counter this, there were black celebrities who would give their looks or poses for any black photographers and then only the key 'white' publications. Its was once a fact of red carpet life that celebrities knew who was shooting for whom and so they directed their gaze to whatever media that mattered to them most. Many black celebrities consciously supported the black photographers working to supply the smaller media markets that existed for images of black celebrities.

Lately digital origination, storage and delivery have reduced overheads but have also lowered the bar to career entry and lowered rates paid on publication. Photojournalism and editorial photography is far more competitive now. It's much more of a scrum than ever and the relationship and implicit contract that once existed between photographers and celebrities is unenforceable now. Meanwhile our consumption of celebrity content and media overall has risen steadily. What I am leading up to is that efforts within the industry to combat racism will have to be very loud to overcome the background noise and lack of cohesion because the industry has so many more players and is more fragmented than ever before.

Personally I think any justifications for specifying ethnic representation in images are self-fulfilling. As we continue to make distinctions, we create barriers to bridging them. There is a thin line somewhere about recognising diversity and ghettoising it. Looking around, I find that others have given thought to what is only my morning coffee theory.

Writer and broadcaster Keenan Malik says in a lecture he gave; “Far from liberating us from racism, multiculturalism has become a trap, imprisoning people within narrow ideas of what their culture should be.”

The Arts Council launched decibel, its campaign for promoting cultural diversity. A noted Asian playwright wrote to Malik to explain what this means. 'As an Asian', he wrote, 'I am expected to write plays that deal with "the family". What I can't write about (as no venue will produce it) are plays that could be about anyone, but just happen to have British Asians in the leading roles.'

Malik adds: “Such ghettoisation has more serious consequences too - segregating communities far more effectively than racism ever did. Take, for instance, Bradford. From the beginnings of mass immigration in the 1950s racism has helped create deep divisions in the city. But it also helped generate political struggles against discrimination, the impact of which was to create bridges across ethnic, racial and cultural fissures. In response to the militancy of these struggles, the local council in the early eighties rolled out its multicultural programme, including a 12-point race relations plan which declared that every section of the 'multiracial, multicultural city' had 'an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs'. Council funding became linked to cultural identity, so different groups began asserting their differences ever more fiercely. The consequence was to strengthen the hand of the most conservative elements in the communities, especially the religious ones. It also helped entrench the divisions created by racism, and made cross-cultural interaction far more difficult.”

There is much academic work examining the portrayal of black people in the white media. Reviews of a frequently cited book (which I have not read) The Black Image in the White Mind by Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki: “offer a comprehensive look at the intricate and subtle racial patterns in the media... these powerful images play a significant role in shaping the attitudes of Whites toward Blacks.”

When you think of racists you might think of white males from the majority of socio-economic groups attending football matches. My experience of racists is quite different. I was once on a train sitting across the aisle to a respectable looking group of white, I presumed affluent, pensioners going from Norwich to London. In about twenty minutes their conversation had gone from their ailments and their grandchildren onto to the subject that "the Pakis are taking over." They all concurred that if they get put through to an apparently Indian voice at a call centre, they put the phone down or berated the person to "speak English proper". I have no irrefutable evidence (such as a tape recording) that I was next to people with deep-seated prejudices but they plainly and unashamedly were.

Then there is well meaning but unnecessary reporting of a person’s race. I quote from a BBC press release:

Mastermind Grand Final - BBC TWO, Sunday 5 December 2004 at 9.00pm

Shaun Wallace, a barrister from Wembley, has tonight (5 December 2004) won the acclaimed title of Mastermind Champion 2004 following a nail-biting finish to a closely contested final. He becomes the 27th winner of Mastermind and the first black winner.

The fact is that in subsequent coverage, more was made of a ‘black first' than that a barrister was the winner and I had to ask the BBC what made it worthy to point out his colour? It would be relevant to point out a black 'first' in a situation where someone triumphed despite being black - such as James Meredith - but I can't think that colour has ever been a barrier to winning Mastermind before. Shaun Wallace certainly gave no indication that he had encountered any racism either nor have there been complaints about the homogeneity of the contestants. Mentioning his colour might have been relevant when saying that he could be a role model to anyone who felt alienated from Mastermind by their colour but that was never the case.

It is said “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I have been wary of speaking out on this subject for fear of misunderstanding. The issues are complex. I am a white man and I am ignorant of many other cultural sensitivities. I am angry at that too. I do not wish to patronise anyone and I have heard black people tell me to speak for myself but not for them and these issues are rife with the sort of factionalism satirised in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian.’

Can the editorial photography industry do anything about this? Individual photographers merely choosing to boycott such opportunities for sales will achieve nothing. I wanted to find if there was or ever had been an action plan to fight racism in the media. After several days research I had no luck finding it. I still don’t feel qualified to tackle this subject except in the personal terms here. I wanted to pass this slight evidence to anybody who could act upon it but nobody I asked seemed to know confidently of someone or somebody who would do something.

It was suggested at the time it happened that I offered this story to some newspapers. Alas, in my business, the rules are by all means rake up muck on the pages but not in the newsroom. For me it was tempting to expose this small injustice by a major US publisher but what would it have attained? The cost to whistleblowers usually outweighs the benefits and you can’t pay a mortgage solely with a clear conscience, I know that from bitter experience. The publishers of this particular magazine support many black people, enterprises and causes with their massive media empire. They are unlikely to face criticism for what would then be dismissed as an ‘isolated incident’.

I think the answer is to remind ourselves frequently that despite progress, such racism still exists and remaining silent gives it oxygen. We must all try to be informed of the issues and we must, subversively if necessary, in the same way it is propagated, resist.

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