A By The Numbers and Personal Retrospect of Racial Representation In The Creative Industry
I am a graphic designer, and I am a photographer, largely focused on landscape and nature photography. I am also biracial - Guatemalan and black - and I claim my blackness with great pride. The correlation may seem insignificant, but combine them, and you will find that I am a rarity of the highest order. A black designer and a black photographer; the ever elusive spirit bear of the creative field. My career spans 15 years, and there is one absolute, undeniable truth: these fields are overwhelmingly dominated by white people.
When we speak about the importance of representation, the conversation is typically reserved to surface level quotas to be checked off. Diversity in the workplace is limited to the bare minimum that allows a company to proudly proclaim itself a bastion of inclusion. In 15 years working in the offices of five different print and design companies as a billing agent, prepress technician, graphic designer, production artist, and department manager, I have worked with fewer than ten black people. Fifteen years. Fewer than ten. That number is staggeringly, mind-blowingly low, but it's a troubling trend that plays out across the board.
If one wants to find the data that backs my experience and consequential conclusion, the 2019 AIGA Design Census bears the fruit of evidence. With just shy of ten thousand participants contributing to their study of the design industry in the U.S., only 3% identified as black, with an overwhelming 71% of applicants identifying as white. In looking at the most recent studies of the UK design industry that I could find - provided by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport - it does not appear to be much better. The categorization of design and design fashion shows that 91% of that industry is white, with the remaining 9% being black, Asian, or any other minority ethnic group - BAME, as they put it. That means it is most likely that a significantly lower percentage identifies as black.
As a photographer, my experience isn't as vast as my design and print background. I have only been active in photography for four years, working exclusively as an independent contractor. That makes it hard to glean any personal insights as to what the demographics of a full time work environment might look like. I can say that I have met many other talented black photographers working as independent artists like me, though, researching the statistics of a professional setting, they are not dissimilar to the numbers I found in graphic design. 80% of all photographers in the US are white, with 8% identifying as black - slightly better than that of designers - according to datausa. The numbers according to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport are pretty much identical when it comes to race for designers and photographers in the UK, with 10% made up of black, Asian, or another minority group.
In regards to something such as landscape photography - of which I am especially fond - the monolithic nature of this niche is inescapable. A quick Google search of landscape photographers will lead you to the most talented white people western civilization has to offer. SmartPhotoCourses.com offers a list of the 101 best landscape photographers. None of whom are black. Broaden your search to just the greatest photographers and it isn't much better. DigitalCameraWorld.com has compiled a list of what they think are the 50 best photographers ever. None of whom are black. Search black landscape photographers and you’ll be given options for black and white landscape photography. Narrow that to African-American landscape photographers to be specific, and you get my point, but just in case I have to emphasize it; NOTHING.
All of these statistics and findings should lead one to ask the simple question of why does this chasm exist? It is not as though there haven't been phenomenal and influential black designers and photographers. Emory Douglas is a graphic designer that immediately comes to mind as one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century. Basquiat's influence and imprint is felt throughout graphic design. The late, great, Sylvia Harris, is considered a pioneer of social impact design. Emmett McBain was a visionary and is an advertising design legend. Gordon Parks and Carrie Mae Weems are two prolific photographers who have made major contributions to the art form. Our imprint, prestige, and works are indelible to the culture. Still, the recognition and opportunities escape black people in these industries.
The reasons for such a great schism between chances available and chances given can be both predictable, and obscure at the same time. There is the obvious and omnipresent monster of institutional racism that permeates every facet of western civilization. Findings by Politifact backed what has been a long held belief - a belief researched and published in two separate papers by the National Bureau of Economic Research - that job seekers with white sounding names are 50% more likely to receive callbacks from their resume submissions.
The other major issue is the lack of proper educational resources, especially so for the arts, and doubly so for schools in predominantly black neighborhoods. We all know that in America, a large part of public school funding is made available through property taxes. Unfortunately, due to the ugly monster that is institutional racism, black neighborhoods are purposely undervalued simply because they are black neighborhoods (there are countless studies, books, lectures, papers, and other materials available to back this fact). That means less funding for public schools, and more often than not, the first thing to be cut are the very art programs that might lead a black child into the field of design or photography.
The issue of exclusion goes beyond statistical data and reaches back to the early days of film development technology. White skin was the default behind the chemical baseline for film emulsion technology. The Shirley Card, which was used for proper color calibration, was based on a brunette white woman. Properly exposing for brown and black tones was not even considered until the 60s, and that was because furniture manufacturers and chocolate companies were complaining about not getting correct exposures. Because of structural barriers that permeated all facets of life, black people were not even given agency to participate in the artform of photography.
This all leads to a key factor in this disparity, which is representation. You might wonder, why is this even important? Well, for one, it can save a company money and embarrassment. Remember that Gap Kids advert in which a young black girl was little more than a post to lean on? What about the H&M advertisement that had a black boy wearing a hoodie that stated he was the “coolest monkey in the jungle”? In fact, H&M has had an array of offensive ads, ranging from insensitive to downright idiotically ignorant. Lastly - not really, but for time’s sake - there’s Gucci’s sweater that clearly looks like a Jim Crow era caricature of a black person, and evokes blackface if worn over the face. These controversies could have possibly been avoided if there was a black voice that was elevated and listened to when these decisions were being made. Much more relevant though are the numerous studies have exhaustingly shown the effects of representation, or a lack thereof, on the psyche. Simply put, how can you envision yourself achieving something if there are not examples for you to follow that you can relate to? Unfortunately, the design and photography fields are severely lacking those examples.
How can we fix this problem? Many have claimed to try. Despite diverse hiring initiatives, proclamations that the playing field must be leveled, and even presidential executive orders (Bill Clinton’s One America Initiative), the issue is still a festering wound. There are some creatives trying to find a solution themselves. AIGA created a diversity and inclusion taskforce, headed by individuals who have a clear understanding of the design field, and the obstacles that must be overcome. There is the Organization of Black Designers, and their DesigNation conference, which brings together creatives and the companies looking to hire them. We also have blackswho.design, which is a website that contains a curated list highlighting black designers and creatives.
Nevertheless, one of the most important things that we can do in the fight for opportunity is to use our talent and our voice. Do not be silenced or discouraged. Find camaraderie with like minded individuals who inspire you to pursue your goals and further your skills. Lift up other black photographers and designers. If there is a job that you’re unable to do, recommend another black artist if you’re able to. Sharing another's work and giving referrals cost nothing, and more often than not, the gesture will be reciprocated. If we remember that we’re in this together, we can beat these odds, and black creatives will be seen.
Show and Tale will try to do its part in this fight, as we’ll be highlighting black creatives across all spectrums of art. This will include features and full interviews, but it doesn’t have to stop there. Giving creatives a platform to express their own ideas and thoughts is something that Show and Tale is definitely all about, as the entire meaning of this piece is to not only highlight disparities, but expand the idea of what an artist is and might look like. If there are any ideas out there, please, feel free to share them with us, and they will most certainly be considered.