Daily Archives March 17, 2021

Oriana in Ensenada, Baja California, while shooting a cookbook for Penguin Random House.

On Building Safe, Equitable and Inclusive Photography Sets

For about the last half decade, there’s been a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion in the photo industry, and primarily, these discussions tend to crop up after reported incidents of toxic workplace, sets, and individuals in our industry. I’ve found, as a Black photographer, these industry wide discussions don’t often enough turn into action that encourages the real life practice of building equitable, safe, and inclusive sets and workplaces, and that’s primarily because we all have to commit to doing the work of creating equity and safety while also setting an example for embracing inclusion.

One thing we seem to have difficulty understanding in these conversations about equity and inclusion is that diversity isn’t something we do. Diversity exists already in our society — human beings come in all colors, sizes, genders, sexualities, and abilities— but the real issue is the exclusion of folks who are marginalized in our society and, as such, in our industry as our workplaces often reflect the biases of the large society in which we work and are a part of. 

Exclusion happens in a myriad of subtle ways that we have to consider when hiring for crew on projects, from newspaper assignments to large, commercial photo shoots: who typically has access to jobs, by way of arts institutions, family connections, and other pipelines in our industry that allow for the easy of exclusion of folks who may not have gone to prestigious art schools or programs, or who don’t have access to familial or other social connections in the larger photo industry? What about the folks who begin their careers later in life, without formal photographic training?

Once I was able to articulate this idea to my clients, it became clearer to them that inclusion was the goal we were after.  

The cast and production crew of the television show, Queen Sugar, photographed for the Washington Post.

In my thirteen year long career, I have often always been the only Black person on set and that’s why inclusion is a priority in my larger photographic practice. It’s why I make it a priority for my clients when approached for assignments and commercial bids. The primary challenge of being The Only One is that the idea reinforces stubborn and incorrect ideas that there are not enough talented Black photographers— or other photographers of color, or women, or queer or trans folk, or differently abled photographers— to hire for photo jobs. 

This also means that my work is regularly devalued and overlooked. 

These sorts of hurdles are reinforced by systematic inequality and racism in our larger society, which makes it increasingly difficult to build the sort of career many of my white colleagues can often take for granted. When opportunities and resources are limited, it means career choices and trajectories are equally limited. 

I decided since I understood very clearly and personally the challenges of being The Only One, I would find ways to build equity and champion inclusion while also building my career: I would hire as inclusively as possible for every single one of my commercial jobs. 

Lighting assistant, Yasara Gundawardena, sits during a lighting test for a New York Times assignment.
Lighting and digital tech, Se Collier, poses for a portrait during a shoot for Caulipower.

I knew I had to begin to fashion the environments I wanted to see and be a part of. I wanted to show clients, in real time, what it looked like working on inclusive sets, and show them that the quality of the work didn’t suffer because everyone was given a seat at their tables. Slowly but surely, when bids and commissions came my way, clients often mentioned hearing about these inclusive sets, how the atmosphere of collaborative team work was so impactful on morale and overall final product, that they wanted to experience it for themselves.

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