Women have “made huge headway” toward equality with white men in the photo industry, photojournalist Maggie Steber says in an interview in the September issue of PDN. “Now we have to make sure minorities are making more headway.” For minorities, she explained, there’s still “a lot of benign racism.” Marcus Smith, a successful advertising photographer, told us during an interview in 2013 that he worried about race at the the start of his career. In this excerpt from that interview, he describes what he experienced, and offers advice about confronting racism–benign or otherwise–to young African-Americans aspiring to launch careers in photography.
PDN: Are there particular challenges to being an African-American commercial photographer, because of race?
Marcus Smith: Going into it, I thought there would be. I would talk to my mom about it and say, “I don’t know if this is going to work the way I think it is because so much of this industry is about networking and personal relationships. And I wonder if I’m going to be able to relate to people.” I’m a lot younger than a lot of people in the industry, and also, my background and where I come from is a lot different, too. I thought about whether I would have a level playing field. But the less I thought about it, the less of a problem it was–when I was, “OK, whatever. It is what it is. I’m going to be who I am and find the people who accept that.” And those are the people I’m looking to work with.
I had an agent tell me that I needed to have more white people in my portfolio, and I thought that was the craziest thing ever. There’s a lot of Caucasian photographers who shoot lifestyle, fashion, whatever–and they have a book full of white people. And nobody’s telling them, “Hey you need to shoot more black people or you need to shoot more Asian people or Hispanic people or whatever.”
So I was like, OK, I’m not going to listen to you [the agent] because that doesn’t make sense to me. People should be able to see what they want and see what you’re capable of, regardless of whatever race [the subjects are] in front of the lens. So I was going to keep doing what I do, and photograph what interests me, and I’m going to show people. I wanted to take what’s “lifestyle” to me and “culture” to me, and present that to people, and hopefully they see my passion for that and respond to it. And they did. It doesn’t matter to me what color my subject is.
PDN: What advice would you give to other aspiring African-American photographers who might feel daunted being in a minority in the photo industry?
MS: My advice would be to be yourself. People are a lot more alike than you think they are. And people like a lot more of the same things than you think they do. Just because you may have grown up in the inner city, or whatever, and somebody else may have grown up in the suburbs, doesn’t mean that you can’t find a common ground to stand on. It doesn’t mean you don’t possibly listen to the same music, or that you don’t both hate the San Antonio Spurs, or something like that. You never know what kind of random common thread you might find. And you could become the best of friends on the basis of that commonality. And then you have someone you could be different with. I think that’s what makes all of us so interesting: you come from this background, I come from that background. You could have these interesting dialogues [because of that].
PDN: What advice would you give those photographers who may fear overt racism in the industry?
MS: You shouldn’t have fear of that, because you would never know where it comes from. When you can’t pinpoint it, it can paralyze you if you let it become a part of your thinking. You have to have faith that people are not going to do that to you, and if they are, then those are not the kind of people you want to work with anyway. I can be a testament that most people in the industry are not like that. I’m not saying everybody [in the industry] is past [racism], but I can say a big majority of people I’ve come into contact with haven’t responded that way.