October 29th, 2012

PPE 2012: Facing The Lack of Diversity in Photography and The Arts

To provide some context for the PhotoPlus Expo panel discussion on “(Mis)representation: The Underrepresentation of Non-Whites and Women in the Arts,” moderator Charles Guice, an independent photo dealer, noted some statistics about the changing demographics of the United States. According to recent census data, whites in the US will no longer make up the majority of the country within a few years. Yet, he noted, whites still make up 91 percent of all museum goers, and white artists are represented in 91 percent of all museum and gallery exhibitions. “If the arts are to remain relevant who’s responsible for changing the status quo?” he asked. Guice asked his panel to look both at how women and artists of color are underrepresented in the arts, and what needs to change. His panelists were Manjari Sharma, a photographer born and raised in Mumbai and now based in Brooklyn; John Edwin Mason, a writer on photography and associate chair of history at the University of Virginia; Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, curator at El Museo del Barrio in New York; and Miriam Romais, executive director of En Foco, a non-profit devoted to supporting US-based photographers of Latino, African, Asian and Native-American descent and the editor of Nueva Luz, the photographic journal produced by En Foco.

Guice quoted the oft-cited statistic used by the feminist arts group Guerilla Grrls in its slogans: Less than 3 percent of the artists represented in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but women represent 83 percent of the nudes. Women also make up a tiny percentage of any “power list” of influential curators or gallerists. Sharma noted that the struggle for equality “begins at an early age”; she cited studies showing that girls talk less in class, get less attention from teachers, and tend to undervalue their performance.“The female gaze isn’t given the same attention,” she noted, and later added, “Women don’t recognize their own voices.” Aranda-Alvarado observed that throughout history, “The Academy was the training ground for male artists,” and tended to set the standard by which later art was judged. Sharma noted that the problem is compounded by the dominance of white males among the decision-makers and gatekeepers. “We need more diversity among the jurying panels.”

Mason offered two anecdotes about occasions when pointing out the blinkered view of certain jurors and gatekeepers helped raise awareness about the lack of diversity among the photographers they promoted. When a group of photo bloggers recently teamed up to name photographers who are moving the medium forward Mason noted on Twitter that the absence of photographers of color on the list was “stunning.” Mason said at least two of the contributing bloggers (all of whom were white and “overwhelmingly male”) responded with embarrassment and regret. “I think they were being honest … that we work with these kind of blinkers,” he said.

“The problem with lists is that whoever is compiling them should say, ‘This is according to me.’ No one can know everything. You can work real hard, but if you’re in New York or London or Charlottesville, Virginia, most of the names on the list are going to be American or European because that’s what we know.” He added that today, bloggers have gained the kind of authority and influence that mainstream media and arts institutions once had and, like magazine editors, they “have to learn to look inclusively.”

Mason noted that the Look3 Festival of the Photograph, which has taken place annually in Mason’s hometown of Charlottesville, was similarly limited in its choices of speakers and workshop leaders. However, once the festival grew from a private event in photographer Nick Nichols’ backyard to a large event that receives public funding from the city of Charlottesville, many people on the faculty of the University of Virginia and in the city wanted it to expand its list of featured speakers to a more inclusive list of photographers. The organizers responded, and its speakers in the last two years have included LaToya Ruby Frazier, Hank Willis Thomas and Stanley Greene. Mason said, “I think that the people at Look3 sincerely see that leaving out three-quarters of the world, or 30 percent of the American population, is a bad thing. They understood the rightness of what we were saying.”

He noted that such openness does more than bring additional perspectives to the festival’s educational programs. “We’re talking about photographers’ lives and careers here,” he said. “Sometimes if you’re not inviting them [photographers of color] then they’re not getting that networking opportunity and meeting those people and getting those mentors.”

Mentors, Romais said, are essential to help photographers build networks and contacts. En Foco offers many portfolio reviews and juried shows devised to give more photographers exposure, but she also noted that she has sometimes found it “heartbreaking” to see talented photographers who lack training in presentation, editing or preparing for portfolio reviews. Mentors, she said, can help new photographers understand the importance of being able “to talk eloquently about their work and without self consciousness,” and to present their work confidently to jurors and reviewers “without compromising their own vision.” Sharma, who said she was fortunate to have “strong female instructors” when she was a student, asked, “Should we feel an obligation to lift up other females?”

At this point, an African-American photographer in the audience said that he’d heard discussions like this, “identifying the problem” for years, but has heard few solutions. He noted that, as a member of ASMP, he is typically the only African-American at meetings, but he added, “I keep showing up,” in hopes that he’ll encourage other photographers to follow. Audience member Shawn Walker, a member of Kamoinge, the photographic collective, has supported African-American photographers since its founding in 1963.

In a discussion of the pros and cons of culturally specific institutions, Aranda-Alvarado said she worries whether, after photographers “make the rounds” of artists-in-residency programs aoffered by the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Bronx Museum of Arts and other organizations devoted to supporting photographers of color, they are also given opportunities to be seen by curators at larger institutions. “Not often,” she said. When El Museo holds its biennial, they invite curators from the Whitney Museum of Art and other large museums to view the featured work. Romais noted that En Foco changes the jury for its contests and portfolio reviews each year in order to help photographers get wide exposure. En Foco’s printed showcase of photographers, Nueva Luz, is also distributed for free to thousands of editors and curators.

The questions and comments from audience members made it clear that there are numerous barriers for photographers of color to be recognized by arts institutions as well as gatekeepers in media. An Arizona-based photographer and professor who is Native-American said, “The people who buy photography and the people who hire photographers for magazines—I could never reach them. I had to do powwows and Monument Valley.” An African-American woman who credits her uncle, a photographer, with mentoring her early in her career, said she tries to make her own opportunities. “I don’t wait for anyone to open the door for me because I open the door.”

Guice noted that photographers like Roy deCarava who questioned the status quo were sometimes labeled “difficult” or “trouble makers.” Mason said that during the push to diversify Look3, “I didn’t expect the young photographers to speak up.” The fight, he said, was largely lead by academics with tenured positions. However, he said, “There’s an issue of personal responsibility. If you reach a position where you have the juice, you have to use it.”

Near the end of the panel, Guice asked the panelists again: Who is responsible for challenging the status quo?” Romais replied, “Everyone in this room.”

Note:

Audience members were provided with a hand out of articles referenced by panelists, and a lit of the following organizations providing education and outreach in support of diversity:

http://www.elmuseo.org

http://www.enfoco.org

http://womenintheartsfoundation.org/index.cfm/fa/c.about

http://www.nmwa.org