In 1839, the Parisian businessman Louis Daguerre published a manual that explained how to imprint light on a coated copper plate. He wasn’t the first to discover a means of ‘writing with light’, but his manual caused a rapid spread of photography around the world. In View From Inside, a book of contemporary Arab photography, Wendy Watriss explains how, within a year, the Daguerreotype had reached almost all major port cities, and photo studios had opened worldwide. Unlike poetry, music and painting, which had long traditions within local and national cultures, the new technique of writing with light began to be executed in very similar ways in countless cultures the world over. “Photography,” Watriss writes, “was a globalized medium from the start.”
While people all over the world have taken photos since the early years, however, contemporary museums, festivals, collections, and magazines do not equally represent photographers from various geographies and demographics. Photos by black people have not received anything like the widespread recognition of photos of black people by white photographers. Similarly, the activist group Guerrilla Girls famously asked in 1989 if women need to be naked in order to get into a museum: only 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections were women, but an astonishing 85% of the nudes were female. According to recent research by Onward, photography is doing slightly better than the art world as a whole, with the ratio of male to female photographers whose works are being shown and traded by art galleries internationally at 3-to-1. Still, the majority of photos distributed in the world today are by white North American and European men.
Photos by black people have not received anything like the widespread recognition of photos of black people by white photographers.
Corrective measures have been attempted through the creation of separate publications and awards dedicated to female photographers, and by the introduction of ‘diversity panels’ at events and festivals, where the designated minorities of the field – women and non-white photographers – are asked to comment on the reasons for their exclusion. Such initiatives have helped put a wider range of work on the map for international festivals and publications, and they are an important addition to the canon. Yet, it is surprising how easily we don’t notice if the main publication or programme of a festival (with or without a diversity panel) features mostly white and/or male artists. What if the ‘additions’ remain just that, leaving the canon itself unchanged?
The writer Roxane Gay explains how approaching diversity remains a tricky business for many. Discussing the popular TV series Orange Is The New Black, celebrated for its diverse cast, Gay writes: “We cannot ignore how the show’s diverse characters are planets orbiting [the white protagonist’s] sun. The women of color don’t have the privilege of inhabiting their own solar systems.”
This forgetfulness has consequences for how we look at art.
Given the way things are, it’s difficult to imagine different solar systems in which women of colour gravitate naturally to the top positions, or routinely receive solo exhibitions at prestigious museums. In fact, we are so used to seeing white males getting top billing that this strongly co-determines what we find valuable. And this experience is so ingrained that we forget that things could be different.
And this forgetfulness has consequences for how we look at art. It means that, unconsciously, we keep seeing white male art as the default, the only voice that is able to bring a universal message. Black artists’ work (say, Carrie Mae Weems) is seen as an insight into the black experience, while work by white people (say, Steve McCurry) isn’t presumed to tell us what it feels like to be white. Likewise, photos by women (say, Olivia Arthur) are praised for showing us a feminine perspective, while work by men (say, JH Engström) is rarely seen as saying something about a hidden world of men – it’s simply ‘art’.
I'm not suggesting that we, as viewers, editors, or curators, should ignore the fact that a photo was taken by a woman or a black person. It’s more the other way around: when the work we are viewing was taken by a white man, we might want to notice that, as well – rather than (un)consciously assuming that their work has a universal message. White male art, too, may speak differently to different audiences.
We tend to think that quality work will naturally float to the surface. The problem is that we have already decided what quality looks like. And thus works by artists of colour and female artists continue to be relegated to circling the sun of white male art.
Photography, the globalised medium par excellence, has the potential to change this.