When I was an undergraduate Women’s Studies major at UC Santa Barbara, I often questioned if imagery reflected or reinforced stereotypes. As a school teacher, I always searched for positive diverse images for my students. Later, when I worked for Brooks Institute, one of the world’s premiere photography colleges, I learned about the technical problems of creating diverse imagery. I will discuss my lessons below.
As part of a fundraiser for Melrose Leadership Academy, some of my images are being displayed at Farley’s East Coffee shop in downtown Oakland. (The shared name is coincidental. Who knew someone would choose Farley for a business name?) When selecting images to display, I intentionally chose photos that demonstrated the school’s commitment to diversity. Besides being a Spanish bilingual dual immersion public school in Oakland, California, half of the students are native Spanish speakers. The school values people from different backgrounds and cultures.
The children continually teach me about translating culture into imagery. Language barriers are real, but rarely the only problem.
One, diversity is difficult to find. This is not a scholarly blog post, but the research, is available. Do people really want diversity or do they just want a really good burrito? Do different ethnic groups interact? Do we learn from each other?
Secondly, photographing diversity is difficult, in part because photography is challenging, but also because there are specific problems when photographing diversity. Looking at this relatively simple group photo above, this photo has nine diverse kids from the same elementary school. It is a basic photo, and yet most people who own a camera could not take this photo. There are nine sets of eyes. 18 arms and 18 legs. Did I mention that kids move fast?
When I was a Women’s Studies major I did not understand light and reflection. Now I see light differently. I see how different colors of surfaces reflect light differently. This includes skin. Light reflects differently on each person. Most experienced photographers know this, but few discuss it. Fewer probably practice how to make a decent picture with nine kids who all have different skin tones. Discussing a kid as a surface color seems worse than superficial. It is easier to have kids who look the same and remain silent.
Presentation is another concern. Diversity is not popular, but this is changing. When I graduated with my Women’s Studies degree, companies and organizations would interview me simply to see what a male Women’s Studies major looked like. Seriously. I never expected that companies would recruit anyone with “diversity” experience. My wife and I send our children to a school that teaches diversity, because we know our kids will develop skills for a global economy. We recruit talented teachers who can speak two languages. Many of our teachers travel throughout the world. We value diversity.
If you are a photographer, learn how to shoot diversity. The world is changing, and some day the people who operate billion dollar social media companies will catch up.