As photographers, we have a lot power and, as the saying goes, a lot of responsibility. How we portray our subject is how they are seen by a huge audience. How they are portrayed is internalized into the public psyche. Gender, racial and heteronormative stereotypes can be reinforced as can be the erasure of marginalized groups. Even photojournalists, who are tasked with documenting something as it is, project their own biases, experiences, beliefs into constructing an image. It’s impossible not to.
As a fashion photographer and lifetime consumer of fashion magazines, it would easy for me to perpetuate what has been done for decades before me. I’ve internalized the beauty standards held up by the fashion and beauty industries for decades. But I have to remember, women are my audience for the images I take. I do a disservice to women, society and myself if I take photos that reinforce the idea that you must be thin, white and preternaturally young to be beautiful, to be valid, to be seen. Think of how the self-esteem of young girls and women has been shaped by the media they consume and the impact it has throughout their lives.
The first and most obvious way of changing the narrative is to cast more diversely; cast women of different sizes, races, ages. This can’t be a token gesture, either, or something that happens once in a while. This must be a consistent and sustained approach on the part of casting directors, photographers, magazine editors, or anyone who has the power to cast. It’s hugely important to see yourself represented in the media. The media you consume shapes the world you live in.
However, diverse casting is only a small part of the picture. What if the photographer taking the photos of that model has internalized biases or stereotypes? This is why diversity behind the lens is as important as in front of the lens.
I’ve never understood why fashion magazines’ target audience is women but they largely commission men to take photographs of women. Magazines, brands, and agencies, alongside critiquing and reviewing their casting practices, need to commission photographers of different genders, races, and ages as well. Unless this happens, a singular world view will be reflected back to us.
As a photographer I have to be mindful of my choices and challenge briefs from clients that are problematic. For example, if partial nudity is requested, as photographers, we have to push back and ask why? If it’s gratuitous or irrelevant to the story, then don’t shoot it. If the content or mood of the images is 18+ years of age, then we cannot cast a 15-year old for it. Models under the age of 18 should always have chaperones on shoots. Then on the shoot itself, hair and make-up decisions are important. If you have cast a black model, make sure to hire a hair stylist skilled in working with black hair. Then there’s the importance of photoshop. Slimming down models is ubiquitous throughout the industry but completely unacceptable. I have heard stories of model’s nose sizes being reduced, skin color lightened, legs lengthened, and of course smoothing out the texture of skin.
It is important for photographers to set very clear boundaries around retouching and not completely alter the appearance of the model. Say no to changing the texture of a model’s skin, say no to slimming them down. Say no to altering their features or skin tone, this is particularly important at the retouching stage for models of color.
I’ve made a list of some of the things we can do as photographers to try and redress the balance:
- Cast diversely and consistently. One BIPOC model now and then isn’t good enough.
- If you don’t have the choice over the model, push your client to cast diversely. If they say no, ask why not. Keep pushing, keep asking.
- Say no to retouching that slims down, changes the facial features or skin tone of models.
- Cast age appropriately. Don’t cast a 17-year old for a bridal shoot.
- Question the need for nudity or partial nudity.
- If you can’t do a shoot and are asked for a recommendation, recommend someone from a marginalized or under-represented group.
- If you don’t know any photographers from a group that’s under-represented in the industry, research some – it’ll take about 2 minutes
- Hire a diverse creative team and listen to their feedback without being defensive
- If you see inappropriate behavior on set or hear inappropriate language, speak up against it. Empower your entire crew at every level to do the same.
This list is by no means exhaustive but If we all keep pushing for change, change will happen. Let’s shift the narrative together.