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Four black fashion photographers on the struggles of making it

‘We need to be 50 times better than other photographers to get noticed in the first place’

After much speculation, last week US Vogue finally revealed its hallowed September issue, covered by none other than Beyoncé. Shot by 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell, the photographer made history by becoming the first black person to shoot the publication’s cover since it was founded 126 years ago. While it was initially rumoured that the singer had complete creative control of the cover and shoot and hand-picked the photographer, this was later dispelled by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and Mitchell himself

Previously, Vogue cover shoots have been the responsibility of a small, elite circle including Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier – before they were dropped from all Condé Nast publications following allegations of sexual misconductVogue obviously isn’t alone in having a small pool of (almost exclusively white) photographers shooting its covers; the problem is industry-wide and systemic. In fact, for an industry that prides itself on newness, many high profile photographers end up working for the same brands and titles for decades – stopping younger names from rising. 

Last year, Pirelli released its annual calendar, this time featuring an all-black cast of celebrities and models acting out the Alice in Wonderland story. But while it was styled by Edward Enninful, it was shot by a white photographer – Tim Walker, who called it a “celebration of black beauty”. The absence of a black photographer considered high-profile enough to shoot such a prestigious calendar was telling – the same was true of Vogue Italia’s infamous July 2008 issue. While it broke barriers for featuring only black models, the majority of its shoots (including the cover) were shot by white photographer Steven Meisel. In other words, even in historic moments which have centred black people in fashion imagery, the person behind the camera is often a white guy.  

So why isn’t there a black David Sims or Annie Leibovitz? For many, the first hurdle comes before the idea of pursuing a career in fashion is fully established. While names like Peter Lindbergh or Ellen Von Unwerth are well known, due to the lack of revered black fashion photographers families are understandably concerned about the few opportunities for their children compared to their white peers. “Culturally creating art has historically been a lesser trade than becoming a doctor,” says filmmaker and photographer Rhea Dillon, whose work focuses on breaking stereotypes around black women. “I feel like fewer in our race have taken it up as something they could uphold a family with and make them proud.”

While it’s true that for anyone pursuing a career in fashion the struggle is real, it’s almost impossible for those from working-class backgrounds, without parents to support them financially when first starting out. “Generally speaking, black photographers are more likely than white photographers to be from lower-income households,” London-based photographer Ronan McKenzie tells us. “Unpaid work, late payments from clients and lack of cash flow can quickly kick black photographers out of the game, while others may be able to rely on family or friends to help them out.” For many, it’s obviously disappointing – “There have been a lot of frustrating nights and phone calls to my mum and brother about this, and how I want to pack it up and move along to something else,” New York-based photographer Joshua Woods says.

“Unpaid work, late payments from clients and lack of cash flow can quickly kick black photographers out of the game, while others may be able to rely on family or friends to help them out” – Ronan McKenzie

Social media has slightly changed the game – with upcoming photographers often using Instagram as a platform to get their work noticed – but the growth is far too slow, especially when it comes to longstanding publications and major fashion houses. “They seem unwilling to give big jobs to black photographers, especially upcoming ones,” McKenzie continues. The value of having people in the industry to support and suggest you is a privilege that black photographers don’t have, with photo commissioner, art director, and editor roles scarcely being filled by black creatives. “We need to be 50 times better than other photographers to get noticed in the first place, and then when we reach those meetings we are frequently the only black voice in the room, which can make it difficult to be heard and understood.”

If being a black photographer trying to make it wasn’t difficult enough, being an Africa-based one is even more of an uphill battle. Without mainstream publications – as Naomi Campbell keeps asking: ‘Where is Vogue Africa?’ – those looking to break into fashion have to go off their own backs. As Nigeria-based photographer Daniel Obasi explains: “it hinders the visibility of emerging talents.” That, and the fact that there are established white photographers celebrated for their portrayal of the Afro-aesthetic. “Institutions need to actually begin hiring black photographers, instead of just using our images on the moodboard and then commissioning someone else,” says McKenzie. “Hire African photographers, stylists, and creatives – there are a lot of us,” agrees Obasi.

There are so many talented black photographers – including Ruth Ossai, Nadine Ijewere, Adama Jalloh, Davey Adesia, Campbell Addy, Renell Medrano, and duo Durimel, in addition to the ones featured in this article. The problem isn’t finding them – “With social media it’s the easiest it’s ever been to find talented people,” says Dillon – but giving them the opportunities that have been handed to a select few for far too long. “It’s quite simple: hire us,” she continues. “Not because we’re black and you need to fill a quota, but because we are skilled at what we do and having a diverse eye behind the lens only makes your brand or publication better.”

“Many magazines use the same photographers – it’s no secret,” continues Woods. “A lot of magazines cater to a white audience that exist in middle America so the lens is different.” Thankfully, the landscape of fashion media is changing, with POC determined to consume media that is both for them and by them. Nataal Media has become a platform for burgeoning African creatives (both local and diaspora), helping to launch an annual exhibition with Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn. Campbell Addy’s Niijournal is another excellent example, and just last weekend, WOC-run platform gal-dem took over the Guardian Weekend magazine. Such publications have provided opportunities other well-known titles won’t, and proved in the process that black photographers have the talent it takes. Still, the white gaze remains the default point of view – particularly in fashion. Those commissioning imagery need to examine why POC shouldn't be considered for the jobs usually given to their white peers.

”There should be more collaboration with more black fashion editors, and more people of colour working on sets” – Joshua Woods

While huge opportunities like shooting the cover of US Vogue’s September issue are few and far between for black photographers, a feeling of celebration is shared by everyone we spoke to, hoping it’s the beginning of change in the industry. “A lot of things will be done differently after this,” says an optimistic Obasi. “It just goes to show that anything is possible today.” Also hopeful, McKenzie wants to work hard now, not only for herself, but to provide a platform for others in the future. “The lack of black photographers has made me more passionate and driven to support other black creatives and reach a position of power to help others up with me.” An important sentiment, but why should the burden lie solely on the shoulders of black creatives? “There should be more collaboration with more black fashion editors, and more people of colour working on sets,” Woods enthuses. “Agencies have a lot of power too. They just need to start bringing in more black photographers.”

Sure, Vogue made the decision to hire Mitchell for this cover, but would it have been the same if it wasn’t Beyoncé? It remains to be seen. The industry seems to be taking a step in the right direction – Mitchell’s cover and the gal-dem takeover are evidence of that – but it’s important for us to not let another 126 years pass before the next first.