Sometimes an idea can be so powerful that once one person has it, it takes root and spreads wildly, blooming in different ways in different places.
In this instance, the idea started with a desire to address the lack of diversity in photography. The year was 2016 and the answer, a series of platforms for minority groups, opening up a new pool of talent to photo editors, creative directors and decision makers.
Today, the platforms—among them Women Photograph, Diversify Photo and Authority Collective—manifest through databases, closed Facebook groups, local meet-ups, chats over WhatsApp and newsletters. But what they all have in common is the drive to create invisible circles of connection and collaboration within the industry.
It’s hard to believe that just three years ago, none of this existed. But the seeds were there. Since 2012, Everyday Africa had been challenging stereotypes about the African continent on Instagram (where they now have almost 400,000 followers, at press time), with Everyday Projects following in 2014 (that opened up similar accounts in 50 other regions of the world) and The African Photojournalism Database launching in the summer of 2016.
Perhaps this was the spark that started documentary photographer Daniella Zalcman thinking. Tired of facing the same old gender imbalance issues, she began talking to photo editors about the lack of female photographers being commissioned and repeatedly got the same answer: they didn’t know where to find them to hire them.
Elsewhere, Andrea Wise and Brent Lewis—a visual communications specialist and photo editor, respectively—were hearing similar grumblings from photo editors looking to diversify their hiring practices and not knowing where to look for talent.
Both groups hit on the same solution: a database. Zalcman decided to compile an international list of women photographers, while Lewis and Wise concentrated on photographers of color.
It was a seemingly simple setup, Zalcman explains: “I put together a Google Form and sent it around to friends and asked them to pass it on. It built from there. The global photojournalism community is fairly small and close-knit, so it wasn’t difficult to spread the word quickly.”
Women Photograph, her database of 400 photographers, launched in February 2017. By that summer, Lewis and Wise’s database, Diversify Photo, was live too. Just over two years later, Women Photograph—which also includes trans, queer and non-binary photographers—has more than 95,000 followers on Instagram and an international presence. Diversify Photo is smaller, at just over 1,500 followers, but growing. The impact of both resources has been immense for both photographers and photo editors.
Amy Lombard, a documentary photographer based in New York, met Zalcman at The Image, Deconstructed Workshop in Denver, Colorado. Both were there sharing their work with the students. “This was probably a year, or maybe even six months before the launch of Women Photograph,” Lombard explains. “When I found out about the platform she was building, of course I wanted to be involved.”
Lombard’s work is published in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and VICE, among others. Why was she so keen? Her answer is simple: “If you look at bylines in a magazine or newspaper, it becomes pretty clear how much we need this platform. Until we see better hiring practices that are inclusive of both women and photographers of color, both Women Photograph and Diversify Photo are extremely important resources. What it does is show editors there is no excuse to not have a diverse range of photographers.”
Jehan Jillani, picture and visuals editor at The Guardian, heard about Women Photograph when it launched in February 2017. “I started referring to the spreadsheet a few weeks after,” she says. “It really didn’t take that long for me and some of my colleagues to jump right in.” In fact, she says she had been interested in spotlighting more diverse talent from the start of her career. “It’s why I was attracted to the field of photo editing in the first place, and resources such as Women Photograph and Diversify Photo make the act of accessing this talent pool a lot easier, and, honestly, more organized.”
Jillani oversees feature photography for all stories that come out of the New York, Washington, D.C., and Oakland offices of The Guardian, so having the platform in place has been invaluable. “I can’t overstate how helpful it has been in the newsroom when I am rushing to meet a deadline, or am having trouble finding someone in, say, Montgomery, Alabama, for tomorrow.”
The platforms don’t just offer up photographers in the right location, of course—they also offer context, something that can be lacking in what some consider a homogeneous industry.
When 16-year-old Anthony Weber was fatally shot in February 2018 by police in Los Angeles, photo editor Morrigan McCarthy needed an L.A.-based photographer for an article in The New York Times. She found Kayla Reefer, a photographer she’d never worked with before, on Instagram. (Today, she sources from Women Photograph, Diversify Photo and Natives Photograph.)
“I wanted to tell a story about the family, show who Anthony Weber was through them and through his community, rather than just show an old photo of him or a picture of a memorial,” McCarthy explains.
At the time, it was the biggest assignment to date for Reefer—who now shoots for The New York Times, WeTransfer, Spotify and Billboard—and the one that would go on to shape her career. She felt the responsibility of the job immediately. “Sometimes when black people are photographed,” she says, “it’s like you are looking at them through this museum glass. I wanted to give his life and his family and all that was left of him a sense of humanity. It needed to be authentic and true and still beautiful.”
Reefer, an Afro-Panamanian-American photographer, is now listed on the Diversify Photo database. She joined at Lewis’s suggestion, and she is a member of the Authority Collective community too.
Unlike Diversify Photo and Women Photograph, Authority Collective doesn’t have a database yet. A newer resource just celebrating its first birthday, it is a community of women, femmes, trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people of color working in photography, film and VR.
“We wanted to build a community for photographers of color and provide resources and opportunities,” says Authority Collective’s co-founder Tara Pixley of the genesis of the platform. Since its inception, she adds, “we’ve had multiple fee waivers for grants, for fellowships and things like that.”
Reefer says she recommends the platform to other photographers all the time. “Authority Collective is a resource, but it’s a source of support too,” she notes. “We can be a soundboard for one another in terms of assignments and what sounds good and what doesn’t. It’s like a collective of sharing.”
That sense of community is an important aspect of all of these new platforms: Members meet up online and then in person, collaborate, recommend each other to photo editors and offer general support to their contemporaries.
Lombard raves about the Women Photograph’s members-only Facebook group to people. “It’s an incredible community,” she says. “We all come from different backgrounds and have different specialties, so no matter what issue you’re encountering—whether it’s help with putting together an advertising bid, seeking a specific editor’s contact information, or even helping craft a pitch—there’s always someone willing to lend a helping hand.”
The platforms also have grants and mentoring programs to help minority photographers gain invaluable industry access and knowledge, connecting them with photo editors on a one-to-one level.
Jillani has been part of the Women Photograph mentorship program since her previous stint working as a photo editor at National Geographic. “I was asked to be a mentor alongside the brilliant Nina Berman,” a renowned documentary photographer and filmmaker, “to two female Pakistani photographers, and it has been quite rewarding so far. And also, quite fun.” Jillani adds that while the industry has always had a “loose tradition of mentorship,” it has almost always been geared to “Western and mostly white photographers,” she notes, “and I appreciate how this program has helped pull in emerging photographers from all over the world.”
Argentinian photographer Luján Agusti received one of the first Women Photograph scholarships in 2017. It helped her position herself and connect in a new way in the industry, and it made her photographs “visible in places where many times as a Latina it is difficult to reach.”
Agusti became aware of Women Photograph when several colleagues were sharing the beginning of the project. “At that time,” she says, “I thought it was a nice and necessary idea. It was only after that I understood the power of a space like this and the luck of being part of a process that takes place globally, bringing women together who share very similar and very different problems at the same time.”
The power of these platforms is also used for what Pixley calls “interventions,” wherein the industry’s participants trace where different organizations get their financial support. One intervention happened in March of this year, when Authority Collective, Natives Photograph and Women Photograph collectively wrote an open letter to the Magenta Foundation. They asked the charitable arts publishing house, based in Canada, to address the fact that they received funding from Toronto-Dominion (TD) Bank, an institution connected to the Dakota Access Pipeline project.
It was a bittersweet moment for several of the people co-signing the letter. Zalcman herself had won the foundation’s Bright Spark Award in 2016 for her work Signs of Your Identity: Forced Assimilation Education for Indigenous Youth. While Magenta’s answer was not what they had hoped (in fact, their letter was met with mostly silence from the foundation), it did demonstrate how these platforms are able to come together and ask questions that photographers fear asking on their own, should they encounter repercussions.
“When we do the open letters,” Pixley says, “there’s an outpouring of gratitude on Twitter and Instagram, people saying, ‘We’ve been noticing this for years. Thank you for doing it because we don’t think we can.’”
That sense of responsibility doesn’t just apply to the foundations and the photographers, but to photo editors too. “Since joining The Guardian,” Jillani says, “I have been keeping track of how many female photographers, photographers of color and LGBTQ photographers I have been hiring. Having these resources present reminds me that I really don’t have many excuses to try to meet the hiring goals I have set for myself.”
Like Jillani, Lewis, who also works as a photo editor at The New York Times, holds himself accountable. He tracks the breakdown of his photo assignments by race and gender and distributes it, encouraging other editors to use the spreadsheet template he has created and share their choices as well. His Diversify Photo co-founder, Wise, believes doing this is “a beautiful self-directed way for editors to show that they want to improve the diversity of their hiring. It makes diversity less of an overwhelmingly vague, daunting task and breaks it down into something you can work on in your everyday decisions.”
Perhaps the most spectacular aspect about this growing group of platforms is that they are all side projects. As original founders, Zalcman, Lewis, Wise and Pixley still continue their days jobs as photographers, photo editors, visual consultants and academics. But they, too, are enriched by the communities they have started. Zalcman says Women Photograph has enabled her to discover “dozens of photographers whose work I might otherwise never have encountered.”
And for photographers, that visibility from getting spotlighted manifests in more ways than one. Agusti knows that winning that grant from Women Photograph opened many doors for her. “Afterwards,” she says, “I had my first publication in National Geographic, assignments with Bloomberg, exhibited at Photoville and had the opportunity to talk about my work.”
Being seen can be life-altering. Reefer puts it best with her own call to action: “Decision-makers, you have the power to change a photographer’s career. The assignment you give someone can literally transform everything, so just take that chance.”
Greer McNally is a freelance writer and photographer who inherited her love of photography from her dad. She’s talked ex-wives with Don McCullin and cat photos with Rankin.