Blog Home Contributor Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography

Black representation in visual media is on the mind of businesses and individuals now more than ever. Learn why it’s important to commit to accurate representation in imagery and what it means to create diverse content.

Updated June 2020

ShADEs (Shutterstock Afro-Descendant Employees) is an Employee Resource Group (ERG) dedicated to the retention, development, advancement, and empowerment of Black employees at Shutterstock. This article shares some of their ideas about Black representation in stock photography, and how the industry can evolve to make representation, including Black representation, a cornerstone of modern stock photography.

Visual mediums like television, movies, and of course, photography, have too often fallen short of meaningful representation. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and other marginalized groups are not portrayed as often, and when they are it’s often through a stereotype, perpetuating inhuman and dangerous narratives about their race, ethnicity, orientation, or gender. By failing to portray these groups accurately and with meaning, the media advances stereotypes that do harm to these groups. This erasure from mass media also also affects how these groups see themselves, diminishing their self esteem.

Underrepresentation in the media can be overt — consider a Hollywood movie with a predominantly white cast and a single Black actor playing the villain; it can also be subtle — consider a Black model’s skin tone being lightened for the cover of a magazine.

Image by CarlosDavid.

The lack of quality diverse and inclusive photography available is a challenge that marketers and brands face daily. Even when photos seem to meet this criteria, they often appear cliched, stereotyped, or forced. This is especially true when it comes to Black representation in stock photography.

When we think of representation, it’s often about who we see in front of the lens , but the person behind the lens is equally important. According to the World Press Photo “The State of News Photography” 2018 survey of photojournalists from around the world, over half of participating photographers identified themselves as “Caucasian/White,” while only 1% classified themselves as “Black.”

Black Representation in Photography - Diversity in Front and Behind the Camera
Diversity is important both in front of and behind the camera. Image by Tina Sherman

To help close this gap both in front of and behind the camera, it’s important to have conversations about why Black representation in photography matters globally, and what we can do to address content gaps where they exist. As a company, we understand our own need to educate ourselves, our team, and the contributors in our network on how to create representational and inclusive content, and showcase the art of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community.

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — ShADEs

This article was written by members of the ShADEs (Shutterstock Afro-Descendant Employees) Employee Resource Group (ERG) dedicated to the retention, development, advancement, and empowerment of Black employees at Shutterstock. In the following article, the organization shares some of their ideas about Black representation in stock photography, and how the industry can evolve to make representation, including Black representation, a cornerstone of modern stock photography.

Supporting a diverse model industry

When planning and selecting models for shoots, keep an open mind to new ideas of beauty that break down the traditional barriers of the past. This is your opportunity as a contributor to make your work speak to a new direction in the modeling industry. As customers, this is an opportunity to use diverse and inclusive models in your brand campaigns. As a company, this means doing the work to build pathways for change, working internally to showcase representative images to our customers.

Black Representation in Photography - Supporting a Diverse Modeling Industry
There’s a growing representation of Black models in photography. Image by Franklin Thompson

ShADEs says that the growing representation of the Black community in photography is encouraging compared to ten or more years ago. Then, when you looked at models, there were a small number of Black models with a stereotypical look. Now, however, that whole “traditional” model look is out. “The definition of what’s considered beautiful has changed,” says ShADEs, adding that ten-plus years ago, many people would say there’s no way “that individuals with a certain skin tone or hairstyle” could be a model.

Black Representation in Photography - Celebrating diversity and inclusion
The “traditional model look” is out. Celebrating diversity and inclusion is in. Image by Jihan Nafiaa Zahri

Sharing more images doesn’t mean you’re sharing the right images

When it comes to stock photography, ShADEs leader Amber Nobles said it’s important to remember that we don’t just want more Black representation, “we need to have great Black representation.”

Diversity in branding isn’t just ticking a box — it’s providing a representative perspective that depicts a variety of lived experiences. If your goal is to be seen as diverse, your work will reflect this contrived perspective. If your goal is to actually be diverse, you’ll do the work to understand and portray each story authentically.

Black Representation in Photography - Sharing more images doesn't mean you're sharing the right images
Diversity is more than just ticking a box. Image by Lisa Coker

Diversity is equally important behind the lens

While there may be more signs of diversity in some areas such as modeling, Amber hopes that it will become easier to find prominent Black contributors on stock photography websites. “I would love to feature these contributors and showcase how they are storytelling Black culture — especially when it relates to visually expressing the African American experience and narrative.”

Black Representation in Photography - Diversity is equally important behind the lens
Images should highlight Black culture around the world. Image by Lisa Coker

ShADEs member Steven Russell said stock photography needs a heavier presence of Black artists, not just from America but from the diaspora as a whole. “There is Black culture in South America, UK and Asia,” he said. Russell added that stock could include more current editorial footage of the culture of today.

As a company, we have a lot of work to do to amplify the voices of our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community. While we take a comprehensive look at ourselves, our product, and our ability to find the best work to highlight, we want to hear from you. If you’re a BIPOC artist with a story you want to tell, we encourage you to email our Editorial team. We want to share your story.

Black Representation in Photography - Amplify the Voices of BIPOC
Images help amplify the voices of the BIPOC community. Image by Nicolette Kapp

Remember why you’re creating the image

Having said that, ShADEs reminds us that the content creator doesn’t have to be Black for their imagery to be authentic. Rather, it’s the motivation behind the content. What is the creator trying to portray with this image?

Image by Stasia04.

ShADEs adds, “If the content is really compelling, it shouldn’t matter who it came from — it’s important what’s behind it and the impact it will have.” As you go out and take pictures, keep this question in mind to make your final work more authentic and meaningful.

Using appropriate language for keywords, descriptions, and captions

Creating the image is one thing. But, as with all stock photography, it’s equally important to label the image correctly, using the right keywords — especially if there are known biases or sensitivities associated with using the wrong keywords. It’s up to the photographer to be aware of this and make sure that he or she is using the appropriate language.

Here are a few words and sayings that are being used to amplify Black voices:

  • Amplify melanated voices: A social media movement focusing on the social justice work of BIPOC amid the national protests surrounding racial injustice and police brutality in order to give a platform to those who are historically silenced or looked over.
  • Anti-racism: Anti-racism includes beliefs, actions, movements, and policies adopted or developed to oppose racism.
  • BIPOC: Acronym that stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color
  • Black Lives Matter: An international human rights movement campaigning against violence and systemic racism towards Black communities. Please refrain from using offensive terminology including “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” when describing content.

For more tips on how to be a vocal ally for the Black community through imagery, words, and social media, check out the work of some of these Black activists and writers: @mireillecharper, @laylafsaad, @ibramxk, @rachel.cargle, and @ivirlei.

Black Representation in Photography - Use appropriate language for keywords, descriptions, and captions
Use appropriate language when keywording images. Image by Hector Roqueta

Black and African American Verbiage

To make content more globally searchable, contributors may want to consider avoiding the term “African American” for international content, as the term is very American-centric. A better alternative is to use a capitalized “Black” to denote Black ethnicities. It’s important to know your audience and who is searching for your content, and, ultimately, how you can make it easy for them to find.

Black Representation in Photography - Black and African American Verbiage
Use appropriate verbiage to denote your models ethnicity. Image by Krystal Weir

This is a movement, not a moment or trend

While there has been some progress made in Black representation in front of and behind the camera, there’s still more to be done. A good place to start is for people to educate themselves on Black representation. There are numerous organizations that offer a wealth of information and resources.

ShADEs member Kevin Patrick suggests looking to photography groups within Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as a place to start. These are institutions of higher education in the US that were established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with the intention of primarily serving the African-American community.

Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography — Educate Yourself on Black Representation
Image by CarlosDavid.

The Greek system is also very strong and influential, especially amongst its post-graduate professionals. Therefore, stock photography collections could expand to include more imagery that is representative of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. The Council is made of the nine international, historically Black Greek-lettered organizations (also known as the Divine Nine).

ShADEs adds that the Black Greek-lettered organizations domestically and internationally have events and programs. These events would have value on stock photography sites as a primary source for content. In addition, members of each fraternity or sorority spend a lot of money to demonstrate their pride and support of their organizations.

Other photography organizations include Washington D.C.-based The Exposure Group African American Photographers Association, UK-based Autograph Association of Black Photographers, and Flickr group Society of African & African American Photographers.

Doing the work to make stock photography more diverse and inclusive

Black representation has some ways to go in photography. Amber notes, “There’s the complexity of the narrative of Black history, the obstacles we overcame for those many significant achievements, and the uniqueness of our multifaceted culture: is there anything that could contain that wholly?” We have a long way to go, but we are listening, we are learning, and we are encouraging our community to educate themselves in their support of and solidarity with Black artists around the globe.

Black Representation in Photography - Doing the Work to Make Stock Photography More Diverse and Inclusion
Stock photography needs to be more inclusive. Image by Mbuso Sydwell Nkosi

Top Image by Mbuso Sydwell Nkosi

Interested in learning more about diversity in stock? Check these articles out: