“Why ain’t there no [sisters] on the wall?” by Danielle A. Scruggs
Sometimes, when I look up the photographers behind the credits of my favorite magazines, newspapers, and online publications, I feel like the character Buggin’ Out in Spike Lee’s classic 1989 film Do The Right Thing.
Buggin’ Out, played brilliantly by Giancarlo Esposito, is the argumentative friend of Lee’s pizza delivery character, Mookie. He touched off a string of escalating violence that culminated in a death, and uprising when he sat down with a slice of pizza at Sal’s Pizzeria, ready to dig in, until he looked up at the restaurant’s Wall of Fame and realized something he never realized before:
“Why ain’t there no brothers on the wall?”
It was a fair question. Sal’s was located in the heart of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Every photo on the wall was an image of an Italian-American hero: Frank Sinatra. Al Pacino. Joe DiMaggio. Black people were just as pivotal in establishing New York City as a powerhouse in the fields of art, culture, and politics as their Italian counterparts, and also a large base of Sal’s customers were Black Americans.
Where were the brothers on the wall?
These days, when it comes to many newsrooms and prestigious photo collectives, I too am taken aback. Except, I’m asking where are the sisters. According to the annual American Society of News Editors (ASNE) newsroom census, the number of people of color at news organizations was at its peak with 7,400 employees out of a total of 55,000 employees in 2007— right before newspapers were hit hard by a downturn in ad revenue and circulation that led to massive layoffs. By 2015, that number decreased to 4,200 out of 32,900 employees. In that same year, only 783 women photographers, artists, and videographers were counted at newsrooms, compared to 2,023 men reporting holding that same position. So far, I have not been able to find exact breakdowns for how many of those women are Black, Latina, or Asian, but I suspect that the numbers are fairly appalling.
Nicole Crowder, currently the Senior Features Photo Editor of The Washington Post, thinks it is by design. (Full disclosure: I have worked with Crowder before, during my time in the Mambu Badu Photo Collective.)
In an email she stated: “…It’s a conscious decision. As a photo editor, when you choose a photographer to shoot an assignment, you are conscious of your resources in finding the right person or set of persons to capture a story. And if you only go back to the same resources you only see the same people. Because every photo editor has the power to say “this is the story and this is the person who I want to shape it visually.’”
Crowder also stressed the importance of Black women photographers being visible on multiple platforms to get their work seen by photo editors, such as Wonderful Machine, Blink, Visura, Workbook, Behance, and PhotoShelter. “Some photo editors might argue that it should not matter what ethnicity a photographer is, but I argue that it does. Black photographers should not just be called on to photograph Black subjects. It’s the photo editor who is tasked with expanding his or her reach, whether he or she needs someone to photograph food, still life, portraits, animals, or interiors. It takes work and it takes digging because as a Black woman photographer, I know the SEO keywording on my website does not say, ‘Black woman photographer in Washington, D.C. And I shouldn’t have to identify myself in that way to get work. And I would love to see more Black women photographers on staff positions in the newsroom,” she added.
In 2010, Allison McDaniel, Kameelah Rasheed, and I co-founded Mambu Badu to address this very real, very persistent cultural invisibility when it comes to Black women photographers. In the time since the collective was founded, we — along with project manager Yodith Dammlash, who was featured in our inaugural publication — published two digital anthologies of work, in addition to curating an exhibit at Washington, D.C.’s Vivid Solutions Gallery in Anacostia that centered the process and product of Black women photographers and lens-based artists.
Among the award-winning featured artists were Naima Green, Intistar Abioto, Janna Ireland, Deborah Terry, Nakeya Brown, Danielle Deadwyler, Sonia Louise Davis, and Nikita Gale.Their subjects range from Black people in lush, green spaces; to a continuous archive of the Black residents of Portland, Oregon; to Black hair and beauty rituals; to deeply personal ruminations on memory;to conceptual art that includes photography, video, performance, text, and sculpture.There is a great deal of talent and diversity of thought, styles, and stories within this community. These voices are as important as anyone else’s. It is also important to keep in mind the question of access. We know who we are. Asking institutions about the overwhelming homogeneity of their ranks is not so much about asking for validation as much as it is acknowledging the level of access certain institutions provide, as well as holding them accountable for a pattern of overlooking such a large population of image-makers.
In a phone conversation from her home in Detroit, Regina H. Boone, a photojournalist for the Detroit Free Press, told me that while she has “great respect” for exclusive photo collectives such as Magnum, it is not something she thinks about “on a daily basis.”
“I don’t sit around thinking about ‘why am I not in this group?’ I think I have bigger problems.” I’m inclined to agree. Her coverage of the Flint, MI water crisis has resulted in truly powerful and deeply troubling images illustrating how the lead-tainted water in Flint has affected (and infected) the most vulnerable among us. At the same time, Boone often asks herself “why aren’t there more people of color” in Magnum and newsrooms on the whole. “There are not a lot of us [Black women photojournalists] but the ones who are out there are easy to find. But it’s like being busy. We make time for what we really want to do.”
It is also worth noting that the Detroit Free Press may very well be the only daily newspaper in the U.S. with two Black women staff photographers: Boone and Kim Mitchell. This is especially significant given that Detroit is 82 percent Black and comprised largely of women; Boone and Mitchell are direct reflections of the majority demographic within that city. Boone, who was often the only Black woman on staff as she began her career as an intern and after she finished college at Spelman and graduate school at Ohio University, said this is specifically due to the efforts of the paper’s former managing editor of digital innovation, Nancy Andrews. According to Boone, Andrews made it “her mission that the Detroit Free Press have staff that reflects the community.” Boone was unequivocal in her feelings about the paucity of Black women in Magnum and other similar agencies: “If they don’t see Black women, I don’t see them.”
Nancy Andrews, who currently teaches in the journalism department at West Virginia University, and also served as a staff photographer for the Washington Post before her tenure at the Detroit Free Press, said “some places aren’t very self-aware. It’s a big step when people realize you’re a person who benefits from the status quo. And it’s a perspective too, there is no neutral.” She also added that when it comes to hiring, most organizations do not think beyond what is right in from them. “The secret to hiring is you’re not hiring a freelancer” but rather someone who will have a lasting impact on the entire staff. News organizations need to ask themselves “who will be the best photojournalist in one year, three years, five years? What’s their ability to change? To communicate? They’ve got to be able to adapt… Everyone is part of the problem, so everyone is part of the solution.”
To be transparent, I was loathe to ask Black women photographers just what some of these solutions were. I often find that populations who are being oppressed and excluded are often tasked with coming up with the solutions for their oppression and exclusion. We are asked to do this while also going about the hard work of just living, and of existing in spaces where we are told either implicitly or explicitly: you do not belong here.
There was, however, a common thread that ran throughout the conversations I had that might hold a solution. That thread was focusing on the work. Not awards. Not approval. Not praise, which is fleeting and fickle, but the work.
Eli Reed, Magnum Photos’ first (and so far only) Black full-time member, who was voted in by the co-op members in 1982, stressed that photography is a difficult career for anyone to pursue, regardless of gender or ethnic identity. He spoke to me by phone from his office at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is currently a professor. “It’s not easy work. You’re like a ronin. [A career in photography] is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You think you want it immediately. Kids today want it immediately but you’re not going to get it immediately. You have to be patient and choose your spot.” He added, “I tried to make photographs that were this is what’s happening not playing games, that kind of stuff. People pay attention when you don’t mess around and when you tell the truth as best as you know it. When you do that, people notice.”
Everyone I spoke with emphasized the importance of focusing on telling the best stories we can, digging deeper, and showing people something they either have never seen before, or have not seen in a particular light. Everyone I spoke with also emphasized the importance of not seeking external validation. I’ve seen this in my own life. As a Black woman photographer who has worked in the fields of art, public media, and newspapers, I have seen firsthand the impact that focusing on my job has had on others.
I recently tasked myself portraits of residents of the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s west side during the Illinois primary elections last month. Austin is mostly Black, mostly working class, and mostly ignored by media outlets. As I was speaking with people and making their portraits, a small crowd gathered across the street, watching me work. I was aware I was being watched, and I was also aware that this could well have been the first time in a long time that a photojournalist had come to their neighborhood to make portraits and speak with them about their past experience in politics, as well as their thoughts, hopes, and fears for the future. I was also aware of the optics of a Black woman with a camera making portraits of other Black men, women, and children. A Black woman who was from the same city as them; a Black woman whose family is from the neighboring North Lawndale. My hope is that there was a girl or boy in that crowd who saw me and thought to themselves, “Hey, I can do that too.” So, perhaps the solution really is the work: becoming an example for someone else to pick up a camera, or become a photo editor, or create a collective or publication. We don’t need to wait on anyone’s permission or anyone’s validation. Our power comes from within, not without.
Danielle A. Scruggs is a photographer and cultural producer currently based in Chicago, where she is the director of photography at the Chicago Reader. Her work has appeared in several national publications, including SPOOK, Stop Smiling, Buzzfeed, The Root, Complex Media, and PBS Mediashift and has been exhibited at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, Anacostia Arts Center, Arlington Arts Center, A.I.R. Gallery, Invisible Dog Gallery, and the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art.