Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Photography and Diversity. Is there still an equality issue?

"Be realistic. There's no such thing as a black photographer"

These were the words that greeted a 16 year old Dennis Morris when he spoke to his schools careers advisor. The year was 1976 and one cannot imagine those words being uttered today. The advice to a young black man may now be different but what are the prospects for someone like a young Dennis Morris in 2015?

I was prompted to write this article by a photograph I saw online. It was the new 2015 intake of a university photography course and what struck me was the similarity to my photography degree course in 1980's. There were lots of smiling and enthusiastic faces of mostly young men, a few less women but there was no one from an ethnic minority background. Was this a reflection on the photography industry in this country?

The recent Creative Industries Federation report found that people from BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds were under represented in the creative industries as a whole and this had a negative impact on the health of the sector not just socially but financially too. Sections of the industry differ but it would appear that the photography industry has very little to be proud of.

National Union of Journalists has statistics that show a breakdown of its membership and they reveal that of its photographers 4.53% are BAME. (in England and Wales 14% of the population is from an ethnic minority)  The predominant profile that emerges is of a white male photographer. Women also form a small minority at 18%. The issue of gender in photography is as real as that of other under represented groups in the industry but women do manage to form a large group of those educated to a high level. The progression of UK women photographers in the last 30 years has been helped by others who have gone on to be part of the commissioning process. Picture editors, curators and directors of photography are women in a wide variety of contexts and this is invaluable. What BAME photographers suffer from is the lack of role models but more importantly others within the industry who are in a position of power and influence. This cannot be underestimated or ignored.

There are plenty of figures available showing the gender split in the industry but very few that have a breakdown of BAME photographers. The British Photographic Council survey in 2010 had no data at all on BAME photographers amongst its 55 page report. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence which paints a bleak picture when it comes to equality within the industry. You only have to attend a talk or go to an opening and see the audience profile. Those BAME photographers who make it into the industry are more likely to be in lower paid work and consequently have a lower profile within the industry. There is no doubt that a photographer who develops through the education system is more likely to make it to the top and have a higher profile and better earning potential. It would seem that women stand a chance based on their numbers in photographic education but BAME photographers suffer from a lack of role models and real opportunities. The statements from colleges that trumpet how they are committed to equality and diversity sound hollow when it comes to actual numbers coming through the system. You can be committed to equality but in reality that is currently reinforcing a status quo of unequal opportunity. This problem could get worse before it gets better. BPC survey found that of photographers under 40 years old 25% had degrees compared to 9% of those over 40. In future the wealthy who can afford tuition fees will increasingly dominate the profession.

A photographic education is still a stepping stone to the higher echelons of photography and the rarified world where close networks and small circles of curators and image makers dictate the tastes and direction of contemporary photography. It is difficult to break into that world but for others the barriers start earlier and are a constant feature of their struggle. Photography is not alone in this problem. Other areas of the creative industry suffer from the same issue but photography cannot claim to be addressing this issue and be making progress.

Taking a photograph is an act of curiosity about people and the world around us, reflecting who we are. If certain groups are excluded from this process then photography fails in its ability to truly show the world as it is. It is no longer democratic but simply the view of a privileged few within society. Diversity is part of our society, it makes UK a rich and vibrant place to live but if photography continues to ignore this it not only will it suffer economically but it will stop being relevant and become an increasingly elitist pursuit of the white middle class male photographer and everyone will be the poorer for it.

If a young Dennis Morris asked for careers advice again in 2015 the answer would simply be  "Don't bother. The odds are stacked against you."

Ed Sykes. October 2015.

Thanks to NUJ for providing statistics on gender and ethnicity. No other photography organisation was able to provide numbers by ethnicity.

I am currently compiling answers from colleges to Freedom of Information requests and will post once provided.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Photography at Frieze London 2015

It seems as though Frieze has given up trying to understand contemporary photography or more surprisingly given up trying to sell it. At the main fair this year photography is hard to find and when it does appear you feel as though you have seen it before. Frieze Masters shows more photography even if it is viewed more safely through mists of time.

In the Masters tent ( or temporary pavilion) there are some obvious names, Horst P Horst, Herb Ritts, Jeanloup Sieff and Norman Parkinson, the type of work that can hang politely on the wall. There was some work by Robert Mapplethorpe and Man Ray that I had not seen before but two galleries stood out for me. Eric Franck Gallery showing work by Ogawa Gesshu (1891-1967) Gaspar Gaspian (1899-1966) Heinz Hajek-Halke (1898-19823) were a delight

Der Gassenhauer 1927 by Heinz Hajek-Halke (Courtesy of Eric Franck Fine Art)

Photo by Ogawa Gesshu ( Courtesy of Eric Franck Fine Art)

Edwyn Houk Gallery also showed work by Sally Mann, Stephen Shore, Man Ray and Moholy Nagy but I was struck by the work of Boris Mikhailov and his prints from Late 60's - 70's from the book Yesterdays Sandwich. It certainly feels fresh and contemporary at odds with the antiquities that pepper Frieze Masters.

Boris Mikhailov from Yesterdays Sandwich (Coutesy of Sprovieri
 Back at Frieze proper there are a couple of familiar names with Thomas Ruff and Wolfgang Tillmans
amongst the stands. I was disappointed with the new Tillmans work and Ruff's nudes were more popular than his other work but you can see why his work appeals to the Frieze crowd. The jewel amongst the hordes was the work of Paul Graham whose Benefits Office photographs glare at the audience with a relevance that seems lost on an austerity defying crowd.

 The disappointment is that Frieze does not seem overly interested in photography but maybe it is a blessing in disguise. With the success of Photo London photography is discovering a growing interest in photography and sales reflect that. Although this is in the established market you feel as though when the penny drops (or the dollar flutters) photography will suddenly be Frieze's best friend. I won't hold my breath.