Confronting White Supremacy in Photography

Instagram Followers

It took me a while to get into Instagram. I joined Instagram in 2012 and put some really basic photos on there just to keep the account open. My thought process was that Instagram was entering an already crowded social media world. I didn’t need one more account. I can share photos on Facebook.

But in 2018, I see the value in Instagram. It allows me to share what I’m working on with the public while keeping my Facebook account accessible only to my high school classmates, college colleagues, and my chainmail-sending uncle (I love you, uncle, but I’m not passing this to ten other people). I’m reluctant to add people I’ve never met to my Facebook, but I’ll add random Instagram followers all day.

I almost exclusively follow other photographers, filmmakers, and artists. I also love to follow various hashtags and subjects. But I started to notice a pattern: with the exception of filmmaker geargasms, cute dogs, and “celebrity” appearances, Instagram photos are disturbingly similar.

You know what does extremely well on Instagram? Pretty white people doing pretty white people things. Yeah, there are hashtags like #blackart, #melaninpoppin, and #latinx, but it’s a natural resistance to all the images with pretty 20-something white girls in gorgeous places. Instagram isn’t even close to Black Twitter status. This happens because photography in all its forms is largely centered around the experiences and aesthetics of white people.

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First of all, I want to dispel the notion that white photographers are more talented than minority photographers. There are more white photographers because photography is expensive. And for the most part, white people have more disposable income to purchase even the most basic digital photography kit. While photography is more accessible than ever, it is still a hobby for the well-to-do.

We photographers like to pretend that better equipment won’t make better photos. That’s only partially true. I saw an immediate difference in the quality of my photos shooting with a Sigma Art Prime Lens versus a standard Canon kit lens. But purchasing a Sigma 85mm Art Lens means shelling out an equivalent to 1 month’s rent in Los Angeles. Plus tax. That’s tough to do if you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, or from client-to-client.

So… Let’s Talk About Street and Travel Photography

As a gritty urbanist, I love street photography. It makes up a large chunk of my own photography portfolio. I love pioneers of this style, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, and Manuel Álverez Bravo. As contemporaries, all three were able to make street photography into a respectable artform. But here’s the difference between those guys and modern street photography:

Cartier-Bresson, Parks, and Álverez Bravo shot subjects close to their heart, their home, and their own ethnicity. Just as Cartier-Bresson is the man who showed us everyday France, Parks showed us everyday black America, and Álverez Bravo showed us everyday Mexico. They may have traveled internationally, but their styles were developed in their own backyards with their own sense of their own identities. What identity are you trying to project in your own work by snapping a photo of that homeless guy lying on a bus stop bench on Sunset Boulevard?

Nowadays, street photography has evolved into some sort of weird poor people voyeurism, usually people of color in derelict conditions. In the US,
“urban” is usually shorthand for “person of color in a city,” and plenty of street photography reinforces this stereotype. How close are you getting to your subjects? Are you engaging with them in any way? Or are you projecting your own idea of who they are based on their appearance and location?

Travel photography takes this one step further by often featuring local people in their environments doing “ethnic things,” as if they are objects, not people. This is especially present in selfies with brown children, who aren’t as aware of the unfortunate implications of taking a selfie with some voluntourist or Western backpacker.