Carrie Mae Weems

Where are all the Black Photographers? by Ron Cowie

Where are all the Black Photographers?

Here is a list, off the top of my head, of the African American photographers I know about. It reveals two things: I need to get out more and there aren’t a lot of African American photographers getting the attention they deserve. The list is small and, with a little effort, I could make it pretty comprehensive. Perhaps the list would double or even triple. I’m more than happy to be wrong about my math if the number is greater. Scarcity doesn’t add value.

When thinking about how to approach this topic, two ways presented themselves: conduct actual research and profile African American photographers or, put my ignorance and white privilege on full display. I chose the latter for a few simple reasons: I’m intellectually lazy, it’s a huge topic that goes beyond the scope of a blog post, and there aren’t a lot of African American photographers (I did a google search) being properly recognized to begin with. 

The current and past photo community is pretty exclusive, pretty white, and pretty boring. Part of me likes this since I’m just as racist/prejudiced/territorial as the next white guy; but my curiosity is winning the day.

The two photo portfolio reviews I attended recently were almost exclusively white. I say “almost” to cover my ass but, I actually think they were all white with a pinch of light tan. Don’t get me started about what AIPAD looks like on VIP night. 

Suffice to say, I’m not making this stuff up to appear evolved and enlightened. I am neither of those things. I’m just observant insomuch as I can see a white wall and call by name.

My inner-anthropologist asks why this is? The short, unscientific answer is institutionalized racism. If you break down what’s wrong with this country in terms of race relations, you realize it infects everything. There’s a population of photographers receiving less exposure than mysterious French nannies have. 

It’s almost like we’re looking to celebrate anything but African American photographers.

White America controls the visual conversation. We don’t want to see what the African American photographer can show us with photography: underneath it all, they have a similar sense of family, love, fear, hope, and aspiration as we do. They also have a unique complexity of feelings about the American experience. After all, we treated them like farm equipment or worse (often worse) for a solid 300 years. So, in our own self-preservation we “just don’t go there” and created a narrative which accommodates a status quo mentality. 

I’ve exposed my own ignorance and I have to amend the paucity of information with alacrity (I’m using ten-cent words I learned in private school). Perhaps the only problem is me and my lack of aforementioned curiosity? Maybe I’m projecting my own cultural astigmatism as fact and nothing else? While I’m sure both are true, I’m also right about the institutionalized racist stuff. Who says I can’t have it all?

So, I’m looking for this community and I’m going to share what I find. I’m going to seek out groups and organizations that work to change this reality. 

I’ll support artists. I’ll buy work that moves me that I can afford. I am no scholar. I’m just an insufferable white guy, with a camera and an internet connection, who is tired of looking at the same crap over and over. There are far worse reasons to start a journey of discovery.