In mid-November, supermodel Naomi Campbell tweeted two photos from her recent cover and spread in The Guardian, shot by London-based photographer Campbell Addy. It was the first time the model, who has been featured on more than 500 magazine covers, had ever worked with Addy. It was also, according to her tweet, the first time in her 33-year career she had worked with a black fashion photographer.
In fact, she had previously worked with at least one other black photographer—Jamel Shabazz photographed her for the 2018 fashion issue of Essence. But arguably both experiences count as big milestones, notable in large part for how recent they are. While diversity and inclusion are mainstream ideas by now, in many professions it’s not yet a given that you’ll find much of either.
Campbell herself has shattered several barriers over the course of her modeling career, and there’s been a recent spark in the overall diversity of who graces the covers of fashion magazines. But those who are behind the scenes have not been able to keep up, mostly due to favoritism and a history of prejudice in the photo industry.
Not only does an inherent bias exist in staffing for photo gigs (or just about any kind of hiring, really), but a bias also lies in the technique. Photographing black people, and others with dark skin, is a complex craft in and of itself. It comes as no surprise that the standard for perfect imaging once excluded darker skin tones. Beginning in the 1950s, Kodak films were scaled for white and lighter skin tones, quickly setting the standard for the ideal color image. Even now, shooting dark skin is rarely taught in photography programs, as a plethora of over-processed magazine photos of dark-skin celebrities looking washed out can attest.
Similar to the importance of having black hairstylists and makeup artists on hand to cater to the talent being booked, Deun Ivory, a Houston-based photographer and art director, feels black photographers bring a unique perspective to the set. “What black photographers see when we see black people, versus what white people see when they see black people, is different—so the end result is different,” she says. “Especially in editing, there’s a whole psychology behind the choices photographers make when editing how skin looks.”
Ivory acknowledges there are non-black photographers who have mastered the skill of shooting dark-skinned subjects. But having a black photo subject shot by a black photographer is an experience Ivory describes as unique. “White celebrities get to be shot by people who look like them all the time,” she says. “It should be imperative that every black person who is being shot experiences being captured by someone who looks like them. It’s unparalleled.”
But that connection also might be one of the factors that’s keeping the industry so imbalanced.
Meron Menghistab, the last photographer to shoot a studio portrait of the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, notes that “white people get booked for gigs regardless of whether the subject is black or white, whereas black photographers are mostly only being hired if the subject is black. So if a magazine only puts a black person on the cover three times a year, and a black photographer is only getting asked to shoot when there’s a black subject, we’re already at a disadvantage in booking jobs.”
That said, there recently has been a handful of high-profile assignments awarded to black photographers. Less than a week after Campbell told Twitter about her work with Addy, actress Gabrielle Union tweeted that her recent shoot with Amazon marked her first time ever working with a black female photographer (Raven Varona), or any female photographer of color at all.
And then there is Tyler Mitchell, who photographed Beyoncé for Vogue in September 2018, and at age 23 became the first black photographer to shoot a US cover for the highly acclaimed fashion magazine that has been running for 126 years. As Mitchell told NPR, photography originally “was known as a rich man’s art, so it was mostly for white men who were able to afford all of the chemicals, the films, the cameras that went into it in the very early stages. It’s a historical thing that goes into why there just haven’t comparatively been as many black fashion photographers as white fashion photographers.”
When Menghistab first moved to New York to pursue freelance photography in 2011, he noticed he was often the only black person on set, sometimes in a room of over 20 people. “I think for black people in the photo industry, it’s really obvious which spaces we get commissioned and respected in and which ones we don’t. A lot of people just don’t think about it when it doesn’t affect them.”
But he credits social media with contributing to a rise in recognition of black photographers, from the relative ease and affordability with which photographers can now network and display their portfolios to a broad audience, to the social awareness that gets created when celebrities talk about their experiences with black photographers.
“Social media is really great because we’re finding and hiring each other. It’s allowed us to create networks to get us into rooms and put each other up for jobs that we hear about,” Menghistab says.
But in many cases, it’s still up to white photo editors to make the decision to diversify the roster of photographers they work with. “The Vogue piece was amazing, and created a lot of opportunities for Tyler. But when will Vogue have their next black photographer,” Ivory asks. “We might be entering spaces that didn’t represent us as much before, but how often are they booking us?”
Ivory, whose career took off after one of her images went viral on Instagram, says she isn’t shocked that familiar photo subjects like Campbell and Union are just starting to encounter black photographers, which prompts her to believe the fashion photography industry’s long neglect of black photographers is intentional. “When you think of the thousands of shoots they’ve been in, you wonder, how do you just bypass all of the great black photographers? It’s so easy to find us now that it feels intentional not choose us.”
So what explains the recent wins for photographers of color, like Addy, Varona, and Mitchell, shooting subjects like Campbell, Union, and Beyoncé? Menghistab has a theory.
“I think the reason you’re just now starting to see us book big jobs isn’t because there’s some sort of shift in white consciousness, but because other black and brown people are starting to get into positions where they can hire us,” he says.
Editor’s note: While Naomi Campbell’s Nov. 15 tweet indicated that her shoot for The Guardian marked her first time working with a black mainstream fashion photographer, she also was photographed the previous year by Jamel Shabazz (who is black) for the 2018 fashion issue of Essence. The headline and text of this story have been updated to reflect this.