The Perpetual Negligence of Black Voices
Updated: Mar 3
Throughout history, there has always been a disregard for black people to tell their own stories globally. Some westerners would go to a country in Africa and return to share their singular view of “Africa” from a very myopic perspective which would shape the way the western world as a whole would view Africa. Many Africans are still working tirelessly to undo the stereotypes and negative generalizations that have resulted from these visits.
What is also as equally important is the watered down black history that has been taught in American schools for decades upon decades. In the climax of protests for the Black Lives Matter Movement that started to take place in the summer of 2020, there were riots and looting. Despite the fact that nearly 93% of the movement’s protests were peaceful, naysayers still used it as a way to demonize the entire movement. There was an influx in people quoting Martin Luther King Jr. because of his method of nonviolence to achieve the desired objective. Many people were sharing images of him protesting peacefully, but they failed to show the images that were taken five minutes later when he and his allies were met with dogs, were beaten, and were arrested.
Photojournalist like James H. Karales and Bill Hudson were the photographers at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. The images that they captured made front pages and are still remembered til this day. Now, what would the Civil Rights Movement have looked like behind the lens of a black person? It is not as easy to see your skin-folk being brutally beaten and teargassed and still be able to capture what is taking place before your eyes. Black documentarians and journalists would not have been exempt from the aggressors attacks either.
Fast forward to today and many black photo journalists and documentary photographers were covering the protests over the summer. In an age when everyone wants to be up to date on what is happening around them, many large media companies and businesses use their social media platforms to stay ahead and make sure their followers are informed. When the first protests for George Floyd sparked, companies like The New York Times and National Geographic immediately started posting images captured at these protests. Images that were captured behind the lens of white people. It’s not a surprise that these big companies gave large platforms to white photographers, but black creatives are no longer silent anymore about the importance of representation and giving black people the chance to tell their own stories on large platforms.
“We need black people in black neighborhoods telling black stories. They’re the ones who will stay long after the protests have died down, long after the award ceremonies are done,” said Khadija M. Farah who is a black women photojournalist. She was also outraged over the fact that these same companies were flying these photographers they featured into compromised communities in the midst of a pandemic. Photographers were coming from places like New York when the state had the most cases in the country. It can be very frustrating for black photojournalists and documentarians’ work to be overlooked as their brown and white peers work is being launched. Yes brown, it is not uncommon for many companies to throw in a few non-black poc to appear to be inclusive and/or colorblind.
“Don’t people of color me,” said Khadija. “There is no reason why publications are not hiring black photographers to cover these protests. I’m tired of empty statements of solidarity. Hire black photographers.” Another big issue is that companies were using people they already worked with, therefore, they were paying them for the images that were published. Outrage like Khadija’s was what pushed companies to start featuring black people’s work on their platforms, but not actually hire them or change the demographics of their companies. They were using them as tokens which is very passive, and it doesn’t create space for active change.
As far as hiring goes, Khadija expressed, “The excuse is always ‘we don’t know where to find them’. If you’re an editor and you fix your brain to say this, you’re not trying at all. Just say you don’t care and let us move on. Because the resources are there. You don’t need to look that hard to find black photographers in every major city.”
Photographers like Brent Lewis decided to make it easier for these companies and go the extra mile to create a database of black photographers up for hire. What started as a database with only the name and location of black photographers capturing protests became a database for black photographers, their location, website, social media, and their specific photographic expertise as well as whether they cover protests or not.
It’s good that these strides have taken place and the conversation is being had now but one should wonder, why did this take so long to mention and why did it even need to be mentioned in the first place? Well, we reached a breaking point over the summer where we are meant to question everything and shake systems that once stood firm. It is easier for companies to say they are colorblind in their photographic hiring processes but to simply be colorblind is to miss out on a lot of beauty and different perspectives. To be color blind especially in the midst of racial unrest is to specifically choose to disregard the voices of the many bodies that have experienced oppression for centuries. Even though it took so long for this conversation to finally be had, the fact that it has been had and is still continuing to be had has now created a shift in a perpetual photographic system of negligence.