Oriana Koren on Race & Inclusion
This piece originally appeared on Women Photograph.
I am a photographer. I also happen to be black, a person of color, and a woman. Often, my identities seem to suffocate the fact that I am an artist when my identities should be fueling my art in the way they fuel my activism. In art school, you don’t learn to use your voice on behalf of others. But my foremost priority as an image maker is the recognition of humanity, that spark that makes ‘the work’ come to life, and gives it depth.
In recognizing humanity, it’s impossible to not want to advocate for an inclusive world in which multiple viewpoints -- especially those relegated to the margins -- are presented with dignity, respect, and importance. None of us should feel good about having a hand in a limiting, exclusionary industry. We live in a diverse world. Humans come in all colors, in all body types, in all genders, with different life experiences, and we come together on any given day: diverse, different, compelling.
What I want to talk about is what we can gain, how much richer and deeper our experience can be when we make the effort to include everyone. I think about a quote that found me months ago, from a book on Jewish ethics. The quote, in all its infinite wisdom, told me, “You are not obligated to finish the work, nor are you exempt from pursuing it.” I think about the artists I know and the sacrifices they make for ‘the work’: sleepless nights, traveling away from loved ones for weeks on end, trying to find someone to watch a newborn so an assignment can be taken, infinite stores of ramen, hoping a partner is okay with taking on a bit more of the rent, praying in front of a screen that just one more assignment will appear…
We hope. Our work is a lot of fucking hope.
Women Photograph and Diversify Photo exist because current and former image makers realized that the need to take up the mantle and advocate for themselves and their colleagues is just as important as doing the work, that it is an integral part of the work. There is no work without us.
And yet, so many of us are literally lost in the margins. We exist but we can’t be found. We make work and it just... sits. This year alone, I’ve watched two young artists become so fed up and disheartened that they’ve made the decision to walk away from their cameras.
Listen: I understand what we do isn’t for everyone, but I have to wonder, I have to really ponder why it is so easy for so many of us to get to the point where we walk away from our greatest love? I’ve considered it a few times myself, but I’m stubborn. I’m working towards making myself undeniable even in the face of rampant racism and sexism, even in an industry where the image makers who are helping to shape the way we see the world are disproportionately heterosexual cisgender white men.
Their points of view are being helmed as the standard. And while each one of these dudes are incredible artists in their own right, decision makers are clearly dropping the ball if a group of white guys are leading how we see our incredibly diverse world. It’s not enough to assign ‘diverse’ stories. Image makers need to be diverse in visual approach and identity and experience. There is nothing new or novel about sending out a white photographer to photograph communities and people of color. We have a century of what that looks like.
I struggle to think of (m)any white women (Elizabeth Weinberg), any non-black women of color (Ye Rin Mok), any black women (Shaniqwa Jarvis), any non binary people (Devyn Galindo), queer women (Jess Dugan) or Native women (Nadya Kwandibens) who are known in the same way, who have been given access to the same assignments, who have been mentored and groomed, guided in the way those men have. Why is that? Why is it even with resources created by working photographers and a few forward looking photo editors, why do decision makers still count us out?
The issue of inclusion is bigger than just the photo industry. The fact that our industry is cliquish and exclusive is a direct byproduct of how we live our lives outside of our work. If we work with our friends and all of our friends are white, well, that’s a problem in more ways than one. If we hire people we think are likable, but have been socialized to think women are inherently unlikable and we don’t grapple with how that dictates how decisions are made regarding a ‘pushy’ email from a woman photographer versus an ‘ambitious’ email from a male photographer, nothing changes. If we constantly misgender folx who have told us their pronouns, or can’t even wrap our minds around the fact people have multiple, intersecting identities, there is a problem.
Comfort zones need to be obliterated. We need to hold ourselves to a standard that doesn’t exist yet: one worth holding ourselves to. We can create that standard, but it doesn’t happen with this essay. It doesn’t happen with one assignment given to one marginalized photographer. It doesn’t happen with one browse through Women Photograph or Diversify Photo. It doesn’t happen with one cover story or one Instagram comment.
It happens with accountability, and the constant reminder that while you are not obligated to finish the work, you are not exempt from pursuing it.
— Oriana Koren