Field of view: Reclaim Photo co-founder Tara Pixley on why photojournalism needs more diversity

Portrait of American football player Mike Daniels topless, wearing a long blonde wig and laughing.
Green Bay Packers football player Mike Daniels and his brother Sean Daniels attended San Diego's Comic Con for the first time on 20 July 2017. They dressed in cosplay as Naruto brothers Raikage and Killer Bee, respectively. Family friend Terrence Pryor laughs with Mike as they joke around during costuming prep. "Following an NFL player who was hilarious, mischievous and down for anything as he cosplayed with his brother and friends was great for photos," says Tara. Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 IS USM lens. © Tara Pixley

In our new article series, Field of View, we ask leading industry figures to share their opinion about a hot topic. Here, Tara Pixley, a San Diego-based editorial and reportage photographer – and co-founder of Reclaim Photo, an alliance of organisations working to promote diversity in photojournalism – comments on why the industry needs photographers from more backgrounds.

"I was working as a photo editor during the Ferguson protests – the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the fatal shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on 9 August 2014. From the images posted to the wires and published in traditional news outlets, I saw a consistent visual narrative emerge. It made me wonder how many of those photojournalists and photo editors share the same perspective, because they come from the same background: they're middle class, white, western, male.

"It isn’t that only people from specific backgrounds should photograph certain stories – after all, Robert Frank was an outsider who photographed a culture in a fresh and powerful way in his book, The Americans. But having intimate knowledge of the lived experiences of your subjects does open up alternate ways of portraying them."

Women in theatrical dance costumes wait to go on stage.
Burlesque dancers in the Atlanta Dames Aflame troupe play around onstage before a show on 13 February 2010, at the Paris on Ponce venue in Atlanta. "The sheer joy of performing and love for one another is what came across when I documented this troupe of dancers," says Tara. "Since I have a background in dance and theatre, any time I get to hang out with performers backstage and make pictures I'm happy – and I think I do some of my best work." Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens. © Tara Pixley

"During the Ferguson protests, photographer Ruddy Roye’s perspective as a Jamaican American and black man influenced his style of photography. His work brought the humanity of the black body to the fore in a way rarely seen in the other news images for that story. That resonated with many people, because his images countered the typical news media representations of black Americans as criminals or victims."

A father and daughter sit in their living room, the daughter covering her dad’s eyes playfully.
Eliza Peterson, 6, and her father Allen Peterson play in their home in Kirkwood, Atlanta, Georgia. This was shot on 5 August 2011 as the family prepared for Eliza to go back to school at Toomer Elementary, amid a cheating scandal that rocked Atlanta state schools. "This family was incredibly warm and loving. Seeing the relationship between the father and daughter for the school morning ritual was wonderful," says Tara. Shot for The New York Times on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens. © Tara Pixley

"We talk a lot these days about the need to diversify photojournalism, but there’s less discussion about why the problem exists. One reason is the resources required to break into the industry. If you’re a 15-year-old person of colour or a recent immigrant, you might not have the money for a camera or for classes in photography. If you want to be a writer, you need to find somewhere that will take you on as an intern, but you don’t need access to specific equipment and technical knowledge.

"I know some wonderful journalists who are in the industry because they care about people and about telling stories, but they don’t always recognise that they came from a place of privilege. They think they got where they are because they’re great at their job and worked hard. Both of those things might be true, but it might also be true that their parents could afford to put them up in New York while they did unpaid internships, or that they paid for them to travel as an undergraduate and that the pictures they took while travelling won them awards and got them industry attention."

A woman in a tie-dye dress leaps in front of a series of white brick columns, under a blue sky with dramatic clouds.
Portrait of Atlanta dancer Nneka Kelly amid sculpture art in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 2010. "In an easy-to-ignore corner of Atlanta you can find this public art structure," says Tara. "When this dancer asked for a unique spot that didn't often show up in headshots, it was one of the first places that came to mind." Shot on a Canon EOS 50D with a Canon EF 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens. © Tara Pixley

"People from refugee and immigrant communities, impoverished black communities – the spaces so frequently photographed by American photographers – often don’t have the resources and access to tell their own stories. Yet, their faces and experiences become fodder for the grants, awards and successful careers of people who can’t even imagine (and don’t really understand) their lives."

"As a college lecturer in photojournalism I get students of colour saying to me, 'I didn’t know people like us had this job.' That reflects my own experience growing up. I started reading National Geographic with my dad when I was three or four years old. I’d look at the images, read the words, never thinking this could be me. I didn’t know anyone in my community who was a journalist. It was only in high school when I had the chance to work on Atlanta’s student-run newspaper for inner city kids that I met journalists who looked like me. I was lucky, I was able to buy myself a camera after working summers as an undergrad and saving. But the cultural image of what a photojournalist looks like is not a black girl.

How can we be doing the best job possible when there’s just one perspective telling these stories?

"There’s also an idea of benevolent intent – of bearing witness for the good of humanity – that shapes the way we think about ourselves as photojournalists. Maybe we’ve been hiding behind that. We need to critique ourselves in the same way we do our subjects. We talk about oppression and oppressive regimes but we don’t turn that lens on ourselves. I love this profession and I don’t want to vilify it; I want to make it better. After all, how can we be doing the best job possible when there’s just one perspective telling these stories? We need a multitude of voices."

Three portraits show the same young black man in a smart suit with purple tie.
Niclaos Almonar, Brooklyn-based musical artist, poses for Tara as part of a portrait series on queer people of color. "Niclaos is a consummate performer and has a great sense of how to engage with the camera, so I felt as though every shot of him worked very well. It was hard to select just one and I ultimately went with a triptych to get a sense of him across a few images," says Tara. Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. © Tara Pixley

"At school I learnt so much about the day-to-day role of photojournalists but no-one talked to us about how our work impacts certain communities. Students should be educated in critical theory, alongside journalistic production, so they’re ready to go out into the world and tell true stories that aren’t just playing into stereotypes. We also need to have newsroom-implemented diversity and cultural competency training.

"Since I had my first image and story published in a regional paper at 15, I’ve worked in seven or eight newsrooms. When I took a step back from working full-time as a photojournalist and photo editor to do a PhD, I began to understand that the many interventions about editorial choices that I’d wanted to make over the years, but hadn’t because I was afraid, were an indication of a pervasive issue in the industry. I began to speak up, and the impact that had on me was really powerful. It made me think that I should do it on a larger scale. I began to focus on diversity in photojournalism, which is why I founded Reclaim Photo, an alliance of five organisations that works to promote it."

A soldier leans out of a window in a white wall, looking and pointing his rifle to his left.
Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, work to clear a mocked-up village during a joint training operation between US and Japanese forces on 20 February 2014. "On this shoot, it was particularly striking to see the organisation and communication among the troops as they went about performing a routine drill," says Tara. "Having never had any desire to be a conflict photographer, shooting this was incredibly eye-opening for me." Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens. © Tara Pixley

"Initially, I was planning to develop a platform to connect photo editors with non-western photographers, but I found this was already happening through World Press Photo’s African Photojournalism Database. For my scholarly research, I interviewed organisations working on diversity: The Everyday Projects, Native, Majority World, Women Photograph, and Minority Report, which are the organisations that form Reclaim Photo. We decided to collaborate on a survey about the experiences of those working in photojournalism, which ran until 1 February 2018. By gathering data on their successes and difficulties, we hope to identify patterns so that we can understand the issue, release the data and come up with recommendations to build a more inclusive industry.

"In America, there’s been a push towards greater diversity across many sectors, but simply employing more women or more people of colour won’t solve the problem. They won’t necessarily identify with the intersectional issues that different groups face. We all have biases and we need to learn to push against them. That’s why education is so important. Part of the role of photojournalism should be to put our youth in a position where they see themselves as storytellers, rather than the story."

To find out more about the latest camera in the Canon EOS 5D series, visit the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV product page.

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

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