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Photographers have social responsibility and Power - how are you using yours?

It’s an easy, old, and tired playbook that still works: Take a young pretty girl (whatever pretty means at any given moment in history), shoot her naked, or wearing little clothing or none, or even cover her up but still show her face, maybe airbrush the hell out of her skin too, but if you picked someone young enough you won’t have to do that, share online, and repeat with the same girl, face, and body. When I scroll through some photographers’ websites and Instagram feeds, I struggle to see a difference between images. They are usually men - although women are not exempt from doing this. The recipe is always the same: a girl with a pretty face—pretty in this case means following Eurocentric beauty standards. Even though there is definitely still a bias towards preferring white women, her skin colour doesn’t matter as much, as long as the features on her face look a certain way. Big lips and eyes, a small nose, and a heart-shaped face. If the model is fat, then she will still have to have that face, and of course the fat distribution needs to be in the right places: the boobs and butt, but not in the waist or the arms. A few weeks ago, I shared just a few thoughts around the sameness of the industry and that portrait and fashion photographers have a responsibility for what they share, and I received a DM from someone who said: I have never thought about having a responsibility as a photographer. I was mind-blown by this. So I am making this a longer post because I assume this person isn’t unique and there are more people who aren’t aware of their responsibility or, in the worst case, might not care about it. What we show shapes society and popular culture. It shapes what people perceive as the ‘standard’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘acceptable.’

I don’t know how many photographers are aware of that responsibility and the fact that they always show the same thing that they know works: pretty young faces and thin bodies.

Who we choose to work with and what we choose to share is part of how mainstream visuals are shaped and what people regard as beautiful.

I love experimenting with AI photography. But I have become weary of it because it just feeds off of what we put into it. AI is extremely biassed. And it perpetuates the beauty stereotypes we already have. You can type in any prompt featuring the word ‘woman’ and it will give you the face of a thin woman with Eurocentric features, no matter what skin colour she has. Here are some examples of what I played around with just five minutes ago:

I did around 10 runs for each prompt, always trying to see if there would be a significant change. It’s always a dainty, small face with stereotypical features that are ‘feminine’ and Eurocentric. Even on the black women. The only change is that the images gradually got more sexual and nude without me changing the prompt. Just me clicking on ‘vary’ the shot. I prefer not to share those photos. Of course, never once does AI spit out an image of a fat woman or an old woman, unless you specifically prompt it to do so, as you can see. Because woman equals thin. Woman equals young. Woman equals white. The default is always the same. You can try this endless times, it will always be a version of the same face and body. This thing Ai is doing? It’s our fault. It just gives us what we have created and curated over years.

I am calling myself out here too. I have played the game too, because I need visibility, work and clients. I know what people want to see and what ‘works’. I would love to add older people to my portfolio, I would love to add people of all sizes and shapes to my portfolio - and I have held back some of it as well. As a result, this is what happens: people who don’t fit society’s beauty standards are scared to get in front of the lens, and prefer to hide. They are the ones who don’t book a photoshoot because they don’t feel good enough aka ‘beautiful’ enough. They are often the ones who, when they do book a photoshoot, will be dressed in black because we have been told that makes us look ‘thin’ for crying out loud. It’s not their fault, they did not start this. This happens because o f w h a t w e s e e i n t h e m e d i a. And what we see in the media is OUR DOING. Photographers, where are you?

If you think, you don’t have a responsibility as a photographer, think again.

Before you blame creative directors, brands and briefs: There are plenty of Photographers who when they work alone, do the same thing. Same pattern. And if you are working with a brief from someone: why don’t you challenge them on it?

It’s a cycle: people don’t see themselves represented anywhere and therefore don’t show up, don’t book photoshoots, don’t share photos of themselves, don’t take photos of themselves. Photographers only share photos of stereotypically beautiful people - so people who are not that, don’t see themselves represented anywhere and therefore…. I want to be better. I want my work to show everyone. Not in the name of diversity or a bandwagon - simply in the name of REALITY. Because our world really looks like that. It doesn’t look like the instagram feed of a fashion photographer, or a wedding photographer or a portrait photographer. Our world is full of shapes, colours, sizes, abilities, preferences, it’s so so vast and expansive. Looking at most photographers pages you would think our world features only one type of face, expression and size and colour. Only perfect teeth, toned bodies, young people and smooth skin. Unless you are a celebrity - there’s a few different rules there, mostly only for men, but still. It’s so boring and unfair. It perpetuates a useless and harmful story.

It’s in the name of photographers not exploiting what they know works, for their own gain. I am so sick of it. It’s in the name of changing the idea that there is one acceptable way to look, one type of face that is worthy to be in a magazine, on a photographers feed, worthy of admiration, love and likes. I am calling out all photographers to review their work, their mindset, intentions and belief system. Who do you believe to be worthy of visibility? How are you challenging your own bias and beauty standards? What are you doing to not just grow your business - but shape our society to be better?

Whether you want to accept it or not, you have a responsibility and you are influencing and shaping culture already. As the photographer you are in a power position, whether you like it or not. How are you using that power? It’s up to you to direct the influence you have in positive ways.

And I am calling forward all people who don’t see themselves represented anywhere, who fear the camera because of what they have learned all their lives, what’s worthy to be seen, what’s flattering etc. Please show yourself. Please, we need to see you. Please please, come out, I want you in front of my camera. I want to see more lines, more realness, more textures, more sizes, more colours, more double chin laughs, more aliveness, more humanity. Please show up. I know we have not created the best environment for you to show up, but if you can, please do it anyway. I hope together we can break the cycle.


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