News + Features

Decolonizing the Photo Industry: Why, How and Where We Can Begin

July 14, 2020

By Danielle A. Scruggs

A question that may be top of mind right now for many photographers and members of the photo industry is a layered one: “What should photographers consider while covering COVID-19 and a global uprising against white supremacy and anti-Black racism?”

I will preface this by saying, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have most of the answers. I certainly can’t speak for an entire group of people. I can only speak for myself and my own lived experiences, my own perspective and my own observations. I can only speak to the work that I have had to do and continue to do when covering stories that are deeply personal to me, as well as covering communities that are not my own as both a photographer and photo editor.

As a photo editor, I often ask myself:
“What are my own knowledge gaps?” 
“Whose voice and perspective needs amplifying?”
“Where are the gaps in coverage?”
“How can a story benefit based on who I commission to tell the story visually?”

When I was working at the Chicago Reader, an award-winning alt-weekly newspaper, I was the paper’s first Black photo editor and first Black editor overall. During that time, I noticed that our coverage could benefit from adding more stories about the south and west sides of the city, which are predominantly Black and Latinx. And in turn, those stories would benefit from sending Black and Latinx photographers who may already be familiar with those neighborhoods, who may already know people and places to talk to and to photograph, and may already be doing research and personal projects concerning the story being reported on.

[Read about the recent controversy over Vogue’s August cover and images of Black gymnast Simone Biles, photographed by Annie Leibovitz.]

I also accepted pitches for photo essays that covered predominately Black and Latinx neighborhoods from people who were from those neighborhoods, who offered a more nuanced and complete story that went beyond traditional newspaper and broadcast news headlines. One of the last photo essays I commissioned when I worked at the Reader was Folded Map Project founder Tonika Johnson’s beautiful coverage of Englewood, a neighborhood on the city’s south side that is often only covered when something violent happens. However, that’s a flattened perspective of the neighborhood. And while Tonika didn’t shy away from showing the effects of historically unequal economic distribution on Englewood, she also showed the ordinary, quiet, everyday moments that make up the character of the neighborhood. She also shared her own memories of businesses and restaurants she frequented as a child growing up in that neighborhood. And this story also led to the Reader adding more newspaper boxes throughout the south side so that the people in it could actually pick up copies of the newspaper and see themselves and their neighborhood covered in a more complete way.

I asked myself those same questions when I worked at The Undefeated, an ESPN-owned website that covers the intersection of race, sports and culture. Sports photography still tends to be overwhelmingly white and male. So I realized I had an opportunity to fill in gaps in coverage since many of the stories covered were not only about sports, but often about what it means to be Black in America and around the world. As much as I could, I commissioned Black women and non-binary photographers, and other photographers of color, for all kinds of stories—from a Black sports agent who specializes in hockey, to high school soccer players looking for scholarships, to celebrity coverage during the Black Panther press tour, to the work of Black women stunt performers—to bring in different perspectives, highlight their respective strengths and visually tell stories in ways that don’t often happen within the world of sports. 

Acknowledge if you have never considered any of this before.

Before anything else, I think it’s important to acknowledge, either to yourself or publicly, if thinking more deeply about what privileges and power you possess never came up for you before. I think it’s important to ask yourself why those questions have not come up before and to sit with that discomfort. I think too often, in this industry, there has been a tendency to shy away from philosophical discussions of why and how we approach our craft the way we do, and too much emphasis on technical aspects of the job. 

Anyone can learn about f-stops and shutter speeds and the difference between Canon, Sony, Fuji and Nikon systems. But less often have there been widespread discussions of the racist and colonial history of photography. Less often have there been widespread discussions about visual stereotypes and how they can perpetuate harm to real people. Less often have there been widespread discussions about who is in positions of power within the photo industry and what decisions they have made that have caused harm to both communities being covered and photographers of color within this industry. Less often have there been widespread discussions about how this medium can contribute to anti-racist work. Thankfully, those conversations are happening, but they need to happen even more often at all levels of the industry.

Consider empathy.

The empathy gap is an inability to recognize and respond to the feelings of others, especially others we may perceive as different from us. As photographers, it’s crucial to recognize where we may have these empathy gaps and figure out how we can bridge them in our own minds. This is an ongoing process; there is not exactly one thing to do, one book you will read, one person you will talk to that will be a cure-all. It’s an ongoing process and one that will ultimately allow you to make deeper, more enriching work.

Do your research.

Think about what you’ve been taught is a “good photo.” Think about who’s considered “canon” and why. Think about who is missing and why. What can you learn about and expand on within your own practice based on those presences and absences? Think about how you can fill in those gaps. 

One way to do that is to research and study people who have been doing the work. Consider the “Do No Harm” statement written by Authority Collective (of which I am a board member), which specifically addresses how to approach documenting protests, and best practices one can take to not further perpetuate harm against demonstrators and organizers who are routinely targeted by police surveillance. 

Another resource is The Photographer’s Guide to Inclusive Photography, a free collaborative guide by PhotoShelter and Authority Collective that gives photographers historical context for issues relating to race, gender, LGBTQ communities, the Global South and more. It also offers resources and guidelines for how photographers can approach their future projects. 

Another critical reading is “The photograph as an intersection of gazes” by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, which highlights the need for visual literacy and talks about the need for self-reflection and self-awareness within the context of photography. I am endlessly thankful to photographer and ethnographer Oriana Koren who mentioned this article during their presentation at the 2019 The Image Deconstructed Workshop.


One of the most important things you can do as a photographer, as a storyteller is to listen. Really listen to what people in the communities you are covering are saying about how they have been portrayed, how they would like to be portrayed, why they might be slightly wary of your presence. Listen to concerns they may have about your intentions. Listen to their stories. Photography can be a deeply extractive experience, but we also have the power to make it a collaborative one. It starts with empathy, with listening, with stepping outside of our own egos, figuring out our knowledge gaps and moving forward from there.

Know when to step aside.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is step aside and make space for others who have been traditionally barred from opportunities to tell stories, as photographer and writer Gioncarlo Valentine recently wrote in Business Insider. We need to radically reimagine how the photo industry works, and part of that reimagining means correcting historical wrongs within an industry that has often awarded a predominately White male gaze to the detriment of the multiplicities of perspectives of people of all gender expressions from Black and brown communities. Diversity isn’t a buzzword or a trend. A diverse range of perspectives means we can tell more complete and more enriching stories about the present, the past and the future.

Danielle A. Scruggs is a photo editor, photographer and writer based in Chicago, Illinois. She is a board member of Authority Collective , a general member of Diversify.Photo and was a Women Photograph 2018-2019 mentor, all groups committed to creating equity and parity within the visual storytelling field