Wedding + Portrait

Four Women Leading the Charge in the Photo Industry

September 6, 2019

By Jacqueline Tobin

Photos © TONL

The agency specializes in images of diversity that also have storytelling narratives.

In January 1986 I was fresh out of college and beginning a career in publishing and photography at Photo District News. Having loved documentary photography since I was a kid—especially the work of Margaret Bourke White—I was struck by how many profiles printed in the magazine back then were of male photographers; specifically white men. Because that was who was mostly being hired at the time. Fast forward to today where the photo industry has diversified significantly, though there is still so much more to accomplish. Many of the advocates of this change are women. Here are some who are standing out in a sea of many more leaders.

Karen Okonkwo
TONL Stock Agency

Constantly showcasing what the world looks like at present is of utmost important to Nigerian-American entrepreneur Karen Okonkwo, who in 2017 launched TONL, a stock agency, with photographer Joshua Kissi— and changed the face of stock photography, literally, forever.

“I had been reflecting on past struggles to find diverse content and images of people of color during my blogging years and decided to contact Joshua because I knew he was an amazing photographer,” Okonkwo explains. “I wanted to run the idea by him for a diverse stock photo company, but not because I wanted to do it; I wanted him to do it. He said he wouldn’t do it without me so we tabled that conversation in February of 2016.”

Then in July 2016, Okonkwo says the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling caused Joshua to approach her because “we both wanted to tell the stories of our people in a positive light, contrary to how the media was portraying us. A few months later we got to the drawing board,” piecing out what would later be called TONL, which the founders say is a modern version of the word tonal and references different skin tones.

Today, the agency’s image base goes far beyond skin color but stays true to its mission statement of how storytelling can “help humanize and hopefully diminish stereotypes and prejudices, against black and brown people especially.” From different races, sexual orientations and abilities, TONL, says Okonkwo, brings diverse groups of people “to the forefront of our site and in turn helps consumers use more diverse imagery.”

And what started out as an agency with just a couple hundred files now has thousands of images across nine categories: Taste, Trust, Today, Travel, Tradition, Tone, Technology, Trend and Take. 

Okonkwo’s advice for other businesswomen hoping to fill an industry void is, among other things, “to surrender your ego, stay humble and seek the guidance of those who have gone before you.”

At present, TONL has set contracted photographers but plans to open up a contributor portal in the next few months. In the meantime, photographers can email the agency with a link to their portfolio.

Carly Romeo
Catalyst Wedding Co.{un}convention 

As a self-proclaimed “lifetime ardent feminist” who quit her job working as Gloria Steinem’s assistant to start her own wedding photo business, Carly Romeo started to think about instituting change back in 2014 after Googling “feminist wedding photography” and having nothing come up

“I couldn’t find someone to shoot my wedding without a super traditional, bride-centric approach,” she explains. She was also dismayed by what she calls the marginalization of queer couples, brides and grooms of color, and interracial couples. “Not everyone getting married exists in the Barbie and Ken paradigm.” 

Since then, Romeo has developed a clear signature style for her wedding photo biz, Carly Romeo & Co. (and added on three other photographers and a filmmaker): “We are all about wedding photography without rigid norms or rigid poses, and of course we’re LGBTQ-friendly.”

 She also co-founded Catalyst Wedding Co. with Liz Susong, a feminist wedding company that publishes a print magazine and website on the topics of love, sex, weddings and marriage for “woke folk and the LGBTQ community.” 

Catalyst and Romeo also host the {un}convention,” a day dedicated to building community and sharing knowledge between equality-minded wedding professionals. “So far we’ve had one in San Francisco, one in London, one in Brooklyn, and one in Richmond,” says Romeo. It’s the in-person version of Catalyst, which includes the presence and guidance of Catalyst co-owners Jen Siomacco and Amber Marlow.

Through it all, Romeo says the one thing that keeps her going and never doubting herself is being an advocate in the industry for what is missing. “Be that one voice,” she urges. “That’s how change takes place.”

Charmi Peña
Nikon Ambassador

Charmi Peña, who specializes in photographing Indian and Southeast Asian weddings, is no stranger to breaking barriers.

“I come from a family where the acceptable career choices were doctor, lawyer, investment banker—not photographer or other type of creative,” she says. And while medicine appealed to her for a long time, she double-majored in economics and IT—”just because”—at Rutgers, and then fell in love with photography after meeting her husband, who gave her a camera that kept her busy while she figured out what she wanted her career to be.

“A gift ended up changing the whole trajectory of my life,” she explains. Turns out it stuck. Not only is the WPPI speaker and women’s workshop educator an inspiration and mentor, she is the first woman of color to be selected as a Nikon Ambassadors. 

Recently Peña covered a same-sex wedding of two grooms who had a traditional ceremony at a Hindu temple in New Jersey. The images went viral, and while Peña says the Hindu community still has a lot of growing to do when it comes to gay marriage, “it’s been really amazing for us to see how the [couple has] been embraced by the temple and the community that allowed them to marry there.”

She will continue to push through stereotypes and break new ground. In her experience, she says, “women have been trained to think, Well, I’m not ready to do that yet, but if I had followed that line of thinking, none of these things would have taken shape for me. My advice to other women is to say, ‘Stop thinking that way!’”

Erika Jensen-Mann
Real Life Conference

In 2015, Erika Jensen-Mann and Callandra Caufield launched Real Life Conference in Canmore,  Alberta, Canada, a much-needed educational platform for female and non-binary photographers. The first time Jensen-Mann had the idea, her hope was to include people who she describes as “always feeling marginalized and sidelined.”

As described on its website, Real Life is built on “the intention of sisterhood that lives what it preaches, stands shoulder-to-shoulder in being the space where women champion each other’s voices.”

Of course, new ideas don’t always execute flawlessly; there’s a learning curve. “That first year, all of our speakers were white women,” Jensen-Mann admits. “And it wasn’t intentional—I was merely picking names I knew and liked, but it highlighted to me that finding diversity in the industry back then took a little more digging.” 

Since then, they’ve listened and grown, and this year’s lineup will include other women making a difference, including Tomayia Colvin, Rocio Vega, Stacy Pierce and Endia Beale.

Photographer Mary Moore, who is taking over the reigns and moving Real Life Conference to Portland, Oregon, this November, loves that ”attendees, speakers and organizers of Real Life Conference share a passion for photography, but beyond that they genuinely support one another in their pursuit for personal and collective growth. This camaraderie has helped me to tackle my barriers towards becoming a mother and in turn, I have become a more wholehearted person and photographer.”

Adds Jensen-Mann, “When you get a group of women all in one space, it’s quite sacred and a different energy than any conference I’ve been to. Divas and egos are all checked at the door!”

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