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Daylight Dialogues: Brent Lewis x Amy Silverman

Daylight Dialogues is a new series of interviews with industry creatives about the ways photography and art impact our culture.

Brent Lewis is a Photo Editor at The New York Times and a co-founder of Diversify Photo. In his time at ESPN's The Undefeated, he directed its distinct visual language. Previously a photojournalist, his photos have been used by the Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, Associated Press, Forbes, and Yahoo! News. 

Amy Silverman is a Picture Editor with over 10 years of experience producing and assigning photography for outlets such as Airbnb, Wired, and Outside Magazine.

AS: There is a huge push right now to have a frank conversation around why more black photographers are not hired regularly, especially to cover content that is about people of color. What do you think it is about this moment?

 

BL: I think [the outrage over George Floyd's murder] is one of those stories that is big enough that people have realized that it matters who is behind the camera. And it matters because of what we are going to see. 

I've been preaching this for years. There are pluses and minuses to having photographers cover different things to get really nuanced moments, those nuanced photos that you're not going to usually see if you drop in a former conflict photographer in the middle of [the protests]. You are not going to see those moments of compassion, you are not going to see nuanced things that, if you aren't black, you're not going to understand. You're going to overlook.

This is the moment where black photographers can pick up the mantle and bring that to a public who is willing to listen for the first time. So we need to do what we can to make sure that voices are being heard and that voices are being heard correctly. 

AS: Let's go back to the beginning of Diversify Photo and what you were you seeing in the industry that made you want to start it. 

 

BL: I had just become an editor at ESPN's The Undefeated. It’s a website dedicated to the intersection of sports, race, and culture. All the work we were doing was by black folks. I want all the photos to be by black folks. And so, I immediately went in and said, "I'm going to start listing all the black photographers I know," and got that list up to, I think it was like 15. And everyone was in New York. New York and a few folks in California. So, I reached out to some other friends of mine, some other editors, and the list got to like 35-40ish. But they were still only in New York, LA, a sprinkle in Chicago, and one person in the South, and I was like, Okay, this is absurd. There must be more. At that point, I'm like, What do our numbers look like? I was talking with Danese Kenon about just counting the numbers of black folks in general who work in the photography industry. 

Around that time, I started getting wind of what Daniella Zalcman was doing with Women Photograph. I was like, “I see what you're doing. We need that for photographers of color. I'm going to get on that.” And so that started rolling. I was talking about it to some other people in Facebook groups, and a person I wanted to meet in one of those groups was Andrea Wise. And so Andrea is like, “I had the idea that I wanted to do this. Let's do it together.” Done. So we put the open call out, 1500 applications. I’m still shocked.

AS: Did you ever feel like people should do their own homework to find photographers of color and like you shouldn’t have to do all the work for everybody?

 

BL: Yeah, yeah, all the time, all the time. But this also, for me, pulled back that moment of editors making excuses, like, "I don't know where to find anyone." All right, cool. Here’s 300 [black photographers] on a platter. What's your new excuse? You don't have more excuses, because I literally did all the work for you.

AS: Why is it so difficult to get people to do that work of finding new or different photographers?

 

BL: It's many things. If I didn't meet you at any of these photo industry workshops and you didn't go to school with someone I know and you don't have any work history. You don't have The New York Times in your portfolio, or you don’t even have a portfolio, website, or whatever it is. If you don't have that relationship or you don't have a name drop that conversation doesn't start, the email doesn't usually get sent back. You're like, “Oh, I don't know who that is. I'm gonna delete. Ohhh [photojournalist] Peter Van Agtmael, I'll definitely get back to you!" And that's just how that happens. So that's literally just how it has worked out for years and years and years. 

People also just don't feel comfortable sometimes taking risks and gambles. I know we all have tighter budgets. And if you get something big, you want to knock it out of the park. Some people aren't really willing to take that chance with someone they don't know. 

And then you get these moments where you would get to one [black] person. You would get Ruddy Roye and then be like,"Oh, great, we did it. Got one!" 

 

AS: What power do we have as photo editors to shift the status quo?

 

BL: It's not about hitting 50%-50% between white people and people of color. It's not that at all. It is just understanding how we are hiring because that is our one moment to create change as photo editors. That we can do. Who I call, who I pick up this phone for, is going to make a difference. Yeah, the story's going to get told in a different way. Visuals are going to be different, and so is the interaction between the people that they're working with. That feeds into everything. So for me, it's like, I have that power. 

I've been lucky enough in the roles that I've been in, to kind of control and decide how I want to work, who I want to work with, and ways to go about it. So for me, it's always been, if we are not working with enough people of color, if we are not working with any black and brown folks, then I'm going to affect change. 

Yes, you do have those moments where you are dealing with the director of photography that's like "Sure, whatever kid,” when I say we aren’t hiring enough people of color. In those situations, I feel like I can rest easy as long as I have voiced my opinion. And then usually what winds up happening is, like right now, people look up three weeks later, and it's like, “We are definitely going to hire some more black folks. Got to hire more black folks now. The internet's demanded it.”

 

AS: In this moment, are you thinking Diversify Photo should take on a bigger role than providing a database of photographers? 

 

BL: I have been doing a lot of stuff on the back end, talking to editor friends, putting some things out, just reminding folks that people are nervous. We're feeling a little tokenized. People would also like to hear from you in September when things calm down. Because I think that folks are like, “Well, I'm gonna go out here and make these pictures. And then what? Am I just a black photographer? I'm just the black person you roll out for black things? No, I'm a really talented photographer, day in and day out.” I think that's the concern that I'm hearing from a lot of photographers and that I'm passing on to a lot of photo editors in meetings and calls and talks.

 

AS: Are there institutions that are doing it right? That are really making an effort? What do institutions need to do to make the changes?

 

BL: I think it is just about having honest conversations with your photo editors, and the people in charge of hiring. Just being like, “This is going to be part of your review. We're going to look at this, we're going to watch this, we're going to count this. This is what is going to be part of your job. We want to diversify the people we work with.” 

At the end of the day, we're not doing a great job and this goes industry wide. I mean, you know, The New York Times, it is what it is. We're not doing a great job either. We have had these conversations where we’re still not doing a great job. That we have to scramble and start finding black photographers at the last minute just like everyone else shows that.  

So it's one of those situations where we have a lot of work to do. And we need to honestly just take a second, pull the veil down and get to work. We have to work, and it needs to be focused. It needs to be important, and it needs to be at the forefront of our minds to do that work. Institutions need to be like, “This is what we're going to do. Everything else be damned.”

If we want to be a change in the world, this is how it's going to have to happen. We can see the push that came in 2016 and 2017 with the #MeToo movement. You can see that it became absolutely apparent. Everyone was like, we have to do this. 100% we have to do it. At the same moment, I remember, as a person of color, as a black person, we're like, “We up next. This is on deck. We're gonna make this happen. This is it." 

And then 2019 rolled around around, and we're like, "Nah brother…we still…this ain't…okay, okay 2020 might be our year.” But it just wasn't laser focused. So if people want, not if, they have to mandate this. They have to put these practices into use. They can't just sugarcoat it. You can't just do it to say "Oh, well, we did this!" Like my water company who told me to support Black History Month. Stop being these people. Don't pay lip service. Stop being...

 

AS: Your water company? 

 

BL: My water company, along with Target and everyone else. They are all like, "We support black history." Come on, man. You're the water bill. You probably cut somebody off today! So stop paying this lip service and just be about it. We have numbers. We have steps. We can count them. We can look at it. Just hold your photo editors and hold yourself accountable. Because if we don't, it's never going to get done, and we're moving right back into the same space the next time something like this happens. We'll be right back in it just like folks were back in ’83, ’84, when Jesse Jackson ran for president. Everybody was like, "We got to find black folks to follow Jesse Jackson around." Just like in ’68 when there were riots after Martin Luther King got killed. "Oh we got to find black folks, to cover the riots, right?"

 

AS: Did that happen in the ‘60s?

 

BL: I was talking to photographer Michelle Agins, who was telling me that that happened a lot during the uprising in the ‘60s when King got killed, and people were like, “We gotta find black folks to help tell this story. To be on the streets.” So let's say this ain't the first time this trick has been rolled out. This trick has been rolled out before. In the ‘60s, the ‘80s, the LA riots— once again, all the media organizations are like, “Send out black people to go to LA for this one!” So this isn't the first time this trick has been rolled out, and this is not the first time this has been a mandated thing.

 

AS: Do you think this time it might be different? That it might actually last?

 

BL: I want to be an optimist. I so badly want to be an optimist! But I'm worried. Seeing the way people have gone about it, seeing the way that like, Diversify, Authority Collective, Color Positive, at this point, have been pushing this down people's throats for the last four years. And we're still here, tells me there's a problem. I'm a little pessimistic. Just because, how have you not done the work? How do you not have these relationships built? How do I have Joshua Rashaad McFadden hitting me up talking about, I need connections at XYZ place. I mean, it's Joshua Rashaad McFadden, who's one of my favorite human beings in the world and is just a damn amazing photographer. So why does he not have those connections? Why isn't he already in the cycle? Why am I that plug for people? 

Not that I mind it. I enjoy being the plug. I love helping people out. But why aren't there other folks that people have connected to, because these names have been out there, right? These names, these photographers you're hiring right now have been out there. There's a lot of new names too on the list that Samantha Xu and others put together, but the folks right now in Minneapolis, those names have been out there. Between Diversify and Woman Photograph, those names have been out there. So I don't understand why everyone feels like they get caught so flat footed. 

I am hoping for the best because that's just who I am by nature. I think this is going to begin to chart a new path and a new level of understanding between black folks, people of color, and the institutions above. I think this is an opening. I think that people understand that this is something that we have to do. That we need to do. That the public wants us to do. But I can definitely say I can feel the pessimism of photographers right now, because we've had this song and dance before. We've been through this.

 

AS: What do you think is the best way to also add to the numbers of black picture editors?


BL: I feel like this is a moment when people are gonna start to realize how important black photo editors are. People are starting to have these tough conversations in their offices, in their newsrooms. And it's awkward to have a conversation about race when there's no one black there. It is also awkward to have a conversation about race when there's only one black person there. Immediately off the jump you are seeing that something is wrong. 

What we will need to do is open up these gates, understand that we need to do a lot more mentorship; we need to open up and meet the folks that we are not used to meeting. Go places we are not used to going. Answer those phones for people we haven't spoken with before, that we don't have those relationships with. Ask around, because there are folks that want to get into it, but don't know how to get into it. There are folks, like myself— I'm a pretty decent photographer, but I am a better editor— who might need those opportunities, might need to see that pathway and, honestly, draw that pathway out and let people know there's a possibility and a way to do that.

 

AS: I feel like portfolio reviews and contests are a good place to really push to get more people of color involved and to really make it priority.

 

BL: And they are. I can honestly say, all the ones that I've been part of, they are. From the judges to reviewers to the reviewees, people are making honest to god, hardcore pushes to incorporate more black and brown folks in the portfolio reviews that they do. And there have also been moments where, if I'm on a judging panel, and I'm the only black person, I'm going to be like, “I don't know if I really want to be involved in this one. Not unless we can add another person of color in some way, shape, or form into this because this is not reflective of the people who submitted.” 

So I think that's one thing that's been happening a lot more. I don't think that has been super public. Most of those are handled in back room email channels, threads, and things like that. I've been in conversations where white folks have just been like, “No, I'm sorry, I can’t. You're going to have to get some other folks in here. I will recuse myself. Here are like six people that are amazing that you should work with, that you should look at, that you should call.” 

The NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) mandates it now, but, on top of that, they are intentional with it. They're like, “We’re going to do this. I know it might take a little bit of work, but everyone is going to feel better at the end for it. We're gonna have a much better judging pool than we've had before. And, you know, at the end of the day, we're going to find the best work that's not through the white gaze that we've seen for the last 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 however many years.”

AS: If an editor calls up a white photographer, should a white photographer say, “No, I'm going to turn this job down because you should be assigning a person of color.” Do you think that's a good conversation to have?

 

BL: I think it is one of those moments where a lot of white photographers are getting a ton of work generally because they're just people in these areas that are go tos. But take that moment, lose a day rate, that's fine. Believe me, you're probably gonna get another phone call right after that if there's something really breaking in your city. Pass it on to someone else. Take that moment to take that step forward, to lift up someone else, almost like it's a moment to mentor. 

I hope that everyone has someone underneath their wing. There might be a person of color that you're helping out in some way, shape or form navigate this industry as a whole that you can be like, “Yeah, this is the first person you can call.” If you can pass it on and you have someone in mind that you believe is good and talented, that can take this one and knock it out of the park, go for it. 

In my mind, I respect that photographer so much more for turning that assignment down and then coming through with the goods, because I kinda despise folks that are like, “Yeah, man, I'm the only person for it," and don't give me anywhere else where to go.

 

AS: Do you want to stay in the editorial world?

 

BL: I think for right now, for me, there is a lot of work that needs to get done. And I know that it can only be done in this seat. The editorial world is where I feel like I can start to push that progression. I can start to move the needle forward and start to bring more folks into this space, because I'm here. The door's open. I don't have to go through anyone else to get people at the table. I don't have to go through anyone else to get people in the room.

What I've been doing at The Times is, either photographers I have relationships with or photographers I'm just meeting, I bring them to The New York Times. They're like, “I'd like to meet and talk about work, should I meet you at a coffee shop?" No. You’re coming to The New York Times. I want you to be in this space. I want you to see yourself in this space. I want you to look around this space and see that everyone in this space is nothing special or unique. They are the same as you. They breathe the same way. They make the same mistakes. It's easy to believe that you can achieve something when you've seen the goal. When you realize...when you stood in that moment. 

For me, It’s always just, I got the door and the door’s open. I'm bringing my folks in. And when I'm seeing the work, I'm yelling it out. I want to build that little bit of camaraderie, in a way. Just getting the photo editors to talk about the photographers that they love using and spread the love around. And, when someone does an amazing job, to call dibs. Just to be like, "Called that!"

I just want to make sure that I'm pushing the next generation up because I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I had amazing mentors. I had people that got me to where I am right now. I'm letting those folks down if I'm not promoting and pushing the next round of people that I know.

 

AS: How important was it for you to have black mentors? 

 

BL: Once again, you can see it. It is tangible. Danese Kenon, Akili Ramsess, Dudley Brooks, Kenny Irby. I'm seeing them. I'm sitting around them rubbing elbows. Put Heather Charles in that, Kimberly Mitchell [Todd]. I can go on for a while. Also shout out to NABJ for that experience. And also to the great John H. White. That man changed so much of the world for me. So it's those black mentors that I've had that I sit down to this day and I still call.

And so what I always want to do is just take that same energy they put into me and put it into the next and pay it forward again. Once we get a few more years out, a decade out, there should be no question that you are going to be able to find a black photographer that can do just about anything and everything—  anywhere.

 

Transcribed and edited for clarity.

 

For more information and resources, including a national list of available photographers of color go to the #hireblackphotographers resource page at Diversify Photo.