On butt-gazing and race-baiting

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The photo filed yesterday by my colleague Jason Reed at Reuters isn’t really the President ogling a Brazilian’s backside, like the Drudge report implies. As a news organization, Reuters has a  history of being ballsy enough to send less-than-demure imagery to the wire, like their transmission of the controversial Bush-to-Condi bathroom note taken at the United Nations. And remember Jim Bourg’s gagging McCain shot, from this campaign trail ?

Over at PDN, Daryl Lang questions about the racist implications of the image:

This would be a much easier picture if it showed Bill Clinton or Gov. Mark Sanford, to name just two male politicians known for their wandering eyes. So far, Obama has no such reputation. Even his detractors consider him a family man. Which makes things complicated. This photograph is connecting strongly with viewers even though it runs counter to what they already know about Obama.

Or does it? We can’t separate this picture from the ugly history of racists portraying black men as sexually dangerous. Obama’s opponents tried to exploit this stereotype during the 2008 presidential campaign (as noted here and here by Michael Shaw on BAGNewsNotes). This humor in this political photograph is nearly smothered by racial baggage.

Smothered in racial baggage? Sounds a lot like PDN over the last few months, as the magazine found itself at the eye of a vibrant discussion about racism in the photo industry. It stemmed from a post on the blog Reciprocity Failure, bringing attention to the fact that PDN chose a 24-person panel of all-white judges for their Photo Annual competition. The idea was subsequently magnified by a  $1000 challenge by the DuckRabbit guys. Word spread, and the topic was picked up by more prominent photobloggers, like ApE, and sparked a lively and surprisingly civilized thread on Lightstalkers where photogs like Gary Knight and Teru Kuwayama chimed in.

The dialogue culminated, sort of, in a response from PDN, posted on their site.

“Yesterday some blogs circulated a note about the fact that of the 24 judges of the 2009 PDN Photo Annual contest, all of them are white. It’s a valid point ,and one that everyone who works on PDN’s contests has given a lot of thought….Past judges of PDN photo contests have included African-Americans, Latinos and Asians who work as photo editors, art directors, web designers and educators.   We didn’t choose them out of tokenism… and the lack of diversity in the photo community as a whole means that it requires effort to compose a diverse panel year after year. But it is an effort that’s worth making.”

This morning seems to mark a turning point for PDN- they’ve opened a conversation, themselves, about the racial implications of an image.

So what about the representation of race in stock imagery? Here’s what racism, when searched for, looks like to the biggest agencies. The first image that popped up in the results is displayed below, along with the total number of photos.

Corbis: 3731 pictures

42-22747266 CAPTION: Snow in Bludenz

Getty: 7286 images

88086499CAPTION: STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND – MAY 30: James Mayer and Sean Mbaya of Kid British performs at Love Music Hate Racism Festival 2009 at Britannia Stadium on May 30, 2009 in Stoke on Trent, England. (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/Getty Images)

Masterfile: 130 images

700-00091206 CAPTION: Ring of Hands

Alamy: 3032 images

AWXGB4 CAPTION: Sydney Australia immigration racism racist attitude immigrant city economic emigrate colour color creed promised land

Jupiter: 44 images

23124440CAPTION: Phrase “fight racism” written on pavement by car

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One thought on “On butt-gazing and race-baiting

  1. theberberediaries says:

    Love love love this post. So interesting how context changes everything in the Obama photo. Absolutely fascinating about the panel of white judges- I don’t know anything about the world of professional photographers, but is it so totally devoid of people of color that it would be impossible to find a few qualified panel members? The Reciprocity Failure post does a great job of summing up the socioeconomic barriers to equal opportunities for photographers of color and it looks like the problem is at least being acknowledged, but the response on the Photo Business News and Forum blog is totally ignorant of white privilege (and the fact that one’s whiteness DOES impact one’s view of the world) and the role that power (structural/institutional) plays in a situation like this. Some people just won’t ever get it…

    On a side note, the apparent lack of qualified photographers of color reminds me of the “Cute Black Girls Are Everywhere, You Idiots” campaign (http://blacksnob.com/snob_blog/2009/2/1/child-model-look-a-likes-for-malia-and-sasha-hard-to-find.html) that started in response to the modeling industry’s hand-wringing over their inability to find girls who looked like Obama’s kids.

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