During the summer of 2020, the U.S. faced a societal reckoning. Our industry, like most others, looked to meet the cultural moment with a renewed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a commitment to the daily, sometimes unseen struggles of people of color.
Reflecting on the current state of diversity, equity, and inclusion, photo art director Karen Williams joins The Creative Operations Podcast to talk with host Daniel Jester about what more the industry can improve. As Daniel is quick to point out, "We're two people having a conversation based on our experiences. We don't speak for anybody. We just speak on our own experiences, the things we've observed, and the feelings we've had."
Karen's full conversation with Daniel is worth your time, and you can hear it on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or ourwebsite. We'll get into some of it below.
Improve Diversity on Both Sides of the Lens
When Karen got her start in the editorial world, she worked with a lot of crews that appeared to be nearly all white. It wasn't always the easiest atmosphere for pitching ideas and proving worth—not when so many people benefit from sharing a sameness that you don't get to feel.
"It was kind of intimidating to speak my mind and to elaborate on ideas I might've had," says Karen, "because you usually have one linear thought pattern when the crew looks the same, or you're hiring people who think like you, who look like you. Time and time again, studies have shown, when you have a diverse set of people talking about an idea, pretty much most of the time you come up with a better solution because you're looking at this one idea from different viewpoints that you might not necessarily have with people who look like you, who think like you, who speak like you."
Of course, that's not always the easiest dynamic to create, not when people find safety in the hegemony of being surrounded by similar individuals. And that's not a white person's problem, Karen notes. "It's hard for me as a Black woman,” Karen says. "I tend to want to hang out with people who look like me. That's a problem in itself as well. For us, we have to step out and want to work with other people, to listen to different ideas, to bring different perspectives in, and really work hard at it and not take the easy way."
More on this below, but this is an area where change is as pragmatic as it is kind-hearted or justice-oriented. Anyone who wants your studio to succeed should be able to see the benefits of adding viewpoints and improving the dialogue and creativity within your team.
Expand to Next-Level Diversity
Think of identity as coordinates on a grid. With everything that's true of you—from your appearance to your values—you represent a dot somewhere along an axis. There are other dots (i.e., other people) close to you, while other dots are way over at another end of the axis.
Skin color is an axis. Hairstyle is an axis. Body type is an axis. Age is an axis.
But there's more. Music taste is an axis. Childhood household income is an axis. Parenthood is an axis. Education is an axis. Hobbies and interests can be axes.
Coordinates of identity are always the most apparent—in any setting, let alone in a visual industry. But as Daniel notes, it's important to find other coordinates, other ways we can find alignment and resonance with one another.
"We bond over things like the music we listen to, and our shared lived experiences, and where we come from," he says. "You know what it's like to work on a crew where, it's like, there are two people from the same small town in Ohio, and all of a sudden they've bonded on that? We bond on our shared experiences. It creates a situation where these are people that we want to be friends with, who we want to hang out with."
By taking diversity to a next level, we coincidentally bring more humanity into concerns of race (just as we do with other popular forms of diversity, like age and body type). Because those on your studio team that seems far apart on some of those axes mentioned above might have had similarly formative experiences of being first-generation college graduates in their respective families. Or maybe they just both love the same band.
Make space for your team to have conversations where these stories can be shared. You'll foster ways for people to recognize sameness beyond the obvious.
Combine Programmatic Initiative with Organic Interest
When there's a strident effort toward more social justice, companies like to set goals and pursue initiatives. Karen summarizes it this way: "'oh, we now need this, and this amount, a percentage of this culture, or this culture, or this culture.'" But it's worth inspecting whether those initiatives benefit many minority groups or only the most socio-economically advanced among them.
"Let's start internship programs—paid internships because a lot of people of color usually cannot afford to have all these free internships I was fortunate enough to be able to do to get where I am," Karen says.
Beyond making inclusion programs attractive for a larger group of candidates, there are ways to do the right thing through simpler actions and mindsets.
"Be organic and start those relationships from the beginning—mentorships, internships, and then hire them to entry-level and to the crew, so therefore they can get experience and then learn on the job," Karen says. Then you have more and more people. Even if they don't stay at the same company, they can go out and just continue to grow and add value to other companies."
None of this is about the undeserved opportunity. It's about creating opportunity as equitably as possible. So, going back to the programmatic end of this pendulum, inspect your studio's penchant for promoting from within.
"I know when I was managing photo studios for different retailers, I'd always meet that person who was working as a sample coordinator and was like, 'Look, I'm actually a photographer. I'm actually a stylist. This was the only job that I could get, but I figured I wanted to get my foot in the door,’” Daniel says. "I always was really admiring of that individual but also realized we didn't have an actual process for trying to advance people in our studio. Those people who were really hard working, who wanted to get their foot in the door, a lot of times ended up pigeonholing themselves because they were so good at what they were doing that we were like, 'Well, we don't want to take you off of sample management because we need you over there.' Now, you're never going to get an opportunity to work on set."
By taking an early interest in people who don't have so many systemic advantages, you can create a culture of goodwill and be a leader in your industry. No, your dream scenario isn't to invest heavily in someone's training and have that person then move over to a competing studio. But give this more thought. If the reputation of your studio was as a hub where people got to prove their knack and refine their skills, how would your team feel and what reputation would your studio have within the industry?
Outline Beyond-the-Ethics Benefits of DEI in Your Studio
We talk about this so much in this industry of outputs, metrics, and KPIs. If you can show measurable—or at least identifiable—ways your studio benefits from improved diversity, equity, and inclusion, then you can galvanize your company's stakeholders to support your initiatives too.
As Karen and Daniel discuss, the cultural hegemony that might exist in your studio now might be keeping your team from their best work.
The team has a shared aesthetic.
That aesthetic goes unrivaled, unquestioned, unchallenged.
That aesthetic makes its way into the content—whether or not it's the right messaging for the content itself.
And surely studios do have throughlines and standards in their content, and that's not necessarily a negative. But what's your team's capacity for range? How well can they drift from their creative center and incorporate a wider set of influences?
Your DEI initiatives can help with that.
Be the Change You Want Your Studio to Be
It's easy to read all of this and react by recommending a few changes, saying you wish your studio did more, but ultimately leaving momentum to live or die in the power-wielding hands of others.
But you can probably tell already that that's not good enough.
"What can you provide?" Karen asks. "For me, for example, I can give people time. If a photographer or someone who wants to get into photo art direction wants to meet with me one-on-one for 30 minutes just to chat, to gain some knowledge, or they have questions, I can do that. Or, if you see me on LinkedIn, it's, What can I do to show opportunities in my network to people that might not see these jobs? I post that. That is something I can do on my own time. That is free."
What more can you do individually? What can your studio do? As you reflect, go ahead and give Karen's full chat with Daniel your time. It's on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and ourwebsite.