Stephen Mayes on the Under Represented in Photojournalism (Awards)

A link I clicked on from the EPUK Weekly News Roundup email emphasizes the power of the headline: “90% of the pictures are about 10% of the world.”

This quote comes from a juror of the World Press Photo Awards. This statistic instantly grabbed my attention, speaking to the lack of (topical and conceptual) diversity in photography today.

In this audio and blog post by Stephen Mayes, World Press Photo Secretary for six years, he mentions how as a juror and viewer of photojournalism he finds “huge gaps” in the “black culture and expanded vision of black life outside Africa.”

Mayes later goes on to say that what is lacking in photojournalism is work that “is really intimate and truly personal”. When listing what it takes to win a competition like the World Press Photo Awards, Mayes jokingly quotes another juror saying that it helps if you are “American, male, white and shooting black and white – so there are some standards.” Right after he says “I’m just kidding”, but I’m a firm believer that there’s some truth to every joke.

Kidding or not, as a juror Mayes has probably seen a lack of diversity in the makeup of applicants. So the lesson here is clear:

1. We need more photographers of color to authentically document their communities

2. If they’re already out there working, these photographers should be encouraged to enter and qualify for such prestigious awards

I found Mayes’ comments to be very enlightening and credible as someone who has seen/judged almost half a million images as a juror. This is truly a call to action.

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  1. 1


    Interesting that, while in America, I, as a black man am a minority, you in S. Africa are a minority as a white person.

    The issue of self-documentation is not one of exclusion, but of perspective. You have a much better understanding of your culture as a white S. African than I would. Therefore, it's easier for you to tell the story more accurately than it would be for me coming from the U. S. Likewise, my experiences as an African-American enable me to better tell my story.

  2. 2

    Thank you for this post! Stephen Mayes' speech was excellent and I hope that it stirs up a lot of discussion about the industry.

    Damaso mentioned "the story du jour" problem – in my opinion, it goes further than that. There is also a problem with what is deemed relevant, or worthy by the industry, and what isn't. Many POC (photographers of color) work on issues that are vitally important in their communities, only to find that mainstream magazines consider the story minor, or "played out". Publishing leads to exposure. Exposure helps with grants and awards. If the actual stories (not the stories of crackheads, guns and poverty) of our communities are considered unimportant, then it's a small wonder why there are so few known documentary POC.

    Besides myself, I know of a handful of documentary POC – all of us are photographing issues that are real, and complex to our people, and almost all of us operate below the radar.

    Maybe its time for us to create our own publications, our own galleries, our own salons, to generate our own press. Working POCs in turn should bring up the new generation by mentoring, teaching, etc. En Foco is one organization that helps and fosters POCs – surely there is room for more.

  3. 3

    I couldn't agree more. At the same time very little is being done on the industry side to promote and mentor young photographers of color. The problem also stems for editors and gatekeepers not being interested in much else other than the story du jour. Try pitching stories about Kosovo, or asylum seekers in Austria as I have done and all you tend to hear is a deafening silence…

  4. 4
    Qiana Mestrich

    Daniel, my commentary was not meant to alienate anyone but simply to provide a solution to the problems raised by Mr. Mayes. I don't think you got my point.

    I also find it interesting that the artist's statement on your website mentions you grew up in apartheid South Africa. What was that like for you, "just another white guy"? How would you explore that through photography?

    To me that's the most interesting story here, not portraits of "second class" black South Africans.

    And yes, I think there is an innate truth that is revealed in images captured by photographers who document their own communities that you don't see in the work of outsiders.

    Perhaps it's the reason why images like those taken by the children of Calcutta's Red Light district as seen in the film "Born in to Brothels" are so compelling.

    My point was that we need to empower these (budding) photographers to shine like the others who have gained fame (and sometimes fortune) from documenting them.

    You should also read this PDNPulse blog post that sheds light on the "established channels of international documentary photography"

  5. 5

    Interesting how you worded point number 1.

    I’m a photographer of colour, whilst many say that White isn’t a colour it’s still a colour in respect of human beings, and i’m busy documenting my community here in South Africa.

    Are you only able to capture a community if you are part of that community from a colour perspective?

    my series is trying to document people who live, work and play on the streets of durban.

    Granted i’m just another white guy with a camera, but i’m still documenting the community and I think that’s what counts: someone documenting it over a person of colour documenting it.

    Colour doesn’t make a different in my eyes, it’s the message being displayed.

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