CORRECTION: First Black Woman Photographer Signed to Getty Images

Two years ago I wrote a profile on Lauri Lyons stating that in 2006 she became the first African-American woman photographer signed to contract at Getty Images, one of the world’s largest stock photography agencies.

This achievement has never been contested until this year when I received an email from a Dodge & Burn reader who put me in contact with Sinden Collier, a Black photographer who apparently signed with Getty in 2001. Curious to learn the truth, I immediately contacted Sinden for her side of the story.

Still under contract with Getty Images, Sinden forwarded me a 2010 email from their Global Contributor Relations Manager, Creative Stills* in which she confirms Sinden’s 2001 contract date. This is the diplomatic yet extensive response I got when I contacted Sinden’s Getty representative to clear up the confusion:

Thanks for your inquiry. To be clear we [Getty Images] do not capture race, creed or color when we sign new contributors and that was never a practice for us. In fact in this business we have contributors from all over the world and very often we never meet or see them in person.

This mystery may be one that can’t be solved—we are bound not to share personal information with third parties so we cannot provide date they signed an agreement. And even if we could agreements are updated often so we can’t be sure which is the original. We don’t capture ethnicity and in addition, Getty Images is a company built on acquisitions. That means it would be virtually impossible to nail this down. Our photographers often capture the ethnicity for models who agree to sign a photographers model release, and this information is used for descriptive purposes to aid clients searches– but only if that model chooses to complete that optional field in the release. There is no reason to have ethnic info on contributors– so I think this is where the confusion comes from.

At the end of the day it is true that women in general are still the minority in the professional photography business (although that is changing) and certainly women of color are to an even greater extent. So it is safe to say that both are pioneers if that is the message they want to convey.

This year I interviewed Lauri Lyons for the Dodge & Burn photographer interview series. Lyons’ response when I asked about the issue was:

In New York at the end of 2005 the Getty Research Manager* set up a meeting that included myself, her and the Getty Director of Photography*. During that meeting I was offered a contract. Upon signing the Research Manager informed me that I was the first black woman to sign with Getty. Since 2006 that information has been listed in my bio. The news of my signing has been public knowledge and in circulation for years without correction from Getty employees.

As I attempt to unravel this case of “she said, she said”, I’m confused and filled with even more questions:

1. Why would Getty’s employees tell Lauri she was the first if as they claim “there is no reason to have ethnic info on contributors”?

2. Did Getty’s employees not consider Sinden to be African American when they signed her?

3. When they told Lauri she was the first, was the Getty employee acting on her own, even if she was speaking ignorantly?

Nevertheless, since her 2005 contract, this achievement has been a great talking point for marketing Lauri Lyons and her work. It’s hard to find any interview or article on Lauri that doesn’t mention it. Just “google” her and see for yourselves.

So why is it important to recognize who was first? Consider the achievements of these men who’ve also broken the photography color barrier:

Gordon Parks was the first to work at LIFE and Vogue magazines.

Roy DeCarava was the first to receive a Guggenheim fellowship.

Moneta Sleet Jr. the first to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Eli Reed the first to shoot for Magnum. The list goes on and on…

In such a male-dominated field, why shouldn’t a woman be recognized for breaking this thick glass ceiling? Although we may never find out the truth from Getty, as a blogger I feel compelled to correct misinformation I’ve published when given facts that confirm it.

Until someone else comes forward this recognition as the first African-American female photographer signed to contract for Getty Images should go to Sinden Collier.

What do YOU think? Leave your comments below.

*NOTE: As a courtesy for discretion, I’ve left out the Getty Images employee names.

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  1. 1

    It's interesting how the lack of diversity in hiring black photographers leads to such errors. And, indeed that is why this occurs. I found it quite surprising all of the uproar over Essence Magazine's hiring of a white fashion director. However, there is no protest about Essence Magazine's hiring of white photographers for most of their assignments. While it is important that Black photographers are hired across the wide spectrum, it is just as important that the Black community hire Black photographers. Of course, this is rarely open for discussion.

    Thanks for introducing me to Sinden – an amazing body of work.

  2. 2

    While this might have been an error by Getty, it appears that Lauri Lyons is not ready to accept the truth. Her website still indicates her ignorance of this error. While all of the internet references to this mistake cannot be corrected, she has the ability and should take the responsibility and acknowledge the facts. Based on her previous interview on this blog, she has grievances with Blacks standing in her way as she referenced the "crabs". Ms. Lyons' credibility is not under attack here. The Truth doesn't hold anyone back from accomplishments. But to continue to accept an undeserved credit is egregious.

  3. 3

    You are correct that as a blogger it is important and imperative to present the most accurate information on hand…even if it has been previously reported as something other than. There's a honesty behind it that is necessary. Every deserves their recognition–both Lauri and Sinden–but when facts need to be clarified, there is no harm in doing so.

  4. 5

    As a black female, art director with over 20 years experience within the visual communication industry I find this entire story sad to say the least.

    I know the caliber of Sinden Collier's work, having contracted her to do several projects over the years. She is an photographic genius! (black or white, FYI:she is black) her work is outstanding and it's about time she gets the recognition she deserves. From where I sit 2001 comes before 2006, with that bit of math completed it's safe to say she is the first! (sorry sista Lyons)

    As for Getty's screw-up (which is what it was) they should put muzzles on their people, make a retraction and stop acting like they are color blind, obviously their staff is not.

  5. 6
    John Edwin Mason

    Great post, Qiana. I like the way that you show readers why the question is important.

    Some of your readers will know, of course, that the African-American community has a long tradition of celebrating its "firsts" — in politics, sports, education, the professions, etc.

    But celebration isn't enough. The struggle isn't over. Too often "firsts" have also been "lasts," for instance, Gordon Parks on the Life staff and Eli Reed at Magnum.

    It's good to see that Getty's first, whoever she might have been, was not also the last.

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