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At the end of June, a group of photography collectives launched a Photo Bill of Rights to advocate for “lens-based workers” — a term they use to encompass photographers, videographers, and other creators within visual journalism. They have since garnered signatures from almost 2,500 individuals and 50 organizations, all of whom have signed on to challenge the visual bias of white supremacy and to increase transparency and inclusivity in the photo industry.
Many of the bill’s co-author organizations — Authority Collective, Color Positive, Diversify Photo, The Everyday Projects, Juntos, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), Natives Photograph, and Women Photograph — were founded to advocate for marginalized groups in the US. The bill’s authors say they see their collaboration as a starting point for further united action, drawing from the traditions of labor movements to build power through increased cooperation and transparency. While they have hosted virtual seminars and built a toolkit with resources for freelancers and institutions, “what we really want to happen is for other people within the community to feel empowered to do that type of organizing also,” Jovelle Tamayo, co-founder and board member of Authority Collective, said in a Zoom interview.
According to co-author Daniella Zalcman, founder of Women Photograph and co-founder of Natives Photograph, the photo industry has often entailed a “culture of scarcity” and fierce competition. And 2020 has been especially tenuous time for freelancers: Many have lost assignments or had to navigate the potential dangers of accepting them. The group began drafting the bill in March, around the start of the pandemic, and its relevance intensified as the protests following George Floyd’s murder — and debates around documenting them — did. None of the issues around visual bias, representation, and labor inequity were new, leaders said; the context simply spotlighted these issues that have long been present.
Photographer Adama Delphine Fawundu, co-founder of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora, said by phone that she was deeply encouraged by the bill. When it came out, during the height of the protests, “just reading it was a sense of calm,” she said. Over her 20 years as a photographer, “I’ve been aware of many of the injustices and the struggle of being a person of color, a woman,” she said. “It’s almost this constant fight with the industry.” She is pleased to see the bill “addressing so many issues on so many different levels, and how practical it [is] for … people who are in positions of power [and] people who want to be more knowledgeable about what they could do to empower themselves.”
Los Angeles-based photographer Yuri Hasegawa explained her decision to sign on in an email: “I don’t expect immediate overnight change, but I believe … change starts happening when we all recognize the problem, pay attention … and start doing what we can do about it.” Hasegawa reeled off myriad issues she encountered as a freelancer over 16 years — inequitable contracts, time spent chasing late payments, being asked to for work for free — which were echoed by Fawundu and others. “It’s one thing as an individual to say, I want to do something,” Fawundu said, “But it’s another thing for people collectively to say, you know what, this is really an issue and let’s work collectively to change this. So, I thought that [the bill] was definitely a great roadmap for a real change.”
As with any assertion of rights, the bill also has its share of critics. Few argue with the foundational principles of the bill — parity, inclusion, transparency, respect — but the issue of “informed consent,” which appears in the bill’s toolkit, has proved thorny. Photographer David Burnett (who did not respond to my request for comments) wrote an open letter to the NPPA criticizing the idea of asking for consent from photographic subjects, saying, “giving away consent runs counter to what our role is as witness and journalist.” Photographer Noah Berger, who resigned from the NPPA over their endorsement of the bill, also insisted on the right to photograph people in public spaces and asserted that, by signing, the NPPA took a political position in support of the protests.
But informed consent is not as simple as individual privacy versus press freedom; it is fraught by the question of photographers’ ethical responsibility, when it has been shown that police are using media photographs and facial recognition software to unfairly target protesters. The decision to blur or use non-identifiable images raises questions of censorship and accurate documentation, and news outlets argue that they have a responsibility to convey reality as accurately as possible in an age of near-limitless possibilities for photo manipulation. Many photographers find themselves torn, wanting to minimize potential harm while sharing a real portrayal of events. The bill’s founders acknowledged that informed consent was an ideal, rather than a stricture; they edited the toolkit to clarify that it was not meant to put restrictions on photographers but offer “questions to consider if and when possible,” Danielle Villasana, co-author and board member of Authority Collective and Community Team member of The Everyday Projects, said via Zoom.
While informed consent remains contentious in the US, it is not relevant in countries with different expectations of the press and privacy, freelance photojournalist Jintak Han pointed out in a phone interview. Han, who has worked in the US and South Korea, critiqued the bill’s US-centric perspective on Twitter. Though Han wants to see more global applications of its principles, he signed on because he sees the bill as “a good first step” and “a conversation opener” for a discussion of “ethics in photojournalism that we really haven’t seen … and needed.” The founders acknowledge their US perspective, with Zalcman adding that they hope for “other communities to seize on [the bill] and make it locally applicable,” since it’s difficult to create “umbrella guidelines” that encompass international variations in legal, copyright, and inclusion issues.
The Photo Bill of Rights’ ambitious scope is a testament to the fact that all of these fights for rights, respect, safety, inclusion, and pay equity “are interconnected and inform each other,” as Villasana said. Their intention was not just to call attention to the issues, but to provide “action steps … that people can consider to work towards … resolving issues and bettering the industry. It just really became a massive project because it had to be.” And the same issues of justice extend beyond photography or art, as Fawundu pointed out: “Every industry needs to do something … to move forward.”
Photography is offered as a record of reality, but all images have a perspective, a bias, and a framing — and photojournalism, like other industries, has been shaped by the “white, Western, cisgender male gaze,” as the bill states. The bill’s founders want to break down the barriers to entry so that a greater diversity of perspectives can counter that bias. “The visual media industries,” Zalcman said, “have such a great responsibility to show the world how to see. And if we can’t reckon with … justice within our community, how can we ever hope to communicate those stories responsibly and ethically and with nuance to our audiences?” To capture the full picture, photojournalists, photo editors, and the visual industry will have to widen their lens.