Lack of cultural and gender-based diversity has been a problem in the art and photography world for years. Despite many positive, forward-thinking exhibitions, programs, and platforms dedicated to changing this, many of the major photo competitions, "photographers-to-watch" lists, and photographer mastheads in major publications are overwhelmingly white and male. Sure, there are exceptions – and a number of ongoing efforts to change this – but the scales, especially in magazine publishing and major commercial shoots, are still tipped.
Frustrated with the slow pace to progress, photographer, writer, and curator Oriana Koren, alongside her collective The Authority Collective, developed "The Lit List," a merit-based, 30-strong selection of female, trans, non-binary, people of color, and otherwise marginalized photographers who they believe are not getting the attention they deserve. To be announced in August 2018 and exhibited at Photoville in Brooklyn, NY, the final list of 30 will be pared down from a 50-photographer shortlist based on 200 initial nominations made over the past few months. The jury is comprised of industry decision-makers of color and allies including Zora J Murff of Strange Fire Collective, Paloma Shutes of California Sunday magazine, Siobhán Bohnacker of The New Yorker, and Noelle Flores-Theard of Magnum Foundation.
Excited, hopeful, and equally frustrated with Humble's own tortoise-crawl towards equal representation, I spoke with Oriana Koren to learn more about the inspiring project. Throughout this interview, we've included some of our favorite images from the photographers being considered.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Oriana Koren.
Jon Feinstein: How did this project start and where did the name "The Lit List" come from?
Oriana Koren: Like a lot of things, this project was born out of frustration with the photo award scene. It's disheartening to see the same 20-30 usual suspects receive accolades for their work when there are so many talents flying under the radar in lens-based industries. I wanted to disrupt that notion by creating a 30 to watch list that would essentially make it more difficult to be a gatekeeper and not be accountable for the access to resources and mentorship being given to select groups of artists (read: cis, hetero, white, largely male).
I've been nominated for PDN's 30 three years in a row and I knew other POCs who were nominated this year as well so when the final list came out and not one of those artists made the list despite having very accomplished years, some of us expressed our frustrations via IG DM. I threw out the idea that we should start our own list and Laylah Amatullah Barrayn suggested we call it "The Lit List."
Feinstein: How did you go about selecting the jury?
Koren: My collective, the Authority Collective, was helpful in figuring out "guidelines," so to speak, regarding building our jury. First, we discussed editors and decision makers we've seen show up as collaborators in disruption instead of on-the-sideline allies. Not surprisingly, that pool was very small. Then we considered who we don't see on juries and panels: women of color, queer/trans-identified folks, people who are not decision makers in the sense of assigning work but work on behalf of creating exposure and opportunities for artists of color. And then we asked some of our friends who expressed a desire in being a part of juries but had just never been asked so we asked them.
Feinstein: From the Guerilla Gurls to Women in Photography, Strange Fire Collective and a range of other inspiring projects, over the past thirty-plus years, there have been many powerful attempts to bring attention to this issue and to diversify an overwhelmingly white, often male-dominated art/photo world. But despite many advancements, it's still a problem and we unfortunately still need to have this conversation. How do you hope The Authority Collective and The Lit List will help impact change?.
Koren: By creating this list, we're attempting to do a few things: primarily, showing marginalized artists that we believe in their talent and potential for future success even if our industry doesn't always show us that, and second, that these systems can be disrupted in a way that actually helps to create a sustainable and inclusive industry in which everyone is able to thrive and succeed.
Feinstein: What do you think is the biggest hurdle towards getting more diversity in photography?
Koren: To be frank, there are too many people in positions of power in lens-based industries who simply don't want to see our industry become inclusive because it threatens a particular sense of power and privilege they enjoy. When you've got a majority of women in hiring, assigning and decision making positions at publications, creative agencies, and brands and they continue to hire the same 5-10 white dudes, you really have to ask yourself why they feel so invested in upholding a patriarchal system that devalues the work of people of color, of queer folx, of immigrants, of other white womxn.
What are they getting out of this system? Power They have the power to make or break careers and when you're marginalized, the difference between being assigned work consistently or not is your literal livelihood. It's the difference between picking up your camera to make meaningful work or walking away from that forever, never being able to see your own potential. There are so many subtle ways to uphold the status quo even when your brand or publication is busy selling the aesthetics of marginalized groups.
Feinstein: I'm sad to admit that with Humble, despite being somewhat diverse in our "leadership" (I'm a Jew, Amani is Black, and Roula is of Palestinian heritage), our programming is not as culturally diverse as we'd like it to be. We're trying, but not as hard as we should be.
On that note, time and time again, when speaking with other curators and editors about the lack of diversity in programming or juror lists, I hear an apologetic variation of "we've tried, but have had no luck finding photographers of color." What would you say to curators, editors or organizers who offer this kind of response?
Koren: I'm a freelance photographer with a busy schedule. Somehow I've made the time to help found an action-based artist's collective, create a new 30 to watch list of talent, mentor multiple womxn of color photographers, work as a teaching artist, write on deadline and still have a social life. Granted I don't work full time at an agency or publication, but given my workload, I make the time to uplift my own because I'm invested in seeing us all succeed. There are too many databases, too many freelance artists finding artists for you to hire, doing the work for you. Confront your internalized biases and ideas about people of color. Give us the benefit of the doubt you all give countless white dudes making the same work. Take a chance and stop making excuses. Lean in: try harder.
Feinstein: What has been the most surprising and/or rewarding aspect of this project so far?
Koren: Hearing so many artists tell us "thank you for creating this list, for creating a platform in which we can uplift one another, for carving out more space for us to be visible." Also recognizing how many emerging artists really need mentorship and sponsorship: there are so many hungry, green talents who don't know how to prepare for a meeting or how to create an editor friendly web portfolio or how to handle moments of micro or macro aggressions while on assignment. It's really firing us up in terms of the sort of educational programming we can build for marginalized artists and we're really excited to start reaching out to allies to see if they will show up as conspirators for us by providing knowledge and resources and access.