Open Letter to David Burnett
This letter was published by PetaPixel on July 9, 2020
July 9, 2020
Dear Mr. Burnett,
I have some concerns I’d like to address in your recent open letter regarding the Photo Bill of Rights (BoR). I am a 36-year-old white female editorial and commercial photographer. I am a member of APA and a Houston chapter board member for ASMP.
I have read, and agree with you, that the NPPA code of ethics is a solid foundation. That does not mean to me, however, that it’s not necessary to consider clarifications. Words, when very broad, can actually mean very little unless they are defined further. The Constitution has required the addition of many amendments to further clarify who receives the rights and privileges of full citizenship in our country. So why should we not take the time to broaden, clarify and support the intent of the code of ethics among the professional photography organizations? I am a member of both ASMP and APA, and I have been supportive of ASMP from the start to sign the BoR.
I hear in your letter that you believe you’re personally being accused of “colonizing, disenfranchising, and dehumanizing” others. It seems you fear the integrity of your work in the industry is under siege. However, you’ve misunderstood the intent and direction of the BoR and in particular, the term "male gaze." The BoR is addressing systemic, society-scale issues that we are facing as an industry, not individual photojournalists. Many of the issues addressed are a result of media companies, news outlets, our entire society. The “male gaze” mentioned is likely not your own specifically, it is the result of the assumption on the part of many that the stories and perspectives of white men matter most. It invariably leaves out the complexity of the experiences of women and people of color. The “male gaze” shows people of color and women in the way that they might be seen by a white male, instead of someone from their own background and experience. I know it’s difficult for white folks to hear this- it is difficult for me to wrestle with too. But it does mean that white photographers should not always be the ones shooting stories about people of color. And it means that men should not always be the ones photographing women. It does not mean that photographs taken by white men, or white people, are bad or not valuable contributions. It does mean we need to ask more questions about who is taking a picture.
What if people who earned 5 million dollars or more a year were the ones to shoot the majority of the stories in the US? How might it feel for only that perspective to be shown? How different might the world look, when through that person’s eyes? In considering the complexity of racial tension and racial injustice in our nation, it is important for me is to acknowledge that I might not be the right photographer for every shoot because my experience and worldview might make me blind to nuances in the story and experience. That is ok. Because I acknowledge this, I feel our nation’s wire services, news outlets, advertising agencies, and businesses would benefit from having relationships with a wide variety of photographers. We would all benefit from seeing the world through many sets of eyes.
It makes sense to me that photographers with similar backgrounds and experiences to the subjects can depict events and experiences in different ways, because of their unique relationships to the situation. I was previously a farmer, and have had the opportunity to work closely documenting farmers in the last year. I have been given access and confidence because of my background, that others would not have been afforded. This is exactly what we pride ourselves on as photographers- our unique perspective of the world. This reality doesn’t set anyone’s experience above others- it means we need to value the incredible ways we can learn and grow as communities through seeing photography through a diversity of eyes and interpretations.
It is unfortunate to hear that you believe that the community that has put together the Photo Bill of Rights (BoR) as an ageist attack or that it is a result of ingratitude. In no place do I see the BoR stating that no work has been done, or that there has not been progress in the past. This document stands on the shoulders of all of the work that past generations have done, and says, “Now we need to do more.” You point out that the BoR missed the work that has been done and that there have been “hundreds-of professional women working in photojournalism for decades.” According to the Neiman Report in 2019, women represented, at most, 20% of images we’re seeing on the front pages of news today (ZALCMAN, 2019). What a sad world we live in if at this point women must stop and “be grateful” for what we’ve been “given”. Half the population of our country is female, and 20% is not enough for me. Perhaps this is what you fear.
The BoR is not questioning your skills as a photojournalist or your respect for and rapport with your subjects. Nor is it accusing you of being unempathetic- it’s only your letter that helps us clearly see that in you. If you were as dedicated to the success of our community of photographers and photojournalists as you claim to be, you would take the time to discuss your concerns about the section discussing consent in the BoR directly with the community that has written the it, instead of decrying the entire document as useless to the world through an open letter. You have provided nothing productive, nothing helpful, you have only torn down an idea. I see you as a leader, but do not see you acting like one.
I suspect on some level that you are concerned that you’re being told that you’re unable to document women or people of color because you’re a white man. To you, if the BoR is valid, then it means that your life’s work will somehow represent something domineering, something reprehensible in the world. So, I’d like to make it clear when I say, “This is not about you.” The BoR is not a personal attack on you.
That is, unless, you want to consider your role as co-founder of Contact Press Image. Your group has chosen to invite some photo-journalists and not others. Perhaps you have not wanted to consider what percent of women versus men have been represented by your group over the years, or the number of people of color represented, compared to the number of white men, regardless of where they are from. In this space, and not others, have you had some power to influence the inclusion of other voices and viewpoints.
I understand that the language used in the BoR is unfamiliar and uncomfortable to many folks in white communities. I grew up in predominantly white communities, and I've personally had to take a lot of time learning more about the meaning of many of these words and concepts. I have spoken with friends of all ages who are white who agree with the core concepts of the BoR and yet still have described the language as "militant" "off-putting" and "aggressive." I see where they are coming from, and I also see that the language is simply stating realities in clear terms-it is only the reader’s interpretation, and their own fragility that makes these terms emotionally fraught. It is us, the white people that are so afraid of what this all might mean about us.
I’ll be more clear- white people are afraid that strong statements about “colonizing, disenfranchising, and dehumanizing” insinuate that all white folks are racist and terrible people. I have good news and bad news for you. All white folks, myself included, have unexamined racist beliefs. I am racist. And we all are. The good news is that this fact does not mean that we’re bad. It is our collective failure to acknowledge unequal access to opportunity and resources in communities of color that shows whether or not we are people who care about others.
You claim that those that drafted the BoR, and indeed anyone in my age group, is quick to “dismiss anything aged or graying.” While that is a convenient belief to hold, it’s inaccurate. My peers and I have relied heavily upon the mentorship of those that have come before us, and value their experiences. My father is a 66-year-old white man, and I have many beloved uncles and mentors that fall into the category of white men over 60. I would not have made it where I am today in photography without the support of white men who have given me a chance. Being an older white male isn’t a problem. But being an older white male who is on the wrong side of history, on the other hand, isn’t a great look. Those who are supporting the BoR are not ageist, nor we are not ungrateful to our mentors, but we are not going to stop until the world realizes that we all have a responsibility to understand our roles in in this world
Our nation is at a crossroads. If we want our industry to move through this time and into the future of photography successfully, we must acknowledge that white folks have been given a break many more times than others, and it’s time for us to share the opportunity.
My hope is that you, Mr. Burnett, and I, and each of us can support ALL photographers, and make our communities and stories more inclusive, and our industry safer and more beneficial for all of us.
Please stop using your privilege and voice to interfere with conversations about inequity.
And please take the time to consider why you have had such an overblown response to a document that suggests that equality is an achievable and valuable goal in the photographic community.
I hope that you will reconsider your position on the Photo Bill of Rights.
P.S. I highly suggest that you, and all white photographers, photojournalists, editors, and others in our industry, take the time to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi. I believe that this might help all of us better understand some of the knee-jerk fears and concerns that we have, as white folks, when entering into conversations about equity for people of color.