Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

Diversity: generally, a good idea

Tonight I watched a film, Young@Heart, about a charming, lovable chorus of elderly people singing rock and roll and touring the world. It made me think about diversity in the arts, and how I try to present diversity when I use my camera.

The film followed the Young at Heart chorus, based in Northampton, Mass. as they practiced and learned new songs, and experienced the deaths of two chorus members along the way. The filmmakers weaved interviews and music videos into the story to keep things entertaining. They were having a great time; their lives revolved around singing, learning, and performing on stage.

The idea of older people singing tunes popular with younger audiences resonates with me strongly, because that’s the kind of diversity that appeals to me most. It crosses traditional or perceived boundaries (in this case, a generation gap). It’s also the concept that seems so far outside of the norm that excites me. Personally, I find diversity of ideas (which people create) more appealing than something arbitrary like diversity of skin color (which people are born with, but they’re also born with eye color, hair color, blood type, eye shape, etc.)

That doesn’t mean that I think there’s no room for racial diversity in my photos, especially because photography is a visual art, and it’s a lot easier to visually depict a skin color  than it is to depict an idea. (Captions are really good for depicting ideas.)

Photography is very selective. Photographers make general choices regarding the kinds of pictures they’ll take (and the kinds of stories they’ll tell.) Photographers also make specific choices. such as where they’ll point the camera, how they’ll use the camera and lens to expose the image, and when they’ll take the picture. But it gets even more selective than that for some: Which of the photos taken will be kept? What editing decisions will the photographer make to make each kept image its best? Which will be shown to other people?

All of these decisions can affect the portrayal of diversity in photos. As I take photos for a newspaper, and often there’s no guarantee that more than one photo will run in print, it often means a portrayal of diversity has to be accomplished in a single photo.

People often self-segregate by skin color, gender, age range, or social standing, all of which have visual cues. So, if I’m covering an event at which some of this self-segregation is being broken up somewhat, I’ll try to depict that in some of the photos. I’ll do what I can by pointing my lens and waiting for the right moment.

I can’t always depict diversity in my photos, because sometimes it just doesn’t work out. My first goal is to make good photographs. If I can depict the interactions of diverse people in them, so much the better. If it doesn’t happen, I don’t think stalking someone like prey for the sake of portraying diversity is the answer. The longer I spend on one subject translates to less time spent looking for other subjects, and perhaps missing out on the best shot.

2 comments on “Diversity: generally, a good idea

  1. Connie Sullivan-Blum
    February 17, 2009

    Following up on the notion that photography is selective, it seems to me that all art forms are selective. Indeed, any medium attempting to represent reality is necessarily selective – journalism, history, folk narratives, political science, even the so called “hard” sciences like physics necessarily select some aspect of reality to represent.

    If there is no unmediated depiction of reality, the question becomes how to make the selection?

    Is depicting diversity by itself a legitimate goal for art? Is it a legitimate rule of thumb? Or is that simply the worst kind of political correctness? This same question applies to any media.

    I agree with Jason that it can not be the only or the primary consideration of art. Maybe what is more important is any depiction that shakes up, challenges, disrupts or complicates overly simplistic notions or reality.

  2. jbwhong
    February 17, 2009

    I think, at least with journalism, some effort should be made to portray diversity realistically, because the newspaper becomes part of the historical record. I think that by not focusing on it too much, but still looking for it, I have found a good balance.

    If I focused on it all the time, I might end up overrepresenting diversity, effectively whitewashing history of the present era for the researchers of the future in advance. They might conclude “Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was officially realized in 2007, based on our analysis of the photographic records left by Jason Whong. Everyone was smiling and holding hands.”

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This entry was posted on February 16, 2009 by .
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