8 Fashion Photographers On Why Diversity Is Harder Than It Looks

At every turn, the fashion industry's key players are using their social platforms to call out its biggest issues — racism, sexual harassment, body diversity — both on and off the catwalk. But as brought up most recently by editors at The Cut and Fashionista, the streets are still a popularity contest: those in the photos are thin, white, and famous. On top of ebbing interest in street style as an outlet for inspiration, it'd seem the art of documenting current trends, and the people who wear them, feels more dated than ever. But it's going to take more than outrage to fix them, because diversity in street style is much more complicated to achieve than diversity on the runways. But don't take our word for it.

After asking a group of street style photographers, from Tommy Ton to Melodie Jeng, a series of questions on the state of diversity in the industry, the imbalance between diversity on the runway and the streets, and just why we're all so angry, their answers highlight a problem that inspires a lot of tweets, but no real solutions. Not everyone agreed to comment, with a few of them not even allowed to by the publications that employ them.

In the beginning, we liked street style because it wasn't about celebrities — it was about real people. But then real people became celebrities and iPhones replaced a craft that, like most things in fashion, was forced to evolve. Because of this, we're seeing the unconscious bias play out in street style as it did with runway, and the focus of the industry's criticism has shifted. Not until now are people starting to notice the real trends — and we're not talking about clothes.

The homogenization of street style is more obvious to those who don't get their photos taken as often as others — or never — than it is to those who attribute it to part of their status. None of this, however, changes the fact that getting one's photo taken has always been, and remains to be, a compliment (and a privilege, to some).

So, why do certain people get shot and others ignored? Is it the photographers' fault? The photo editors? Or is it the PR houses who put together the guest lists? Because unlike the runways, there's an element of reality in street style that gives a much more accurate read on whether the industry actually is as diverse as it says it wants to be. If we expanded our view on what constitutes an outfit worth shooting, would it show a more diverse street scene? Or would it be more of the same?

There's much to glean from the interviews ahead, especially when it comes to who has the final say in what gets published, but what ends up on the cutting room floor says as much as what actually gets posted. So, if fashion photography is supposed to reflect the time, then maybe it does. Accompanied by the photos they chose to represent their points of view, here's what the photographers want you to know.

Photographed by Tommy Ton.
Tommy Ton

If there's a method to snapping the most successful, shareable street style shot — what is it?
“I think there's a misconception that street style photographers have a hand in casting the subjects they shoot. Since street style photography has become primarily about the style outside the shows during Fashion Month and not so much about spotting someone on the street on a random day off-season, the subjects we have to choose from are ultimately dependent on the editors, influencers, etc. who attend the shows, and the models who are cast in them.”

What role do the publications/websites you’re shooting for play into who you photograph? What sorts of directives are you given, if/when you're shooting for magazines?
“If you look at the mast heads of most of the top American magazines, you'll see there are many people with diverse backgrounds appointed to top roles than at the European editions. This lack of representation creates less opportunities for photographers to capture diversity during the shows.

“Additionally, as more and more photographers tend to favor models or influencers who have been invited to the shows and dressed by brands, you realize that it's also the brands and their marketing and publicity teams who have a responsibility to invite more men and women of different backgrounds and sizes.

“With the casting of shows, I've found that there has definitely been a shift in recent seasons. I applaud designers like Marques' Almeida, Michael Kors, Vaquera, Eckhaus Latta, and Kenzo, to name a few, which have been inclusive and diverse in their casting. But there is definitely more that can be done."

If fashion photography is supposed to reflect the time and state of the industry, what is street style photography supposed to do?
“There is a trickle-down effect where, in order for street style photography to become more diverse and inclusive, there needs to be more diversity and inclusion represented on the mastheads of major publications, and with the attendees and castings of the shows. We as street photographers make it our mission to document what inspires us and what is reflective of the time, so I feel that as the industry becomes more open and accepting, the medium of street style photography will definitely evolve to capture that."
Christina Fragkou, @cris.fragkou

What role do the publications/websites you’re shooting for play into who you photograph? What sorts of directives are you given, if/when you're shooting for magazines?
“I think some people might have free rein when it comes to what is being photographed, but I know that’s not always the case. I know certain publications might ask you to make sure you’re shooting a range of industry people — from editors to influencers to stylists, people who are prominent and have a space in the industry — as opposed to, let’s say, the hoverers, outside the show.

"Of course, Refinery29 being as inclusive as it is asked me to aim for as much diversity as possible — in race, age, body type, etc. But then others might shoot for a publication that’s aimed at a different demographic, and so perhaps they’re required to shoot for the target audience. Then there is commercial, which often involves looking out for certain brands being word as opposed to someone's style."

If fashion photography is supposed to reflect the time and industry, what is street style photography supposed to do?
“Is that what fashion photography is supposed to reflect? If anything, that is something street style should reflect. And sadly, it does. You’re seeing whitewashed street style photos? An abundance of skinny women looking incredible in head-to-toe, full looks? Barely any POCs? A rare occurrence of some body diversity? Well, that’s sadly a reflection of what is going on at the shows. It might not be a reflection of the movement trying to be brought forward by a lot of people in this industry, but it’s true that, unfortunately, the guests attending the shows and the people with high followings are predominantly white and ‘thin.'”

Has the imbalance of race or size diversity in street style photography ever crossed your mind? Or have you seen it happening in real life? If so/if not, why?
“Of course it has, particularly when I shot for Refinery29 and it was part of the brief to shoot more diversely — and even more so, as I get more and more involved/interested in these kinds of sociopolitical issues. I can’t name a single black ‘influencer,’ but I can name 10 to 12 black editors. Why is this the case? Why are brands not actively pursuing brand ambassadors or influencers who are POC so they can show their brand is an everywoman brand? Why aren’t more women of color not just being hired, but being invited to these shows?

“I don’t speak for every street style photographer, nor do I think they are all obliged to feel this way, but I know that my personal beliefs mean I’m motivated to use my position to try and capture a broader range of diversity in my imagery. I don’t think it’s a true reflection of the industry. If anything, it would be a more falsified view if I were to make my gallery 50% women of color and 50% white women.

“I think it’s easy to sit and point fingers around the room saying whose fault this is — i.e. is it the editors? the brands? the photographers? Well, maybe it’s just everyone. Maybe the brands should actively pursue women who are older, women whose bodies are different to those of the models, and women of color. Maybe the editors should drop a hint and say, Hey, less skinny, white girls, please. And maybe we should also take a step back and be like, Wow, okay. Here I am. I’m a white person. I hear this opinion and see the statistics of underrepresented women in this industry. I’m in a position of privilege with this camera in my hand and I will run the extra block in order to diversify my imagery, resulting in our editors being forced to use more diverse content, and maybe we’ll have more than the same 10 to 15 women of color in our images.

"We can only shoot what is around us, and sadly, the industry is warped. It isn’t diverse, it isn’t inclusive, it isn’t an accurate representation of women around the world — but that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed or that isn’t on its way there.”
Photographed by Katherine Pekala.
Katherine Pekala, @katherinepekala

In terms of editors versus influencers, has Instagram changed who is photographed? It seems like people with bigger followings make for easy targets, so they repost the photos and get more eyes on your pictures.
“Instagram puts an emphasis on followers, and so naturally people with more followers get more attention. Unfortunately, a lot of who the public deems ‘popular’ on Instagram fits the traditional images we see in fashion — tall, sample sized, caucasian, etc. At the same time, Instagram also provides a platform for anyone to express themselves freely and have control over their own representation; this gives the opportunity to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be portrayed in fashion image culture.”

“Representation is an issue that I’m always grappling with in my work; it’s likely the most important topic a photographer faces in this profession. My background is in documentary photography and photojournalism — I studied at the University of Michigan under David Turnley, who was the personal photographer of Nelson Mandela — which are fields that emphasize the problem of agency in storytelling; does a photo steal a moment from its subject to fulfill the photographer’s motive, or allow its subject the agency to represent themselves authentically?”

“I think Instagram opens up this issue in many new ways. Ultimately, though, it's still a tool — whether it has the potential to democratize the fashion industry or not is up to the people who use it.”

If fashion photography is supposed to reflect the time and industry, what is street style photography supposed to do?
“If the role of haute couture is to define the cutting edge of fashion, the importance of street style photography is to push the authentic styles of everyday individuals into the image culture and consciousness of the industry, and also to make fashion accessible to a wider public audience. The fashion industry and its artisan roots in Western Europe have historically favored those at the top; if my photographs can help to give agency to those outside of the traditional sphere of influence or help bring the expression of personal style to those for whom it previously wouldn’t have been accessible, then I think I’m fulfilling the passion that drove me to become a street style photographer in the first place. I hope people who see my photographs get a sense of this.”

Has the imbalance of race or size diversity in street style photography ever crossed your mind? Or have you seen it happening in real life? If so/if not, why?
“I recognize that I’m always going to have a say in the people and styles that I choose to portray, and this is an important responsibility for me, one that I take seriously. Photography should be a collaborative effort. And, while I express my own style through the photographs I make, it’s even more important to make sure my photographs are genuine representations of my subject — especially when they are subjects that don’t get as many opportunities to dictate the terms of their own representation in the industry.”

When it comes to diversity, and unfortunately, racism, on the street, what are some things you've observed during Fashion Week, if anything?
“This is an incredibly difficult problem to navigate, and while there’s no easy answer, staying conscious has always led me to looks outside of the mainstream and the ‘typical’ cast of the fashion media. People and styles that aren’t close to the ‘typical’ I think tend to feel less pressure to conform to the standard, and so I often find that those who might be underrepresented in the industry — when given the agency to show who and what they are — provide the most authentic and fresh moments for me to capture.”
Photographed by Adam Katz Sinding.
Adam Katz Sinding, Le 21ème

If there's a method to snapping the most successful, shareable street style shot — what is it?
“I suppose by ‘successful’ and ‘shareable’, you are asking me if there is a method to snapping street style pictures that are going to receive the most engagement or get the most ‘likes’. My answer: I contrast two ways of shooting that I feel would catch the viewer’s eye. On one hand, I focus on standout details that disassociate the image from the person. By doing so, I’m not featuring who is wearing something but instead highlighting how something is being worn. On the other hand, I feature images which focus explicitly on the person, in the form of a portrait."

What role do the publications/websites you’re shooting for play into who you photograph? What sorts of directives are you given, if/when you're shooting for magazines?
“My publications never really give me any direction on what to shoot. I think if they did, it would be restrictive. The only direction I’m given is when deciding on which cities to cover. I send a list of fashion weeks that I’ll be attending to W magazine, for example, and they then select which cities they will publish. The cities and images they don't post, I still post on my website. So, though they may not give me directions, they do act as a filter in some way. My website/Instagram/book are the only publications which I have full control over.”

In terms of editors versus influencers, has Instagram changed who is photographed? It seems like people with bigger followings make for easy targets, so they repost the photos and get more eyes on your pictures.
“I don't feel that this question applies (or has applied) to the way I shoot. I will always select a stylist, editor, model, or a person unknown to me over an influencer with a large following — unless there is some outfit or detail I truly cannot miss — as I feel much more ‘honest’ in this choice of subject. What I mean by that is: I'm always wary of influencers dressed by brands, and thus the product we shoot is not necessarily a true look at how people really dress.

“The way I shoot is more photojournalistic than ‘street style’ in its classic sense. If there are 500 photos of ‘Blogger A,’ do I really need to shoot the 501st photo? I try to focus a bit more on the mood and atmosphere of the event, versus just treating it like a step-and-repeat at the Met Gala. After our #NoFreePhotos movement last season, dozens of other photographers and I no longer tag influencers in our photos. And if an influencer reposts our photo and tags their brands in the image, it is treated as commercial usage and a license is required. In response to the statement we were making, many influencers said that we (photographers) need them (influencers) more than they need us. The point of #NoFreePhotos was to quell the entitlement that people had and to stop the use of our photos as promotional tools for these people with no compensation for the photographer.

“From my perspective, there is no longer any point in shooting an influencer with the sole intent of getting likes/followers from their direction. Fashion Week and street style photography existed long before any professional ‘influencer’ existed.”

If fashion photography is supposed to reflect the time and industry, what is street style photography supposed to do?
“‘Street style’ is meant to sell clothes, promote trends, and drive clicks. This is why I adamantly label my platforms as This is NOT a FUCKING Street Style Blog(/Book). I consider myself a fashion photojournalist. I understand that I participate in the genre, but I just want to show you what it feels like to be stuck in the rain at Gucci or burning up in the sun at Sacai.

“I cannot stand it when I post my favorite shots from the day and the comments I receive are questions about where to purchase the clothing or accessories seen in my photographs. I have no desire to sell anyone anything. If you buy something because you like it in one of my photos — cool. But my photos are not there to influence your wardrobe.”

Has the imbalance of race or size diversity in street style photography ever crossed your mind? Or have you seen it happening in real life? If so/if not, why?
“Of course. It's very obvious who ‘runs’ this industry. Look at the editors-in-chief of most of the biggest publications. Aside from British Vogue and a couple others, what are we seeing? And their teams often reflect them in some way."
Photographed by Daniel Kim.
Daniel Kim, Walking Canucks

What role do the publications/websites you’re shooting for play into who you photograph? What sorts of directives are you given, if/when you're shooting for magazines?
“From past publications I’ve worked with, I had no directives or requirements on the assignment, but I also had no feedback on if I was creating good or bad content for them. However, I’ve had many cases where minority groups (Black, Latino, and Asians) were omitted from the final selections, even though I submitted them and they were captured in a moment I was proud of.”

Has the imbalance of race or size diversity in street style photography ever crossed your mind? Or have you seen it happening in real life? If so/if not, why?
“It is totally happening. I had a plus-sized blogger who I came in contact with because she loved my photos, so I was shooting her as she went into New York Fashion Week shows one season. We talked from time to time and she actually asked me what makes photographers shoot, too. I feel like she was discouraged by being ignored when walking into the shows. But does that mean race or size diversity comes into play? I don’t think so. I have seen diverse races of attendees to fashion weeks whom street photographers run to capture their image.”

When it comes to diversity, and unfortunately, racism, on the street, what are some things you've observed during Fashion Week, if anything?
“I don’t think it’s racism, but it has to do more with the style of a person. All seasoned photographers try their best to show genuine style and have their own personal triggers on who to shoot. I believe it has more to do with having higher standards on capturing a right style that makes you excited.”
Photographed by Alexandria Wilson.
Alexandria Wilson, @alexandriawilsonx

What role do the publications/websites you’re shooting for play into who you photograph? What sorts of directives were you given?
“I usually get invited to shows by PR groups that find me on social media or that I've reached out to personally. They don't really give me any directives, so I try to diversify my coverage by getting backstage, beauty, and runway shots that they won't get from anyone else. When I'm backstage, I make it my mission to photograph models of color, especially Black models. This season, I saw a lot of natural-haired beauties backstage, but I don't really see that reflected much in the social media coverage.

“Since I'm just a contributor, I don't have any power over what photos get chosen or posted. Even if I send off great images that represent the diversity, a lot of times they don't get seen. Unfortunately, many brands might post one token Black model or a token Asian model just for the sake of faux diversity, but they aren't really dedicated to it. I've also been doing this for three seasons now, and I've only been in the media pit with another black woman twice. That's saying a lot, as well.

“I think that a lot of publications are afraid of backlash and ugly comments, or they fear losing their reputations and followers. So many people are still stuck in the dark ages of ignoring any woman who isn't a sample-sized blonde bombshell. I've seen people post hate comments and threaten to unfollow brands that post out of their norm. I say: Let the internet haters spew their nonsense and do the right thing regardless. If your brand doesn't represent what society really looks like, it is failing. Diversity has unfortunately become a buzzword, and it's important that we don't buy into what they're selling unless it's authentic and truly represents what that word means.”

Has Instagram changed who is photographed? It seems like people with bigger followings make for easy targets so they repost the photos and get more eyes on the picture.
“I definitely notice that every major fashion account or publication that covered fashion week on Instagram basically reposted the same five or six people. I love some of those ladies and I also love their style, but because I was out and about myself, I know for a fact that there were more street style stars to choose from. If you have a major following or a lot of influence, there's a huge chance that you'll get photographed and posted.

“If you're an internationally-known publication, will it hurt to ‘discover’ and share some lesser known fashion enthusiasts? Giving the same bloggers exposure again and again might increase reach and engagement, but the industry needs to come at inclusivity from every angle and not just on the runways.”

When you’re photographing people, who are supposed to be reflective of the times and our society, are you then making a conscious about the not just the clothing but the people who are in them?
“When I'm out shooting street style, I'm definitely scouting for good outfits — but it would be untrue and unfair representation of show-goers if all of my subjects looked the same. Being amongst other street style photographers revealed an extreme bias toward tall, thin blondes and brunettes. I'd see someone in a good outfit exit a venue and if she wasn't tall and thin, not many photographers would rush over to get the shot. It shows me that many of us still have a warped idea of beauty that doesn't represent reality and our diverse society. After witnessing it firsthand this season, it became even more important to me that I continue to do my part in the future.”

Has the imbalance of race or size diversity in street style photography ever crossed your mind? Or have you seen it happening in real life? If so/if not, why?
“Inequality in fashion comes in many forms, and it sometimes affects me personally because I love so many publications and accounts that clearly don't know or care that their content doesn't represent their full audience. Some of my favorite publications don't even post women that look like me. Street style is such a melting pot of sizes, races, and ages. It still baffles me that some photographers — popular ones at that — have such an antiquated way of capturing what's out there. We have more than enough photos of tall, thin girls smoking cigarettes in alleys between shows, and there are many more interesting, well-dressed people out there for the world to see.

“It's important for every street style photographer to broaden their gaze, and it's equally important for brands to invite a diverse group of people to their shows. Not seeing good race and size diversity in street style makes me wonder how many people of color and plus-size women — and men — get invited to the major shows.”
Melodie Jeng

What role do the publications/websites you’re shooting for play into who you photograph? What sorts of directives are you given, if/when you're shooting for magazines?
“I'm mostly shooting for models.com, and thankfully I have a lot of creative freedom with them. It's really a balance of models/faces that I really like and if they have good personal style. I usually don't get a lot of directives, I think the client usually trusts me and hires me for the work they've seen me do. For the most part, it's important to only shoot for clients that you really align with. Until this season, Refinery29 is the only client that ever asked me to make sure I get a variety of race, size, etc.”

If fashion photography is supposed to reflect the time and industry, what is street style photography supposed to do?
“Designers have always been inspired by what they see on the street, and then their designs trickle down to contemporary lines, fast-fashion brands, etc. It's a weird cycle. At fashion week, street style has definitely become much more commercial, commoditized, predictable, and impersonal. It was bound to happen. Most people are just wearing the trend of the moment, which can be kind of boring, or wearing full looks or clothes borrowed from the designer. But I am aware and just try to find styles I like. And while I don't love shooting people who parade around the fashion shows, I respect them for at least trying. It's not easy to put yourself out there.”

Has the imbalance of race or size diversity in street style photography ever crossed your mind? Or have you seen it happening in real life? If so/if not, why?
“Yes, definitely. As an Asian-American, I think about this a lot because I know what it's like to have no one to look up who looks like you. I do keep an eye out for different races and ethnicities, and I think I do an okay job. But I would really love to see more people different sizes and abilities. I think we all have to work together to be more welcoming, and I would love to see a wider variety of people at the shows. It would be very refreshing.”
Photographed by Michael Dumler.
Michael Dumler, @on_abbotkinney
“I have tried to find the words on how I feel about the recent article written in The Cut, but after many attempts at responding to the questions for this article, I’ve decided I can't answer them. We know racism exists in fashion and everywhere else. We know the standards of beauty are skewed and unhealthy. We know that ‘street style’ is not honest and is mainly used as commercial advertising. We know that ‘fame’ overshadows ‘style’ in many instances.

“I don't know what the right questions are. I imagine we could start with the designers and brands asking themselves who can wear and fit into their clothes? Is this design inclusive or exclusive? Perhaps if we start there, the rest of the industry can start to follow. Instead of falling victim to the plight of online blaming, let’s actually try to have a conversation and listen to one another. This doesn’t have to be a polarizing moment for fashion — it can be an opportunity to make lasting and positive change.”
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