My Favourite Failures, Lesson Two

If I had a little vulnerability hangover, after sharing last week’s failure. I’m not sure what will happen after sharing this week.

This week’s failure is of a different nature, as it didn’t just affect my experience, it also affected fellow photographers. I don’t love talking about this failure. This one makes me dreadfully uncomfortable. I hope it makes you a little uncomfortable too. But, the fact that it happened at all led to a major change in my mindset and perspective. I hope by sharing this story it will do the same for you (skipping the failure part though).

First a little backstory: When Lanny and I were on the speaker’s circuit, I would often find myself one of the only females invited to speak. That put me on the journey of a) Figuring out why this was the case; and b) What I could do to change this? This wasn’t unique to the photography industry. It was everywhere. One of the most telling industries I researched was makeup artists. Here’s an industry that’s likely 90% female, and yet the people seemingly at the top, speaking at conferences, were often male. During this time, Nikon Asia announced and posted a picture of their ambassadors. Every single face in the photo was male. How the heck was this happening in 2016?

After much researching and soul searching, I decided instead of just bitching about it (I did a lot of that), I was going to do something more constructive. The first step was to create a conference that ONLY showcased female photographers. The Real Life Conference was born. A safe space for women photographers to gather where they didn’t have to prove themselves against their male counterparts. A place where they could be celebrated as female photographers. I wanted the world to see the leadership, creativity, ingenuity, and talent of women in the world of photography. I wanted women to see themselves on stage. I wanted to showcase 50% of the population that was most often left unseen in the roles of camera ambassadors, sponsorships, and conference speaker line-ups.

All of this was a worthy cause. But, in trying to achieve this feat, I did the exact opposite of what I set out to do: Making a safe and inclusive space for women. I hand-picked my speakers line-up for the inaugural Real Life Conference, published the website, announced the conference, sold 90 tickets.

So, what was my failure, you ask? Every single speaker I selected, was a white cis-gendered female. All nine of them. I made a safe and inclusive place, but only for white cis women.

Up until this point in my life, I truly believed that I treated everyone equally. I even believed it after it was pointed out to me that all the speakers I chose are white. I believed it was unbiased for me to hand pick women who had influenced me and my photography journey.

My friend Charmi Patel Peña explained it best: “You’re either racist (which I don’t think is the case) or there is something wrong with the system.” So, by supporting that system, even unknowingly, I was contributing to a racist society.

Read that last line again: By supporting that system, even unknowingly, I was contributing to a racist society.

My failure was loud and clear: I can support systemic racism and the white supremacy ideals without direct intention.

The lesson was even louder: With intention, I can do the opposite.

My choices were supporting a system of ignorance. My actions and choices supported the very ideals of white supremacy. We all have unconscious biases. It is not until we shed light onto them that we can choose to change them.

Since that inaugural Real Life Conference, with the help, support, frankness, and sage guidance of A LOT of amazing people, it purposefully became the most diverse conference on the circuit. And it became a benchmark for other conferences to follow. Because of its diversity, it was perhaps the most transformative conference out there for photographers.

There are major obstacles that lie in the way of equal representation. The first step is realizing bias. Then learning all you can about it. Then continuing to actively work against the system and make unbiased choices.

All of us should continue to learn about this topic. It’s not static, because racism isn’t static. Here are two great books you must read:

How to be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad

Love, Erika

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