Black people in photos: Mapodile Mkhabela’s mission to changes the status quo

After noticing the lack of representation of black people in stock images, Mapodile Mkhabela decided to take action

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes. If this is true, the presence of black South Africans in stock images is little more than a sentence. Try googling something as simple as pictures of “woman smiling” and you’ll notice a stark lack of melanin. The results are whiter than a winter in Siberia.

But one woman is trying to change the status quo. Mapodile Mkhabela is a photographer for Getty Images, an online image library, and she’s looking to change the way black people are represented.

“As a black person seeking representation of my ideas, I found that a lot of stock images were very much Caucasian,” she says. “Or if it is a photograph of black people, they don’t have a natural look about them. It feels very put on. When I did find pictures of blacks, they were mostly African American and not necessarily South African-looking.”

Blogger and writer Courtney Milan did a quick study on the disproportional representation of women who aren’t Caucasian in online stock images. Milan looked through 107 151 pictures of “brides” on shutterstock.com.

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The results were telling. These are the number of pictures of the different ethnic groups.

African: 57
African American: 444
Black: 222
Brazilian: 2
Chinese: 1 783
Caucasian: 77 536
East Asian: 2,704
Hispanic (Latin): 1 572
Japanese: 1 592
Middle Eastern: 1 235
Native American: 41
Pacific Islander: 102
South Asian: 1 614
Southeast Asian: 2 077
Other: 3 484 (Not scientific, but at first guess, many of the brides in the “other” category appear to be white.)

Instead of lamenting the glaring discrepancies in representation, Mkhabela says she decided to do something, and started documenting life around her.

“I started shooting the people around me,” she says. “I started shooting my family; I started shooting my friends. If my parents were having a dinner at the house, I’d photograph them making dinner. If I’m at a family gathering I’d photograph my baby cousins opening their presents. So I started off with what I had.”

Mkhabela says this style of photography worked out better than the traditional style that often appears fake and unnatural.

“It moves away from a staged look. I started with the people around me in a natural environment; once I started doing that and seeing people really respond to it, I started to do it more,” she says.

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Representation matters. Diversity in mainstream media is more important than just political correctness. It has a very real effect on how people perceive themselves.

According to Eric Anthony Grollman, assistant professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, America, seeing yourself reflected in media is crucial. It becomes more important in the face of prejudice, he says.

“In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem-boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem-damaging effects for white girls, black girls and black boys. One primary reason? White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch,” he says.

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Mkhabela says she’s spurred on by the fact that the online world is a misrepresentation of reality.

“I feel the lack of representation is quite silly, because black people are part of the world we’re living in, especially in South Africa – 70% of the population is black,” she says.

Most of the time people do things about black people to fill a quota, she adds. What she would like to do with her work is get to a point where black people are represented in a natural, realistic way.

Find more images here.
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