In conversation with Sara Urbaez
Edited for length and clarity

INDUSTRY TALK with Oriana Koren

[Note to our readers: This is our first Industry Talk feature, where we dive in with artists and reflect on our experiences navigating the photography industry. A huge thank you to Oriana for their fierce candidness. - Sara]

Oriana, where would you like to start, what would you want our readers to know about you?

I grew up bilingual, speaking Haitian Creole and English. I come from a half-Black immigrant family, half-Black American family. For both groups, education is incredibly important, but specifically for West Indian and Caribbean immigrants — people who sacrifice a lot to leave the islands to come here to build better futures for their kids.

The Dominican Republic is where I am from, and Haiti shares the same island— what an interesting connection! 

My mother copied her Haitian experience onto her American experience. This is a woman who comes from a country that's been colonized, so whether or not she can articulate it, she has an understanding of what it is like to live and move around in a world with colonizers as a colonized person. I think it was a comfortable, easy fit for her because certain things come with the idea of success, right? And for her American mind, it was, “My kids have to go to all the best schools from pre-K through college.”

The way that I approach my photographic work, it's with the same sort of rigor I learned in Montessori, in private prep, in the baccalaureate program. I've never been able to separate that kind of thinking and learning from making pictures.

In what ways has the industry failed you to the point where you are no longer interested in doing assignment photography? It's important for people in the industry to understand how their actions impact BIPOC creatives. Even if you have all the credentials, all the education, you're still confronted with so much racism.

I was talking to a friend about this yesterday. I'm not working in galleries because of this. And I decided I wasn't going to work as a wedding photography editor because I ended up getting fired from that job. Not because I did anything wrong, but because I became my boss’ target whenever she got pissed off about something. So her husband pissed her off one day and I ended up losing my job off of that.

I’ve gotten to the point where I can't do assignment photography anymore. Every time I have to invoice someone, some white person talks crazy to me about money that I worked hard for, that I earned — they talk to me as though I didn't earn that money, like I’m not entitled to that money. They act like I'm annoying them because I'm asking for money owed to me. Imagine having to do that every assignment for five years.

The economics of it all is a huge part. Some artists do not have generational wealth and rely on their creative work as their main source of income. How do you feel about the hiring editors you’ve worked with previously? Do you feel they're informed about how they're assigning work?

I have a handful of Black and or non-Black of color editors I've worked with — it's a handful, maybe five.

I would say 98% of my work comes directly from white decision-makers and photo editors. That's when I started to recognize this might end up being a very similar situation to weddings, except you have to deal with lots of different people in lots of different places at lots of different companies.

But the one thing that's always been consistent is — and I hate to say it — this recent generation of photo editors is lacking all the way around. Many of them don't study photography. They don't do anything about it until they have a photo editing job. That's unacceptable.

That resonates with me  I got a college degree in art history and photography. I put in years of work and study then to see people just waltz in: “Oh, this seems like an easy job and field to move into and not to hold people across the industry to any sort of standard!” It’s demoralizing. I have seen some incredibly horrible, lazy, complacent ways of doing work from extremely privileged and unqualified editors.

Privilege — yep. Last year

I shot my first national food magazine feature. I have been working for five years. I had to shoot two cookbooks before I got a national feature magazine. This is how backward the industry is when it comes to this idea that Black people especially have to prove that they should get the jobs.

This is important to talk about. Who's given opportunities, and what is it based on?

Yes — for me, whenever it came for any sort of a job, if I didn't have examples of it in my portfolio, I would get passed on for assignments. Yet many white male photographers are just given the benefit of the doubt that their work is great: “We'll hire them!”

It's the sort of thinking that comes when you're a person who has not in any way, shape or form deeply engaged in intimate relationships with Black people. Because if these people were actually in a relationship with us, they would know our capacities and capabilities before assigning us to work.

These practices of hiring the same photographers repeatedly is such a disservice to photography. This is the reason why people don't understand what photo editing is and don't take our work seriously — they think anyone can do our jobs because the industry is filled with people who never studied photography, express no interest expanding their understanding of art, and aren't capable of doing their jobs.

It makes it hard for me as a photographer to do my job properly. A lot of what is running me out of assignment photography is that they’re not paying me enough to do my job well. And they’re certainly not paying me enough to do my job, their job, and probably two or three other people's jobs.

Before assigning me work, there is a certain amount of work that they’re required to do as a photo editor. They don't get to then just push that off on their freelancers. And that's not specific to me as a Black freelancer. For the last six or seven years, all freelancers have been doing additional work because the photo editors they are working with are not trained.

By the time you are working as an assignment photographer and working on the front lines, you should be a master at your craft. That's what I was told you needed to be in order to get to those positions. So when I'm talking to people who've been in the business for years and I'm telling them shit that they don't know — that is unacceptable to me. You have the Pulitzers, you get $10,000 to speak at conferences, but you actually don't know anything about the medium or the genre you're working in? How does that happen?

I have to be the one who knows everything. I have to be able to speak in perfect paragraphs so people can quote me for their inclusion and diversity initiatives. And I get a pat on the back for being rigorous, but what's going on with Joe Blow? Why aren't you challenging him in that same way?

You're the person who's reading the images to decide whether or not it makes sense to the narrative that is being pushed, if it matches the text that it's being put next to, if it's going to cause any ethical or moral issues in terms of the general public viewing the imagery — these are the things that photo editors are supposed to be thinking about.

A lot of them are very lucky to be working with photographers who are already a step ahead and thinking that way, but that's not every photographer. And that's an issue for me — the number of people who are succeeding at this work, who don't care about it, who don't understand the medium’s history, who don't engage with the theory of the medium.

I have seen many people with hiring power throw money and assignments at their privileged friends who don’t need it — that's money and opportunity a different artist could have. I think there's a disconnect of not understanding how that perpetuates racism and furthers the gap.

What makes this moment in time interesting is about five months ago, we all found out that we were broke. I know lots of people in the industry who, because of the way they were curating their Instagrams and because of what they were telling and what they were omitting, seemed like they were doing pretty good. And then the economy fails and we're told that we can't go to work. And all of a sudden everybody doesn't have money, which means no one was making money in the industry to begin with.

I do this because of survival. I don't do this because I particularly like calling people out on their bullshit. I can't do your job, do mine, be underpaid, and then also have to walk around with years of PTSD. I can't do all of those things — something's got to give. So for me, one way of removing pressure and stress from the work that I'm doing is to talk about the reasons why there is pressure and stress. It's also not lost on me that the handful of Black photographers who have been doing this work for years did not necessarily matriculate into an industry where they could openly air grievances and not be severely punished for it.

So all these experiences — how do they connect to colonialism for you?

The pictures we think about when we think about the civil war — pictures that were manipulated to bolster the conspiracy theory of the lost cause — give you the backbone for American white supremacy, which is part and parcel with colonialism and imperialism. I think about the fact that the camera was used to help build illustrations of differences in humans for the junk science that is eugenics. I just don't know how anyone can pick up a camera and not think about the fact that the camera has been an exploitative tool.

People who say they “take pictures” are people who are highly suspicious to me, because I know you're not engaging in your practice in an ethical or moral way — you're taking versus collaborating with people. I just don't know how you look at the history over time and not see that colonialists and imperialism have weaponized the medium  for white supremacy.

Gordon Parks brought humanity to his images. He made very specific decisions, which shows me how engaged he was both with the history of photography and the ways in which photography has been used. In  the Atmosphere of Crime assignment, He chose to focus on the behavior of the policeman versus the “criminals” they were supposed to be capturing. the way he obscured faces, the way he protected the anonymity of the people that he was in collaboration with, and the nuance in which he also observed the policeman is startling. It's unlike anything you've ever seen in regards to crime photography.

This man gets no due for what he has done when it comes to the work that he's put behind a camera. We don't talk about Gordon Parks the way we talk about Henri Cartier-Bresson. We don't talk about James Van Der Zee the way we talk about fucking Annie Liebowitz. It’s the kind of aggravation I felt in college — constantly having the same white photographers shoved down my throat. I loved Bresson, but why the fuck did it take until I turned 30 to find out that Zora Neale Hurston was also a photo-ethnographer?

That's great that editors are starting to assign Black photographers, but what are you doing to enhance your visual references, your understanding of history? Black photographers have been doing this for a long time.

They didn’t just appear this year, and photography is also in conversation with many talented artists over hundreds of years. Without the kind of knowledge, it's reactive and it's not for the long haul — it has to be a much bigger shift. It's not just about hiring this one photographer, right? It's about what are you doing to build your connection with them? What are your visual references? What does your team look like? Your team is all white and you're just suddenly trying to hire all these photographers of color. Something is not right.

It's tied very much to this constant centering of white experiences. What concerns me is that it is a lack of seeing other people's humanity because there's no interest or curiosity. I have done so much work to learn about white culture. I constantly am navigating different worlds. It's disappointing that it doesn’t go both ways — why aren't you interested? Why aren't you asking me who my heroes are?

We have to know these things about white people because it's part of our survival. It behooves me to understand who they are and what makes their brains tick. On top of that, whiteness is the default — you have a bunch of white people running around thinking that everyone experiences the world the way they experience the world. And that is not true. We don't live in a society in which I just get to be a human being. Our society has always been a secret caste system — I am the lowest caste. And what comes with being the lowest caste is not so much invisibility of humanity, but that you don't have humanity at all.

We forget that when our people were brought here, white people decided to indoctrinate themselves into thinking that we were objects, not even human, not even subhuman -- objects. I'm not surprised that we are where we are right now, because that means the cognitive leap is just occurring — they recognized I might be human — and that's not good enough. Subhuman is not better than an object. I want my full personhood. I want my full humanity, but you as a white person have to do the unlearning. So that way you can recognize that I am as human as you are.

Is there anything else that you think needs to happen for there to be a meaningful shift?

I do. I'm taking a break from the industry because it is unconscionable for me to work in an industry that doesn't care about my humanity. I can't do it. There is not enough money, there are not enough accolades, there are not enough heroes for me to meet, to actively participate in my dehumanization. It is dehumanizing when I am simply asking about a payment, that's 180 days late. It is dehumanizing to constantly have to beg for work and pitch stories to get any semblance of work. I cannot do it anymore.

I would venture to say that if this industry is going to change, everyone needs to take a six month break and get real about their personal struggles and challenges — what makes it difficult for them to show their humanity at work. Nothing changes until everyone in the industry does the personal work, and now is the time. This is a moment of mass learning. There are lots of opportunities and lots of tools at your disposal.

As a white person, there are a couple of things that you need to be aware of. If you plan to turn toward anti-racist consciousness, you need to work on your fragility. The things that cause you great emotional distress are things I have to deal with on a regular basis that I don't have time to allow to cause me great emotional distress. I know how to function. If I can survive abuse, you can survive a conversation around the language of white supremacy. I promise you, you can. I am not accepting the excuses anymore.

Enough is enough. Pick up a journal and start writing. You need to learn to form opinions outside of your echo chamber and need to learn to form opinions outside of white supremacy. Some of those very messy, necessary conversations are “What does my moral and ethical compass look like? What are the behaviors that I will abide by? What are the behaviors I cannot abide by in myself and in others?” You need to know this. If you intend to work with humans in any way, shape or form, these things should not be dictated to you by ideology.  If you happen to be a white American, most of the media you consume only bolsters these ideas you have about me. It might behoove you to remove yourself from that — for probably the first time in your life — to think for yourself. If you are going to assign work to people who live making images, you need to think critically. The work that we do has an impact on how people think. And as such, it has an impact on how they behave.

We have a great responsibility to our society, and we need to start fucking acting like this is not just about making pictures of where the light looks pretty enough. If you're working at this level, that is not enough of a reason for you to take a photograph. If you’re not thinking about how the people in your frame will be affected over the long run when you hit that shutter button, you don't need to be a photographer. You can quote me on that shit.

It's a lot of people saying how they’re photojournalists and editors and photographers, and they’re this and that — but they don't know how to treat human beings.  I think we also have to be very real about the fact that we're all patting our backs about the work we make — and a lot of the work made is not particularly very good. It's not thoughtful. It's not nuanced. At some point, decision-makers, editors, you all have to think about whether or not it's more important for you to do exactly what you say to your clients you're going to do or if it's more important for you to hang out with your friends on set.

This is something I have witnessed countless times — gatekeepers hiring based on who they are friends with! That’s how racism is perpetuated. It's a strange inner circle that's not based on merit or work. It's based on your own bias of who you think is likable and capable.

Yes, it's cronyism and nepotism in action. I would hope that we are all getting a very clear picture of what it looks like when your business runs on cronyism and nepotism in this moment in time under this administration.

I know this is going to sound weird — especially to white people, because whether they can articulate it or not, white people think that someone like me should feel lucky that I'm doing this. I have been working as a photographer for the last 13 years of my life. I went to college for photography. I went to all these highly specialized schools so I could be a good college student so I could get my degree. To take it a step further, by the time I got to college, I understood what college was supposed to do for me. It was to give me the tools that I then needed to refine so I could become a professional. That is what I have done. Nothing was handed to me. I don't know anyone in this industry. My parents don't know anybody in this industry. And if I was capable of doing that and if I'm capable of doing all of the things I've done in my industry — with all of the barriers and limitations I have to face — imagine what it would look like if I didn’t have those barriers or limitations.

I have moments of extreme doubt where I wonder why I’m even doing this. Some people were just given positions of power. I'm working hard — honestly, at times it feels as though I'm crawling. I don’t know what the end goal is for me. How do you deal with moments of doubt?

Those moments for me are when I pivot, which is what I'm doing right now. I'm stepping away from assignment photography because assignment photography is not where I can be effective at this moment in time. I want to come back to photography, which means I have to help build the sort of industry I want to be a part of. That also means I have to figure out what the dominant thinking is that has caused this industry to stagnate. And for me, it's just a deep lack of curiosity and a deep lack of education.

That's exactly what it is.

I think long game because I’m Black — I got nothing else but the long game. I don't get my rewards immediately. That’s how this country is set up. But I know that if I work in the moment for something bigger down the road, I will actually get to see that.

I am a person who, especially as a Black person, defies all expectations. I'm not supposed to be doing this — I'm not supposed to be running my mouth, I'm not supposed to be getting paid to make photographs, I'm not supposed to be traveling the world. At this point in my life, I've done everything that I've wanted to do in my journey in photography, then it feels like for me, as someone who's stepping into their eldership, it's time for me to open all the doors that were not open to me for other people. That's what I've been focused on. I'm not taking food pictures, I'm not taking traveling pictures, but you better believe I'm working on a group of people who can do it.

What an uplifting reminder for those of us who are in the industry, to uplift others. It’s important not just to say, “I’m leaving, this industry is a mess. Good luck.”

I'm taking a break, and by the time I come back, it's going to be very different. There's going to be a lot of people who are not going to be working in the industry. Not because I have anything to do with it, but because they will have to sit down and get real about the fact that they have been taking up space. They are working in places they don't even want to work in or give a fuck about except for the fact that it puts money in their pocket and allows them some social mobility. They need to go and they will go because the industry that returns is not going to be that kind of industry for them. You don't get to sit on your ass and make six figures doing nothing. That's not what this moment requires.

Visit Oriana’s website. 

LISTO / 2020 / OAK, CA