White Guy Photography Part 2

So the response to White Guy Photography post was interesting. I’ve never had a post take off like this. Seriously. WordPress sent me the following backhanded compliment yesterday.


Yeah, no one reads my blog. So I’m finding it pretty flattering that so many people seem to care about what photography projects I find boring.

I’m also starting to receive some interesting comments on that post. Much more interesting than the comments on the only other post which has ever taken off. Yes. I know. Never read the comments. But I have no choice on my own blog. In any case, I’m, so far, finding myself interested in responding to them. Not in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” way but just because what was intended to be some naval-gazing into why I found myself bored by certain projects has been picked up and turned into:

  • Me being an anti-white racist.
  • Me criticizing HONY.
  • Me bitching and moaning and whining.
  • Me bitching and moaning and whining without offering any solutions to address the problem.
  • Me being consumed with white guilt.
  • Me being a shitty photographer trying to tear down good photographers.
  • I’m somehow the judge of what is acceptable photography for a white guy to practice.

I can see where these readings come from and there’s a significant part of me just hanging my head and shaking it ruefully—partially at myself—but also at the number of people who like to parachute into a blog spouting insults and trying to mansplain why a single post is wrongheaded. This might work on some blogs but most blogs I read consist of posts which tend to build on and reference each other. Mine is no exception. My blog, especially the photography portion, involves me thinking about my reactions to art and trying to figure out why I react the way I do.

In the case of White Guy Photography, I realized there are a lot of photographic projects which I see and immediately click out of all because they trigger the same sort of reaction. My brain tosses it into the “white guy photography” pile and I move on to the next tab. Should my brain call it “white-privilege, colonial-view” photography instead? Probably. But it doesn’t. Does this make me an anti-white racist? I don’t think so.

I use “white guy” the same way I use “haole.”

If, as a white guy, the worst stereotype I have to combat is the assumption that I’m not checking my privilege, then that pretty much confirms my privilege.

If, as a white guy, you’re offended at this stereotype. Be thankful that this is the only stereotype you’re fighting.

In any case, the intent of my post was to think about why I was not interested by those photography projects. Especially because there are a lot of them—many of which are actually quite beautiful to look at.* I tried my hardest to avoid actually criticizing HONY itself since it’s the only project I specifically named. I haven’t looked at it enough to be able to offer a legitimate critique. I was only trying to figure out why my gut reaction was what it was.

*Yes, something can be both beautiful and boring.

Am I complaining about White Guy Photography? A little. I’m more tired than annoyed though. It’s not worth the effort to complain over and over again. The self-examination to find why I react the way I do was good and, as a white guy, worthwhile so I avoid trying to make work which would bore me.

Why don’t I offer any solutions? Two reasons. One is is that the solution of seeking out photographers representing themselves and their own communities were referenced in previous posts—notably Blinders. The other is that publishing the post itself is part of my proposed solution. Not by myself, but just in terms of putting it out there that I find this kind of approach to be boring may be useful in causing other people to think about how they present their work. I’ve had discussions which suggest that I’m not alone in feeling this way and so just the awareness that this kind of thing is potentially boring to a lot of people should serve as a warning to anyone starting a project.

Is this white guilt speaking? Not really. I’m mainly tired with the viewpoint because it’s old and worn out and I’d like to see different approaches or ways of framing the photos.

Am I a shitty photographer trying to tear down better ones? I try to play nice on the internet and not tear anyone down. I’d much rather write about what I like and I’d much rather spend my time and effort looking at things I enjoy looking at. Still, I find it important to explore my other feelings—good, bad, or ambivalent—just to become more self-aware about my tastes and opinions. Writing about something I dislike is harder too because it’s often a much more nuanced discussion. I try to articulate exactly what and why I react the way I do. It’s too easy to just be a troll on the internet.

One thing I can attack though is the idea that I’m unqualified to speak on photography because my own photos are crap. That’s elitist garbage. Anyone can have an opinion on art. The trick is to figure out why you have that opinion. And that’s the whole reason I have this blog.

Also, please stop asking me if your project is somehow an acceptable project for a white guy to do. Odds are that if you care at all about not falling into this category, you won’t. Being aware of your privilege is usually enough to avoid abusing it. But if you want a primer on avoiding it, it’s almost all about the framing of the project.

Present it as personal as you can and acknowledge that it’s your point of view. Collaboration is not the colonial viewpoint. And don’t treat people like animals or objects.

Also, keep in mind that this advice is related to how to create a project I don’t find boring. Other people’s taste will obviously vary.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

60 thoughts on “White Guy Photography Part 2”

  1. I’ve always wondered how come there wasn’t a “White European Ethnic” food section in the supermarket. For that matter a “Massive Corporate Industrial Calorie” section also.

    1. As a Californian, I’ve been in plenty of ethnic supermarkets with white-person-food aisles. They have to keep the peanut butter someplace.

      I second your comment on the supersized calories section though.

    2. Funnily enough, when I was in Florida, I did see imported English food in the “Ethnic Food” (later renamed “International Food”) section at the local supermarket. :)

  2. I’m not going to go read the other comments, but I wanted to let you know that I found your original article insightful. I (a white guy) have been contemplating making a trip to NYC just for photography’s sake. But other than “it seems like the thing I should do” I couldn’t quite figure out _why_ I should do it. You’ve described the inclination I was feeling, and given it a name. For that, I thank you.

    1. I’d hate to think I dissuaded you from a trip to NYC. There are plenty of great things to do, see, eat, photograph, etc. there. I don’t go nearly enough.

      But if my friend went to NYC, I’d think I’d like to see photos which look like how my friend sees the world, not like my friend trying to ape someone else’s style.

  3. What I find interesting about people saying “well you didn’t offer solutions!” is it’s indication of the ‘I want someone ELSE to tell me how to do it” philosophy in our culture.

    the solution very clearly would be to read the article, pay attention to one’s own work, and find a way to fix it. If you have to read a blog post telling you how to “fix” your own work, you’re probably lacking in the creativity department. Sure, there are blogs and blog posts that outline how to do a specific thing, but this didn’t strike me as one of them. First we must identify the issue (as you have done) and then check ourselves.

    It’s just good to be aware, really.

    As for you and your findings, it is VERY self-aware on your part to figure out what about certain imagery was boring you. Too bad everyone isn’t as self-aware. They are too busy comparing themselves to other people. “Is my photography better than hers/ is his better than mine? Mine’s better than yours!”

    Just wanted to say those few things. Thanks for your articles!

  4. I really appreciate what you wrote, and the backlash only served to show how entrenched and virulent some of the problems are. Take heart. You’ve inspired at least a few openhearted people. I hadn’t checked out your work before I saw the Petapixel post. Glad I did now.

  5. I’m trying to be sympathetic so bear with me, please. Can you tell me in a ten word declarative statement what the problem is? It would improve the clarity, I believe.

              1. Except that you never mentioned Mr Hall in any of your rants. Sorry, you’re moving goalposts as you go.

                1. I wrote about representation. Since you’ve demonstrated that you don’t understand what that term means, I pointed you toward the expert. Not moving the goalposts. You just need to learn the rules of the game.

  6. I understand you completely. I have to admit that I do like the stories of HONY but I find your point of view completely valid. Aaaaand I’m going to give you my point of view on your website (it’s not an attack, but an example of the same point of view applied to you)

    Have you seen the photography contests? I hate that whenever there’s a photography contest people admire and prize the same lame photographic skills: a 5-year-old black boy with no front teeth in underwear smiling and showering with a garden hose. OR a 6 year old poor girl carrying her baby brother with a look of “uh… what’s that?” in the end of the day that’s a recipe that works.

    There are photographers and people with expensive cameras who die to be like a hipster complaining about everything that is not from Mac.

    Now. Your blog. You are falling in the same thing. We can call it “white guy website”. And you are doing the same cliché I’ve seen in thousands of websites: 1. grayscale ; 2. “minimalistic” ; 3. white plain background; 4. dramatic closeup-of-something picture.

  7. Just wanted to say I’ve read both of your posts and it seems very obvious you’ve made very valid and largely unrecognized points, which to me, are essentially, take responsibility as a photographer. Make art the way you see it, instead of trying to take pictures that you think will be oohed and aahed by society because other people “get it” or seems to be the mainstream.
    So thank you! Here’s to being a regular reader.

  8. Photo groups weren’t for me, I determined, not because I was for far too long the only black person there. Much more because I got tired of seeing so many international people treated like a curiosity requiring intense study and examination. It actually bothered some when I pictured white people in unflattering poses.

  9. If I’m ever gonna visit New York, I’m gonna see exotic, dangerous people in _everyone_, because that’s how most Europeans see Americans. After all, even the USA are just a European colony. :P

    Joking aside though, I think most “serious” photography projects fail because of their own ambitions of being “serious”. I don’t know the HONY project in particular, but I think there is an abundance of “street photography” photos that simply settle with depicting _anything_, as if the meaning is just a question of the most dramatic interpretation. I often wonder what the message behind them is supposed to be, other than banalities like “here we have a post-pubescent female wearing a skirt” or “this is an olderly black person making a tired face”. They pretend to be serious, yet they really are just shallow and lazy. I think photos are the most interesting when they tell a story; personally, I’m most inspired by Elliott Erwitt. I always try to photograph positive things like humor or interactions between people. My photos are my deeply personal view of the world and completely unserious – I leave documenting other cultures to photo journalists. I think the world is too serious already, so there is no need for so many pretend-serious photographers on top of that.

  10. I won’t deny the existence of white privilege or male privilege, but it’s kind of absurd to basically go “this sort of work bores me, and it’s because white guys make it”. At least your attention grab worked, but you didn’t say anything reasonable, instead you wrote something prejudiced which is tenuously connected, through popular social justice buzzwords, to real, serious issues.
    Plus you’ve put biracial folks like myself into an awkward position. Do we exist or not, can I take pictures of places and people who interest me or not? I’ll make sure the white side doesn’t (or only the white side does?) for the people like you.

    1. It’s not because white guys make it. It’s because it presents a white-privilege viewpoint. One thing, possibly the only thing, I was clear about the fact that what I’m talking about is not just photography by white guys.

      Regarding the biracial point of view. If you’re lucky enough to pass as different races, it gets interesting. I’m lucky enough to be able to choose white privilege if I choose to. I generally choose to be white because I’m lazy. But I’ve been on the other side of the equation in the past.

  11. I suppose I might add that when one lives in the U.S. it is easy to presume that certain things are “white” because you see white people here doing those things all the time. But you have to remember most of the world is not white, and there are a lot of people who are not white who do things that one as an American may easily presume to be “white”.

    Unfortunately, I think your article may be a victim of this sort of U.S.-centric worldview. I’m just pointing this out in case my tongue in cheek comment above goes over your head. Not to be intelligence insulting, but your original article seems to suggest you (ironically) hadn’t considered the possibility that most people on this planet aren’t white, and that what you regard as a white attitude towards photography, isn’t necessarily just a “white guy” thing.

    1. I’m well aware that most people aren’t white. I’m just tired of seeing new projects which presume that I need a white guy in order to explain to me who those people are.

      1. Hmmm. I understand this thought, but there is a difference between a white guy presuming he is the best to do this sort of thing because he is white and a man, and living in a society where there are a lot of white men who do these things because there are a lot of white men and doing these things is popular.
        In both cases white privilege and male privilege come into play, but there is a difference in intent and arguably in consequence.

        1. Also in timing. That point of view was useful and productive in the past. I just don’t think there’s much meat left on the bones there.

  12. How dare you have an opinion, sir!

    Joking aside, I personally found your post thoughtful and relevant. I’ve felt very similarly for a while about such photography, but didn’t have a name for it, nor did I think to write about it. At the end of the day conversations such as these are helping to break down the privilege barriers that exist in various segments of our population.

    Not to spiral into a whole ‘nother topic about majority privilege, but…

    It’s not always about marching down to the capitol building armed with signs and strong feelings. People seem to think so, though.

    The subtle, de facto practices that come from being culturally privileges are much harder to point out and change. You can’t make a law telling white guys not to do street photography of non-white people. Or tell straight people they can’t take pictures of LGBTIQ people. Or tell Christians that they can’t take photos of people of other faiths. All consensual, of course. But you can make it known that there is a fine line you walk when you actively seek out difference, and then take it even further and make a project out of it. And you can even have an opinion on why it’s just not meaningful photography in general.

    It isn’t necessarily racist to do those kinds of projects. It doesn’t make the privileged bad people. It really makes it that much more frustrating because it’s so painfully unintentional and well-intended in many cases.

    But fill in the blanks with any majority segment.. it all comes back to the same point. Check your privilege before you act. Easier said than done, admittedly, but someone has to start pointing it out in order for people to begin to notice it.

    As someone who has only just gotten a DSLR, these conversations in the context of photography are fascinating to me.

    God speed to you now that you’re internet famous.

  13. I totally agree with both posts. As a white guy myself, I’m so bored with the crap that counts as photographic “art” out there right now, my own work included sometimes. It seems we’re at a real paradigm shift as we move forward into the next stage of photography now that everyone is documenting every aspect of their own lives.

    I don’t mean to trash talk HONY, but it’s boring and a gimmick. He’s not bringing anything new into the world, he’s using the internet to gain some popularity, which is fine, but at the moment he’s simply a photography version of Paris Hilton. We’ll have to wait and see what his next project is to see if he has any chops.

    Here’s my own attempt to try something new and push my own perspective of what I see in the world and how I’ve been dealing with myself as a white guy in a progressively changing world.


    “If your life isn’t scary, you aren’t doing it right.”

  14. Perhaps you should have called it Rich Guy Photography? Because as far as I can tell, it’s the photography from a privileged position that bothers you (and me to some extent) not anything to do with race, regardless of what the demographics of rich guys tend to be.

      1. Arguably, wealth will buy you privilege just about anywhere in the world, and in many places being white is worth a lot less than having money in terms of gaining privilege. Even in countries that haven’t been sold capitalism=good incessantly, money talks. Money too is the root the worst kinds of prejudice and racism, both historically and currently, but I digress.

  15. What a cry up the sky! Unfortunately dislandisation of the world is omnipresent as is the young generation instagramisation. Clic a pic, think a d… , todays 99c snapshot tomorrows milion dollar art object.
    Cèst la vie. By the way, I checked your web with the pictures almost devoid of humans. I hope you`re not tired of them, too. Cheer-up.

    1. FWIW, if you poke around this blog, you’ll see that most of what I shoot is my friends and family.

      But it’s true, my website is pretty devoid of humans. Mainly because it’s 90% photos I shot on my lunch break when I wanted to get take a break from the workplace.

  16. Well isn’t disliking populist photography just the most elitist white guy thing to do? All you’re really saying is that you don’t like kitschy art. Cool man.
    And your own work is very much in the vein of the Becher school, surely thats an “old and worn out” viewpoint if ever there was one.

    1. I think you mean Baltz, not Becher. Though you’re in the same New Topographics neighborhood.

      It’s not the populist things I’m resisting. It’s the white guy explains the world viewpoint. My photos are “tech worker takes photos during his lunchbreak.” I’m not making any larger claims than that.

  17. I appreciate your candor! and any attempt to explore one’s creative habits for the sake of expanding their vision is admirable. Thanks for sharing.

  18. When I tried to enter the world of photography in the 70’s, all photography was white guy photography. I didn’t fit in as a woman and as a mexican. The blog sounded funny to me like white guy photography is a niche.

    I understand how you use the term, like I use the term white people food for meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, potato salad. Things I never knew existed til I was 14 or 15. I ate Jewish food with Jewish friends and they were white but not white people. I guess it’s point of view?

    How fun that a blog that pissed people off got you some viewing and commenting action. It caused lots of discussion amongst a photographers group I hang out with on the internet, mostly old white guys.

  19. Your post sent me to check out HONY for the first time. The taste-level is certainly aimed right down main street (probably one of the few photo projects that non-photographers pay any attention to), but at worst its innocuous. I don’t see it as an example of unchecked white privilege, but your spidey sense is no doubt more finely tuned than mine. I too am bored by what you call ‘white guy photography’ projects, though mostly because they are examples of the middle class exoticising the lower class – its just lazy and there’s too much of it but its by no means the sole domain of white people. I live it Asia and see plenty of this from the locals.

  20. It’s like the song says:”All the Good Songs Have Been Written.” The same goes for photos. Flickr reached six billion photos uploaded back in 2011. Add to that billions more photos from other photo sharing sites and private sites and you have to ask yourself:” Do we really need another photo of XXX or YYY? How many more photos is humanity going to take until the sun burns out? What is the environmental impact of this incessant need to photograph everything?” Truth is, photography is too easy and has developed into a Volkssport. “I photograph, therefore I am” seems to be the motto here. Too many photographers are like seagulls: they fly in, make a lot of noise, s**t on everything, and fly away again without giving a second thought as to what they photographed and why. Achievement has been replaced with presentation.

  21. I ran across your original post on white guys on petapixel. As a privilaged whitw guy myself I’ve often found myself feeling uncomforatable with the exotic photos of people who live on mach less, per year, than I spend on a holiday to see where they live. Not only does that kind of photography smell of colonialism, it isn’t even original. It smacks of an incredible lack of imagination to have to shoot the exotic. It also smacks of arrogance to believe that that an outsider white guy like me has anything relevant to offer to a culture about which I know little

  22. Very thought provoking posts. I’ve enjoyed them and they have got me thinking. I dig that.

    Are you familiar with Ruddy Roye, the ‘Instagram Activist’? (http://instagram.com/ruddyroye) He is an African American man focusing on inner-city poverty in Brooklyn. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on him. What do you think of his work and social commentary? Do you find him to be a good example of a photographer breaking out of the ‘white guy’ norm and providing a unique viewpoint on social issues?

  23. As someone who has dabbled in photography for several decades I could not agree more with Vossbrink. There is far too much white guy porn in photography these days: Urban Blight Porn, War Porn, Poverty Porn, Foreign Culture Porn, Extreme Sport Porn, you name it, its there, in millions and millions of look alike images spread over the Internet. Everyone’s a star photographer.

  24. I am feeling disheartened over the current HONY UN tour. In the process of formulating my own thoughts, I came across your two posts on “white guy photography.”

    First, I instantly understood the title. I think any white person who tries to be quasi-aware of history, and um reality, would as well. I also speak about “white people” as a sort of shorthand for the presumed universal, static, and imperial metaculture.

    I also wanted to say I do enjoy looking at the HONY site, though it may be somewhat specific to being a New Yorker. I know he traveled here from Chicago, but the project still seems very rooted in this specific place. That is because New Yorkers aren’t very chummy to strangers. The Facebook page has essentially become its own entity, centered largely around people complimenting one another from the safety of their computers. And sharing their own life stories in relation to the quotations. And, yes, a lot of unrelated bickering. But I think this community aspect cannot be separated from the photographs (and tellingly, his website alone was not successful).

    That said, I completely agree with every single point you made. It’s a legitimate frame on the project, while not being the only one. This discussion should be part of any such endeavor, without people having to pre-apologize for getting too close to the truth.

    But back to my original point. What felt to me a homey, all-in-the-family, relational Facebook page has taken on epically bizarre proportions under the auspices of the United Nations. Brandon is now trotting across the globe clustering strangers in identical formations as New Yorkers, summarized in a few tidy sentences. There is little to no context on the various regions, and no information on how the tour is being conducted.

    Some of the images have been quite good, in my estimation, and fill a need for stories of people whose governments usually only make the news. But there is also a false equivalency as he moves from place to place with so little transparency or backdrop. And he still seems to live in the dream cloud that his work is “not political.”

    Meanwhile the colonial gaze is alive and well in the comments section, which leaves me seasick every day. Apparently Americans still see these “exotic” bodies as noble savages, charity cases, or foreign erotica.

    After witnessing all this, I begin to second guess the entire phenomenon of HONY. There is more to think through, but your articles fill an important need in dissecting the HONY gaze (while knowing you did not mean to single this site out). Anyhow if you are inclined, I feel a third installment would be very interesting as the site now has global proportions.

  25. ” So I’m finding it pretty flattering that so many people seem to care about what photography projects I find boring.”

    Given both the title and the subject matter of the post(s) in question, maybe they care about that less than they do disabusing both you and whoever else might be reading of certain stereotypes you’re still harboring about “other”ing people.

    Especially if “they” don’t happen to be white guy photographers themselves (but photographers nonetheless).

    /just a thought

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: