Women of Wednesday: Oriana Koren on Storytelling and the (White) Boys’ Club of the Photo Industry

WOMEN OF WEDNESDAY is a weekly micro-interview series featuring women of color in various industries and walks of life, focused on highlighting their pursuits and making it easy for readers to support their endeavors. If you would like to be featured, please submit your answers to the below five questions here.

Oriana Koren, 28, Writer & Photographer (Los Angeles, CA)

1. Tell us about the work you’re doing and why it’s important.

In all that I do as a photographer and writer, I work toward highlighting the contributions of women and people of color,particularly in the food and entertainment industry. The stories I love to tell most often center around the contributions of women of color in the food industry, primarily because the act and art of cooking is very dear to me (I wanted to be a chef for most of my life and I grew up in my grandmothers’ kitchens) but also because a profession that was once ridiculed for being primarily “women’s work” and primarily black and brown women work, has become incredibly whitewashed and centered around a sort of Columbusing by white dudes.

Cooking is an incredibly intimate act and a means of preserving, celebrating, and passing down culture, so I tend to focus on stories that put women and their respective cultural heritage at the forefront of their work. My writing veers much in this direction as well — I like profiling chefs who are moving towards egalitarian approaches to making good food accessible to the masses and not to certain wealthy segments of society. I also enjoy writing about black culture and the ways black folks creative contributions are taken for granted in pop culture, music and food as well. I like to think that I’m carving a very specific place for myself by seeking out the stories that get overlooked simply because the industry thinks there is no interest in these stories or these people, but every time I pitch a piece or photo story, there’s such an excitement for these ideas that it really gives me hope a huge shift is getting ready to occur.

2. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in pursuing the work that’s important to you?

There aren’t very many visible successful black photographers let alone a black woman so there is a bevy of preconceived notions of what I can and can’t do because there are very few examples of it being done. This is not to say there aren’t a shit-ton of incredibly talented black women with cameras — I know a whole hell of a lot of them personally and it’s mind-blowing how good they are — it’s just that we get lost in the shuffle of ‘women’ photographers for a few reasons: 1) we’ve got to contend with the idea that ‘women’-anything typically encompasses white women only, 2) many of the decision-makers in the photo industry (photo editors, art buyers, managing editors, etc.) are often white women who, whether they realize it or not, either feel the need to obtain the same power white men have had in the industry or are afraid (or don’t want to) to look outside of the pool of photographers who are ‘hot’ in the industry at the moment and those photographers are overwhelmingly white men. So you’re seeing the same sort of approaches to picture making over and over again because the same dudes are getting hired by the same women over and over again. It’s boring. I also can’t think of too many white women in the industry that get as much work as some of the white dudes shooting right now (there are certainly a handful but the photo industry is still a boys’ club through and through), so in that way, no one is really advocating for decision-makers to think outside of the box and give some assignments to folks who aren’t known well yet but have a lot of talent and show a lot of promise. I’ve been blessed that my work speaks for me so when I show my work, there’s little doubt that I can’t go out on assignment and kill it, but I am also aware that if there were more black women getting some shine, I’d be at a much different level in terms of getting assignments and getting work. Here in Los Angeles, I’m a bit of an oddball too because my photography isn’t on trend and I don’t work exclusively out of a studio, so I have a flexibility and versatility that’s sort of becoming a lost skill. I can shoot in a busy hot kitchen, I can shoot in a studio with a large crew, I can shoot on location with natural light and strobes, I can shoot with a small kit and a speedlite. I can shoot literally anything, anywhere, and I do and I think that has definitely set me apart from the pack.

3. What do you need in order to continue your work in the way you envision?

I need my industry to be more open-minded. When I write, no one cares too much where I’ve been published, just that I can tackle the pitch in a way that is interesting, well-written, and captivating, so it makes me feel like I have some expertise in how I handle big thoughts and ideas on paper. When it comes to photography, there is this feeling of having to prove yourself which I get especially on bigger assignments and gigs where you can’t fuck up because a brand or company is dishing out a large sum of money to get an expected result, but sometimes this idea of proving yourself can take the fight out of really brilliant image makers who ended in a cycle of taking on small gigs where they can’t flex their muscles or creatively problem solve to continually make beautiful work. In order for me to make good work, I have to be shooting frequently and while test shoots are fun, it’s not the same as being given an assignment and being told to work with whatever limitations or expectations a client provides you. It makes you think in a different way, it forces you to go outside of yourself as an artist and really adapt to the situation, subject, place that you are photographing. I grow with each assignment I shoot and I am able to make a living and still work hard to push myself to be a better image maker every time I go out. I don’t like being comfortable, I like being challenged, but it’s a tough thing to do when you are stressed out about making rent on time or stressed out about if you’ll have enough money to feed yourself or keep your equipment properly serviced. Everyone holding a camera has a unique way of seeing the world around them and that makes the imagery in the editorial and commercial sphere that much more effective and memorable, but if the photo industry can’t escape it’s problem with being exclusive and restrictive, it’s ultimately going to hurt us all at the end of the day.

4. Where and how can we support you to make #3 happen?

Advocate for a more inclusive industry! Recommend more women of color and black women to decision makers! Pay emerging photographers in such a way that they can focus on making good work and not panicking about keep their lights on or a roof over their heads! Decisions-makers, give more assignments to emerging photographers with potential and promise! White dudes, pass on assignments to more women in the industry, tell editors you work with about talented women you know and insist that they take a chance on those women the way they took a chance on you at one point! Pay folks a fair rate for their hard work! Stop paying freelancers on a 30-day pay cycle — if you get images from me within 48 hours, cut me a check at the end of the week and while we are at it, pay freelancers via Direct Deposit! Stop forcing photographers to sign contracts that are rights-grabs: let us keep the rights to our images! Buy fine art prints from photographers when you can. Invest in our art — it’s literally our livelihood.

5. What is your favorite quote?

“I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” — Audre Lorde. Success means being deliberate in your actions and casting fear aside to find clarity and strength to make your dreams happen!