How To Promote Diversity at an Event by Diversifying the Photographers Covering It

We wanted better inclusion and representation at our music festival—so we offered support to a diverse group of photojournalists

Zainab Muse
Sep 20 · 8 min read
The A-team volunteers support people with disabilities at the 2019 RBC Bluesfest. Photo by Nicholas Place.

This was our dilemma: how could we engage a diverse audience at the kind of outdoor music festival that is typically seen from a white audience perspective?

We were all too familiar with headlines like, “The Uncomfortable Whiteness of America’s Most Famous Music Festivals”, “The kids are all white…”, and “Major Music Festivals Cultivate Diverse Lineups, Not Audiences.” We wanted to develop a new approach in order to showcase diverse groups. We chose to focus on the storyteller.

As a volunteer board member for the 2019 RBC Bluesfest Organization, I chair the diversity & inclusion committee. One of the initiatives I created and implemented was the social experiment of diversifying content creators at the festival; we called this experiment “The Eye”. In this article, I’ll share what I learned and how organizers of other events can diversify the photojournalistic and social media “eye” of their own events.


2019 RBC Bluesfest. Photo by Finn Lin.

The Experiment Design

We felt that if we invited members of established priority groups (youth, women, sexual diversity, racialized, low-income, indigenous, persons with disabilities) to capture photographs at RBC Bluesfest, we would diversify the point of view and range of experiences captured during the festival.

We used the following assumptions to help us design a solution:

  • If we want diverse people attending music festivals, we have to ensure that the people capturing the experiences via photography or videography come from diverse backgrounds.
  • Photographs design cultural experiences. Sometimes they exclude and sometimes they create inclusion.
  • Content captured during music festivals shows diversity in the line-up by capturing the performing acts. But diverse line-ups at music festivals don’t always correlate with diverse audiences.

How We Did It

We partnered with local grassroots and community-driven organizations in the city of Ottawa, Youth Ottawa and Hot Shoe Productions, to facilitate this project with well-known photographer and content creator, Finn Lin, founder of Finnsquare.

Youth Ottawa and Hot Shoe Productions put a call out for young, diverse and aspiring photographers within their network to pair up with Finn throughout the 10-day duration of the music festival. The criteria for participation was that these photographers had interests in photojournalism and that they identified with one or more of the festival’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee’s priority groups.

As photographers began to respond to the call-out, we knew we were onto something. Of all the responses, 10 photographers were selected. 70% were women-identifying, and all of them were between 18–34 years old. 40% identified as racially diverse, and 10% identified as persons with disabilities.

We gave selected photographers one mission — find a story at the festival, and capture it — the experiment officially kicked off on July 4th through July 14th, 2019 (the entire duration of the festival). One photographer was paired with Finn each day, creating a collaborative mentor-mentee relationship.

Of all the aspiring photographers enlisted for this experiment — due to time limitations — we didn’t get access to photographers that identify with the groups listed below, meaning we were missing lenses from the following perspectives at the festival:

  1. Indigenous people (First Nations, Inuit, Métis)
  2. Seniors
  3. 2SLGBTQ+ (‘2S’ for ‘Two-Spirit’ to acknowledge that Two-Spirit Indigenous people were the first sexual and gender minority people in North America, and also to demonstrate solidarity with them in this period of truth and reconciliation in Canada).

Results & Outcomes

Each photographer created a story, and importantly, we observed that the subjects captured in these photographs shared many similarities with the photographer. Women captured the experiences of women at the festival, and visible minority-identifying individuals captured more visible minority experiences at the festival. This result correlated with our hypothesis.

However, we also noticed from the photographs that although there were racially diverse audiences at the festival, the majority of festival-goers were, in fact, white. This further fuelled the chicken and the egg conundrum: When majority-white audiences attend outdoor music festivals because of various reasons and situational context, how do we drive a more diverse audience to the festival? There is obviously more work to be done.

Here are some of the resulting images captured at the festival by our photographers.

Nicholas captured the experiences of persons with disabilities at an outdoor music festival, along with the volunteers serving them.

Photos by Nicholas Place.

Reine captured the experiences of photographers that hang out in a section called ‘the pit’ during Bluesfest. These people often capture the artists and their performances for news and publication sites.

Photos by Reine Tejares.

Liz, an aspiring photojournalist and an award-winning spoken-word poet, captured the experiences of Black people at Bluesfest by creating a parallelism between Black culture and the Nike brand Air Force 1.

Photos by Liz Clarke.

Abdul captured the experience of a visible minority photographer at Bluesfest by following his experience at the festival and discovering new interests as they relate to the photographer.

Photos by Abdul Muse.

Olivia aimed to capture the experiences of millennials that don’t unplug from their cellphones while at music festivals.

Photos by Olivia Moore.

Conclusions

A free society is achieved through representation. Although this experiment began at an outdoor music festival, it is important that we challenge the storytelling mechanisms and channels through which content gets delivered to us in other ways as well. In the famous words of renowned philosopher and communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan — “the medium is the message.”

Beyond that, we are at a time in the world where diversity + inclusion have become buzz words for most organizations, and rightfully so! We need to continue to do more to share perspectives from diverse groups so that, collectively, we can try to accomplish inclusion. To quote Verna Myers, an inclusion strategist and cultural change catalyst, “diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

At a time where many music festivals are folding, we are increasingly seeing the importance of engaging with diverse communities and including their perspective at every stage, in order for festivals to grow sustainably and achieve longevity.

This experiment with content creators focused on just one thing events can do to foster inclusion. I would make all of these recommendations based on this and other work we did for diversity and inclusion at the festival:

  • Ensure you are working very closely with a diversity + inclusion task force.
  • Identify priority groups that don’t currently engage with your festival.
  • Host think tank sessions with members of identified priority groups and the organizations serving them so you can create connections and better understand how to achieve inclusivity, e.g. by removing the barriers preventing these audiences from participating.
  • Continuously engage these groups as you build the festival line-up and your marketing and communications tools.
  • Diversify the people working behind the scenes at the festival: board members, contractors, staff, volunteers.
  • Diversify the storytellers invited to capture the festival experience including photographers and videographers (you can use the structure of our experiment above to do this).

You will want to keep the momentum by constantly pivoting and iterating with an aim to drive inclusion every step of the way. Design your own experiments and evaluate what works and what the remaining challenges might be.

What we found, in this case, matched our expectations: in order for music festivals and other events to begin effective dialogue about inclusion, they should diversify the eyes of the person behind the camera lens capturing content at the event. But we also found that this dialogue was only the beginning — and that we have more work to do.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Zainab Muse

Written by

I process, therefore I am. I identify as a process designer, strategist, mission-driven entrepreneur and filmmaker. I write for the curious.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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