“If we, as cultural producers, arts organisations and creatives have permission for an image to be used, what is our ethical responsibility in terms of how that image is used to represent our commitment to diversity and inclusivity?” asked Dave Young at our Early Career Producers and Curators network meeting.

Dave aka The Shouting Mute is a young male performance poet, producer, director and artist. He has performed in the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad production of Breathe, as a participant in The Remix and participated in The Complete Freedom of Truth; Opera Circus Erasmus + international cultural youth leadership programme. He is now one of Diverse City’s Extraordinary Bodies Young Artists.

Dave’s question came out because particular photographic images of him has been used repeatedly by organisations, projects and programmes. He feels that these portrayals of his participation in the arts since his teens, are too often used and have passed the time where it is appropriate.

Why have his images been used so often? Because Dave speaks through his assistive computer and gets around in a wheelchair. Some might say, he provides great material for demonstrating diversity.

Are we representing people with integrity?

There are other performers and creative practitioners with visible differences whose images are also sought – relating to age, gender and ethnicity. They are hungrily captured to enable us (the arts and cultural sector) to show that we are inclusive in our delivery to our funders and the wider world.

These tensions remind me of the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey seminal (sic) essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, informed by Jacques Lacan theories around women as object of the male ‘gaze’.

Are we creating contemporary ‘objects’ with the capturing of these images – so the viewer looks at, becomes voyeur as we, the arts and culture organisations, create a narrative around this about our work and values?

Or are we telling stories of individual journeys with dignity, integrity and in the words of the person themselves, not merely using an image that fits our ‘brand’?

It is increasingly sensitive in 2018 when images go global in a flash online, and can be misrepresented easily. The world’s view of something or someone can be influenced by a single photograph, few think to question the integrity of the image, so it is really important that we are accurate in our labelling and to date them for context.

And what about those with less overt visible differences – around sexuality, mental health, economic deprivation, people with minority faiths? How does an organisation represent them with integrity?

The transgender young man, the new mother with anxiety and depression, the looked after child, the homeless man, the woman with early dementia, the boy with autism, the family at the Food Bank, the woman with PTSD, how should we articulate our work with them and which images do we use?

Why are we portraying these images?

Whilst I wrestled with these tensions, my lesbian daughter reminded me that these photographs displaying people’s differences tell her that the organisations showing them are aware and committed to diversity and inclusivity, which is a good thing.

We, in the arts and culture sector, are keen to ‘widen participation’ and ‘reach new audiences’ and images clearly serve to help with the promotion of our work to those audiences.

Should we continue doing what we have been doing?

I think our duty as cultural producers and creatives is to keep reflecting on how we ‘share’ and document this work.

We need to continue asking:

  • Which images are we using and why?
  • Are the images appropriate and still relevant to the story?
  • How are we telling the stories of people displayed in the photographs?
  • Does that story make a difference to others, and give them confidence to participate in arts and culture, which they might otherwise not?
  • Do we return to those people when we are still using their image years later to check how they feel about the use of their image?

Let’s dig deeper and ask are our images portraying diversity enough?

Is this a true representation of how we work? Do we stop at external portrayal of our work? What about internally? How are we representing difference within our organisations at Board and Worker level? Do we truly have inclusive recruitment processes? etc.

Are we truly doing enough work and advocacy to champion diversity?

Where are we with this in Dorset?