The problem with Landscape Photography and the Outdoors in general

I am, as I have said, a walking stereotype.

I live in Colorado. I drive a 4runner. I habitually wear pants that are profuse with pockets. Hiking boots are on my feet more often than not. I favor baseball caps. The only thing I keeping me from being that perfect stereotype is I shaved my beard. I am your typical Colorado white guy.

I go to the back country to hike, to bicycle, to camp, but mostly to take pictures.

Never, on any of my wanderings, have I run in to anyone who isn’t white and male doing those things.

I’ve never met, for instance, a Park Ranger that was not white. Which I think is wrong, given that the first Park Rangers were Buffalo Soldiers sent to protect the land.

And photography? Particularly landscape photography? Don’t get me started on that.

I follow Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin on Twitter. Time magazine included him in their list of 12 African-American Photographers You Should Follow Right Now. He captures L.A. in a way no other photographer I have seen does, documentary photography that is also landscape, perfect street photography that does not contain all the usual pitfalls. His vision of L.A. has far greater depth and texture than I saw when I was there. I was just looking at things. This man actually sees them.

Kwasi was asked about diversity in photography for an interview for the Black Shutter Podcast. His answer mirrored what I had seen: “I don’t really think photography is very diverse as a whole. I see some diversity among younger fashion photographers and also in photojournalism and street. I think one of the least diverse fields is landscape photography. But honestly I just don’t really see it being anywhere near as diverse as it should be.”

This is true.

If you search for African American landscape photographers, there aren’t that many. Dawoud Bey shows up in spite of his seeming aversion to having a web site. Cliford Mervil’s outdoor work is Instagram perfect. Why are photographers like them so rare?

Some time ago, I came across Carolyn Finney’s book “Black Faces, White Spaces”  but didn’t read it. I put it on my stack of books to read and it languished there until I went looking for it. It should be required reading for every white person who loves the outdoors. It explains why the outdoors, and the enjoyment of it, is so white.

To put it simply: white people have claimed the outdoors and refuse to allow it to be enjoyed by anyone else. The history of white folks in the outdoors is one of exploitation, theft, Jim Crow, and violence. We have not been good stewards of wild places. We have not been good people.

If our wilderness spaces are going to be proper and just, they must be places open to all to enjoy. They must be safe and welcoming to all.

When I was young, I used to spend time at a place that had a sign over the door reading: “TAKE YOUR RACIST, SEXIST, HOMOPHOBIC NAZI BULLSHIT OUTSIDE” After a while, people felt safe being there. They knew they could be in that space, watch a show, and not get hassled. That is the sort of action needed.

So, fellow white folks, it’s time for us to do the work. How can we make the outdoors safer and more welcoming? How can we protect and help both the land, and the people who come to it? How can we make access more equitable?

I’m still working that out. I am sure of a couple of things: it is the only right thing to do, and it should have been done a lifetime ago.

 

The header image is of an abandoned building at the site of Dearfield, CO. Dearfield was a majority black settlement on the eastern plains of Colorado that flourished for a while. The Great Depression and drought caused the townsfolk to move away, seeking better opportunities.

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