In September this year, Dr Laura Guimarães Corrêa and Dr Suzanne Temwa Gondwe Harris spoke to each other about Black representation within London’s urban advertising sector:
Suzanne: My forthcoming research is focuses on the representations of Blackness by the (I)NGO sector, which has faced numerous accounts of public scrutiny in relation to poverty porn, and more recently racism both internally and through the visual representations of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples in their campaign materials. Similarly, to the corporate marketing that you [Laura] reference in your work, (I)NGOs essentially focus on their bottom line rather than the wider implications that representations have on our communities both in the UK and on the continent. And when I think about representations of Blackness in the (I)NGO sector or on the streets of London, it always makes me think about the opening paragraphs of Mark Sealy’s book on Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time, where he argues that certain people remain ‘subjects’ in a “violent system of continual exposure”. For me, both (I)NGOs and the corporate brands you mention on Regent Street and King’s Road are fully aware of the power of their image making practices. It is not merely an aesthetic exercise of a photographer or content creator, but an exercise of social, cultural, economic and ideological power. While we as viewers can extract different meaning from what we see, the power to expose the public to these normative default constructions of race and ethnicity within these historically White dominant spaces exerts multiple meanings that many viewers often miss. For example, your point about the demographics of consumers on Regent Street and King’s Road illustrates how certain groups remain the viewers or spectators of Blackness and for Black and Brown bodies to be viewed, which reflects the same demographic split with those spectators of the starving, nameless, unsituated African child in (I)NGO campaigns. Therefore, attempts to address inclusion in my opinion can often further reinforce exclusion by symbolically legitimizing and naturalizing certain representations over others.
Have we seen more Black people in advertising since 2020? Yes. Is it a coincidence? No. Is it mainly lip service, without digging deeper into the underlying racism within the industry as a whole? I believe so, because having a Black face in an ad campaign doesn’t represent anything in and of itself—that should have been the bare minimum anyway. How the Black people—and mostly Black dark skinned women—are photographed, how they are treated, and for those who work in the industry, it’s important that their work and lives are made safe and without prejudice. I don’t see more Black families in billboards doing that on their own. How could they? (This is not directed at either women btw as their work is valid and I agree with their comments.)