Another One: It Took Over 50 Years For Rolling Stone Magazine To Let A Black Photographer Shoot The Cover

January 7, 2019  |  

Female Graphic Designers At Work

Source: filmstudio / Getty

In August 2018, Vogue Magazine hired Tyler Mitchell, a 23-year old African-American photographer, whose creative work has been commissioned by brands like Mercedes Benz and fashion designers including, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs.  He had shot for both Teen Vogue and Vogue before securing the gig, that occurred because Beyoncé (who run the world?) insisted on creative control over the September shoot and selected the young talent.

It took the brand 126 years, more than a human lifetime, to let a black person shoot the cover. Was it malicious? Possibly not. However, it is dense and indicative of a lack of diversity within the corporation. Given that we are moving towards a more diverse nation, you would think it would be reflective in brands.

However, when diversity is your headline and not the norm, it illustrates a larger problem in the community. Insert Rolling Stone Magazine. The brand has started the new year off with their January cover featuring Travis Scott.

In August, the magazine hired Catriona Ni Aolain as their Director of Creative Content. Aolain hired Dana Scruggs, a black female photographer to shoot the rapper. She told WWD, “She was in my mind for a few things…then Travis came up and I thought she would be a great fit for him.” Aolain is adamant that this was not a PR stunt or some diversity fill, she picked Scruggs based on her aesthetic. She added, “Maybe I had a feeling she was the first black female photographer, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around her being the first black photographer.” Almost as if it was an afterthought, she continued, “I thought there had to be someone, maybe in the Nineties. But even now, as far as I’m aware, she is [the first black photographer for a cover].”

The latter statement in itself proves the glaring oversight within the media and fashion industry. Who is checking for diversity, not in front of the camera, but behind the scenes? It’s not enough just to put black faces on magazine covers and strutting down runways if everyone from the creative director to the makeup artist, is white. If the last black photographer for a cover had been in the 90s, that’s equally, if not even more problematic. Rolling Stone Magazine was founded in 1967, three years after desegregation in America. The fact that it took the magazine over 50 years to employ a black photographer for the cover should be a source of shame versus a headline. In her interview with WWD, Aolain also didn’t provide any solution for this issue. As a woman in power, it’s not enough to be open about the lack of diversity. What is she going to do to fix it? (I tweeted to Aolain before publishing this piece, but have yet to hear back).

Several photographers who consistently shoot covers (and publications who have gotten so ingrained in routine that they don’t give newer talent a chance) have been dethroned by the #MeToo movement, including Mario Testino and Bruce Weber. With social media rounding up the public opinion, media skeletons of suppression have been pushed out of the closet and into the light. With diversity currently “on trend,” brands that traditionally haven’t showcased or supported the black community are capitalizing off of not only black influence but also the black dollar.

Scruggs posted the cover to her Instagram and wrote, “I’m also the first Black Person to photograph the cover of Rolling Stone…which is sweet and bittersweet. I’m so grateful to @catrionaniaolain for believing in me and my work – and for being so supportive through this process. Thank you! I’m out here making history when a year ago I was on the verge of giving up on being a photographer altogether.”

Major magazines like Seventeen, are moving to a “digital first” strategy, no longer printing monthly issues. The same goes for Teen Vogue while Glamour Magazine won’t print any editions moving forward. Yes, while digital is the “future” (or even the “now”), I can’t help but wonder if print would be doing better if they had a more inclusive strategy not just for their covers and editorials, but also behind the scenes.

I’m hoping 2019 is a year of ‘active firsts’ for the media world, where magazines and fashion institutions break the internet for progress versus being called out for archaic behavior.

**Update: On Monday, January 14th, 2019 Catriona Ni Aolain, Director of Creative Content for Rolling Stone reached out to me apologizing for the delay as she was overseas. She wrote, “I wanted to tell you how right you are in what you wrote. One thing the writer from WWD left out is that I used the word ‘shocked’ when I realized that Dana was the first black person to shoot a cover at RS. I couldn’t believe it. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that directly from me.” 

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