Is fashion photography becoming more inclusive?

With increasing diversity in casting for fashion and beauty shoots, it seems the industry is changing for the better. Two photographers and a plus-size model discuss.
A portrait of a woman with a large afro filled with sunflowers.

"I noted how the sun was always portrayed as a man in art, and so I wanted to portray her as a woman," says photographer, set designer and creative director Linda Blacker of this shoot, one of her earliest collaborations with plus-size model Enam Asiama." Makeup by Enam Asiama, bespoke jewellery by Suhaiyla Shakuwra. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 44mm, 1/100 sec f/5.6 and ISO160. © Linda Blacker

The fashion industry has come a long way since the supermodel era of the 1980s and '90s. Back then, the vast majority of models were thin, young and white, with a few exceptions – notably Naomi Campbell, who in 1987 became the first black British model to appear on the cover of British Vogue, and Sophie Dahl, who made her catwalk debut in 1997 when she was a UK size 14. In recent years, we're seeing more models of colour, more plus-size models, models of different ages, different gender identities, models with disabilities, with skin conditions, and those who show their scars or their body hair.

But is this a fleeting trend that will come and go faster than this season's handbag? Or is it a seismic cultural shift that will push the fashion and beauty industry in a genuinely more inclusive direction? Expanding on the theme of our Shutter Stories podcast about body positivity and photography, we asked Canon Ambassador Javier Cortés, photographer Linda Blacker and model and plus-size advocate Enam Asiama to share their experiences and opinions.

Hear more of the conversation in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

What does 'body positivity' mean to you, and what's the catalyst for this movement?

"In order to talk about body positivity," says Enam Asiama, "it's important to understand that its roots come from fat acceptance, a social movement which originated in the late 1960s. Fat acceptance was about challenging the medical and legal biases against fat people and talking about their authentic experiences. Since then, there has been a shift to talk about all types of body image."

"As a photographer, I think it's a deeply inspiring movement," continues Linda Blacker. "Beauty ideals are forced upon us but if you look throughout history and different cultures, beauty standards are very different. It has changed the way I see the world and made it more real."

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"Before, fashion showed models that represented a very small percentage of society," says Javier Cortés. "I think people were looking for a real revolution and that's happening – finally! But as the movement grows, brands have made it their own and it's been commercialised. I think it's become a strategy rather than what it really means to me, which is inclusiveness without limit of age, colour, gender, and without judging by any characteristic."

A portrait of a woman with long red hair lying on the tattooed legs of another woman.

For this shoot with the Canon EOS R, Javier created painterly, Old Masters-inspired portraits with a diverse group of non-professional models aged between 16 and 70. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/4.5 and ISO400. © Javier Cortés

A full-length portrait of an older model wearing an orange dress.

Javier often features older models in both his commercial and personal work. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/4.5 and ISO640. © Javier Cortés

Are some brands guilty of jumping on the body positivity bandwagon then?

"It's important for me to work with photographers who understand who I am," says Enam, "so it doesn't feel like my voice is being used for a one-sided gain. Often Linda will ask me to research ideas or suggest other models to be involved in the shoot. I don't then have to feel all the pressure to be the one representative of the community. This can be the problem with brands – they like to choose one person. It's tokenism and it's lazy."

"Whenever money is involved, there's always going to be an element of that," reasons Linda. "The beauty industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry. I think that the fact we're still seeing more diversity will have benefits, whatever the motivation is.

"We'll really see true, authentic change from brands when we have more diversity behind the camera. When it comes to shooting images with Enam, she's really creative, she wants to be involved in the ideas. I learn a lot about representation and diversity from her and I couldn't create this work without her input."

"Either way, this is a positive change for society, although I wish it were because of its own values," adds Javier.

Beyond the choice of models you cast, does this ethos of inclusivity affect the way you light, shoot or edit?

"Regarding light," says Javier, "I don't do anything different, and I'm not really in favour of a lot of retouching."

"I also don't airbrush people, but post-production is still a huge part of my work," says Linda. "Sometimes I think people tend to think these are the same, but they are not. Some of my most creative edits have been with Enam. All bodies, all people who are happy to be in front of the camera, can fit into my work. I have a consistent style, but each shoot has a vastly different concept. The most important thing is to incorporate diversity throughout my work – and not just as one-off projects."

A young boy reads a book while leant against a large stack of cushions.

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"If you're working with diverse or marginalised models," says Enam, "you should understand that when these people are in front of a camera, you have to take the steps to make them feel comfortable. During the shoot, Linda makes sure everyone is feeling OK, and afterwards we're having conversations about the captions, the stories we're telling, the relationships we're building."

Plus-size, tattooed model Ami is photographed from behind, sitting with her legs to one side in a pose reminiscent of Old Master paintings of reclining models.

With the Canon EOS R shoot, Javier aimed to represent women not often seen in traditional fashion portraits. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/2.5 and ISO400. © Javier Cortés

A portrait of a woman with curly, ginger hair holding a bunch of dried lavender in her gloved hand.

Javier took inspiration for his compositions from classical painters. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Javier Cortés

Have you experienced any backlash professionally for your stance on body positivity?

"No," says Javier, "although sometimes clients have disagreed with my casting choices, and asked for more options, or they've recast shoots themselves. In my personal projects, I try to photograph people who sometimes I've not been able to in the industry – to tell other stories that matter. For example, Canon supported me to carry out a series of photos inspired by paintings, where I found true beauty in older or plus-size models that might have been rejected by the fashion industry."

"Not from the industry," says Linda, "but when we did an alternative lingerie shoot [with models including Enam, author and transgender campaigner Juno Dawson and disabled rights advocate Imogen Fox] there were some negative comments on Twitter. As a whole, though, the shoot was really well received. It's easier for me, as a photographer, to put down my phone and step away from comments. It's different for Enam and other models who are the focus of the image. It's important to me that the models are happy with what we've created and feel positive about the experience from start to finish."

"Every day I get trolled on Instagram," says Enam. "It comes with the territory. I can laugh about it now but sometimes it really gets me down. And with the industry, there's a constant anxious feeling because you're already in such a tough position being one of the only people who does what you do so if you want to speak up about anything, you're threatening your career. Mentorships, schemes and systems could be put in place to help diverse models."

A group shot of plus-size Asian models Michelle Elman, Bishamber Das, Kat Henry, Mina Kumari, Simsimma Sandhu, Saalene Sivaprasad and Vanessa Sison wearing long, floaty dresses in pastel shades.

This image was part of Linda's project with life coach and author Michelle Elman focusing exclusively on plus-size Asian models – Michelle Elman, Bishamber Das, Kat Henry, Mina Kumari, Simsimma Sandhu, Saalene Sivaprasad and Vanessa Sison. The shoot aimed to help more women feel represented in the images they see in the fashion industry. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/125 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © Linda Blacker

How has an inclusive approach to photography helped change attitudes or boost people's confidence?

"I organised a shoot with life coach and author, Michelle Elman," says Linda. "It only featured plus-size Asian models and was covered around the world – by Glamour, Buzzfeed and others – and people said they had never seen anything like it before. That was such a nice feeling. That's what makes me happiest – when people see themselves represented. It was wonderful being able to support the work of Michelle too, who is a plus-size Asian woman. Although it's not that often, there can be backlash, but there's also overwhelming love and support for what we're doing."

"People I know have told me that they finally see themselves more represented," says Javier. "I think the internet and Instagram have also helped in this, in terms of being able to find other references."

How do you think attitudes to body positivity might develop over the next few years?

"It is changing and evolving quickly in some ways," says Javier. "Lately, in advertising pitches, I've noticed the creatives changing along with the casting proposed by the agencies themselves."

"I would like to see brands having more diverse people behind the camera and in their companies so we can have more authentic campaigns and it's not a one-off," explains Linda. "I believe this is what will truly lead to change in the industry."

"I worked with David Hyde, a photographer who is disabled, on the Gucci Beauty Glitch campaign," says Enam. "It was great to be on a set where everyone has some kind of othering, but you wouldn't necessarily know that if you hadn't done the research. I do feel positive about the future. I think once you start to take inclusivity on board in photography, you're pushing the status quo. But when you take on this thing, you have to take responsibility, be consistent, and really consider humanity in your photography."

Rachel Segal Hamilton

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