Next month, Vogue’s cover image is reportedly to be the magazine’s first shot by a black photographer. Yes, the year is 2018, and never before has an image taken by a black person gotten cover billing in the nation’s premier fashion magazine – a publication that has been around for 126 years.
We can’t say that this is finally changing because higher-ups saw the light or even became embarrassed enough to shift course. The reason appears to lie elsewhere.
It’s thanks to Beyoncé.
Beyoncé is the cover girl for Vogue’s 2018 September issue, the most important book put out all year. And Bey, bless her, reportedly requested that her cover photo be taken by Tyler Mitchell, a 23-year-old Atlanta artist who told the New York Times that he “depict[s] black people and people of color in a really real and pure way.” He brings, he said, “an honest gaze to my photos.”
This is the power of diversity and representation: In the best of circumstances, it begets not just more diversity, but more creativity and innovation; it widens the perspective for all of us.
When most of the cultural kingmakers come from the same backgrounds, live in the same cities, run in the same crowds, and consume the same art and cultural artifacts, their own vision narrows. It becomes self-perpetuating. This trickles down to all the rest of us who rely on venerable, authoritative (we think) publications to highlight the best in fashion, culture and aesthetics.
When we widen the aperture, we grow.
Of course, members of racial and other minorities are not obligated to be perfect representations of their group, nor to use their positions to elevate others who have been similarly excluded or pushed to the margins. But it’s great when they do.
Mitchell was hardly a nobody. He has a long list of fashion, art and branding shoots under his belt. This is not a case – as some might assume – of elevating a member of a marginalized group to give a leg up to the less qualified. In reality, it is about giving under-recognized talent space to shine. The fact is, until now, Mitchell may well not have been on the radar of those at the tippy-top of Vogue.
Beyoncé, we know, is not a woman who tolerates mediocrity, least of all with her own image. It took someone who sees the world from a different vantage point than, say, Anna Wintour to get an eminently qualified and gifted artist like Mitchell behind the cover.
Publications and organizations should represent a cross section of the population, simply because that is the fair and right thing to do. Those of us who have been traditionally excluded from the halls of power and influence shouldn’t have to prove that we’re better than the dominant group to be welcomed into the fold. And the few who do manage to break through shouldn’t face the tremendous and often impossible expectation of fundamentally changing a biased system. It should not be the obligation of the already-marginalized to lift all boats.
It shouldn’t require a superstar like Beyoncé to flex her star power to break this longstanding barrier. But we should all be glad she did.