‘We think a person with their own individual experiences and history and background will approach a story differently. More importantly, they will point and compose their frame differently’

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A grassroots group of photojournalists are focusing their lenses on aspiring BIPOC creators in Canada with a new free mentorship program.

Designed to provide direct guidance and access to networks, the team behind Room Up Front aims to improve representation in images across visual fields by offering a space  and tangible opportunities for emerging visual storytellers.

“Everyone says photography crosses all language barriers and countries,” says Vancouver-based photojournalist Jimmy Jeong. “But we don’t think it crosses cultures. We don’t think it crosses different experiences. We think a person with their own individual experiences and history and background will approach a story differently. More importantly, they will point and compose their frame differently.”

After the idea came to Jeong, he started connecting with colleagues who he credits with helping develop the program from the outset, such as award-winning photographers Hannah Yoon, Michelle Sui, Pat Kane, Amber Bracken, Justin Tang, Christopher Katsarov Luna and Solana Cain. Project allies such as Canadian Journalists of Colour and Matt Frehner, head of visual journalism at the Globe and Mail, which has committed to publishing work from the pool of mentees, have too been instrumental supporters. 

The program will match five to seven mentees from across Canada with three mentors. There will likely be three cohorts over the pilot year, mixing one-on-one guidance with group training. 

Mentees will work towards a self-directed long-term visual project, whether it’s a photo essay, series or other portfolio piece, and have access to workshops on topics such as copyright law, accounting and ethics.

Ultimately, the goal is to give mentees a direct line to opportunities for publication through an end-of-year review attended by photo editors at allied publications who have committed to publish work from a call list of program graduates. 

“One thing we quickly realized is that our program is going to do very little to change the systemic issues that have been ingrained in our media institutions. We recognize that … the change has to come from the senior levels,” says Jeong. 

But, he says, “We also recognize that this is something that’s that we, as freelance photojournalists … can do to help reach out and maybe offer a pathway for people who have been traditionally marginalized, for various reasons.”

“We’re teaching them photojournalism so that they can use it within their own communities, to tell the stories of their communities,” says Jeong. “And that could be working for NGOs, that could be working for a government, that could be working for publications, that could be working for commercial work, whatever they need to survive. Because that’s what freelancing is now. There (are) very few freelancers who just book strictly editorial.”

There isn’t any current data surrounding diversity in photojournalism in Canada — where newsrooms notoriously lag on publishing information about the demographic composition of their newsrooms— nor are there for change over time in the number of staff positions in news photography. 

However, in the 2018 international report The State of News Photography, World Press Photo notes the number of photographers working full time decreased to 59 per cent in 2018 from 74 per cent in 2015. 

From resistance to pipeline development on Wet’suwet’en territory and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, to the Black Lives Matter movement and the opioid crisis, “if you look at the big stories that are happening right now in the last several years, they centre around marginalized communities,” says Jeong.

“We think that it’s now time that these communities, when someone comes knocking on their door, to tell their stories … what if people open the door and you see someone who has shared experience and understanding? You do away with this parachute journalism.”

Cain, Room up Front mentor and Globe and Mail photo editor, says that she was apprehensive about entering the field when she realized she wanted to pursue photojournalism, not knowing any other Black photojournalists and because she expected the cost of entry to be prohibitive. 

“I had all these preconceived notions about what is best suited to be a photojournalist. And I think a lot of youth, diverse youth, youth from different racial, Black backgrounds might have the same preconceived notions.”

Now, she says she’s committed to dispelling those notions. “It’s 2020, you don’t need to have big fancy gear. You don’t need to have a prestigious college background or educational background … the perspective, the eye that someone from one of these marginalized communities that gets reported on often, but from outsiders, it’s really important that we let people from those communities know that their vision, their story, has a place in mainstream media and we want to help with that.

“Within this mentorship, we are definitely interested in exploring different storytelling and wanting to help to get those different ways into mainstream, to get these youth and young adults with visual story ideas, to help push those further as much as we can use our position within this industry.”

Currently, the grassroots group is operating on a volunteer basis. Jeong says he hopes to generate funds to support mentees’ emergency expenses, in cases where they may have to travel and access the internet or equipment, and to be able to offer mentors an honorarium. 

For more information about how to sign up for mentorship opportunities, support the group or donate to the program, visit Room Up Front online