A Theory on Why Asian American Photographers Are Being Held Back

While Asia is very much the home for most of the modern photography industry, Asian American Photographers are rarely seen in the limelight.

Asian Pacific Americans (APA) are poorly represented within our industry. Considering much of today’s photography industry bares Asian roots, the amount of recognition received by photographers of APA descent feels disproportionate. Why aren’t more prominent Asian Pacific American photographers being featured?

Representation and visibility matter. This is particularly true for the photography industry. Think of the top names working in the industry today. The ones likely to come to mind are of Caucasian descent. Recently, strides have been made in American society to be more inclusive, but Caucasians still dominate much of the photo industry.

Growing up as a first-generation Asian American, I often felt like the odd man out. This experience continues today as I navigate the photo industry both as a full-time photographer and as a member of the press. Countless times, I have commiserated with EIC Chris Gampat (a Guyanese Indian American) as it’s not uncommon for me to be the only person of APA heritage on set or at industry functions.

The Numbers

Let’s look at the numbers. Below is the current breakdown of each Asian camera manufacturer’s American ambassadors. We’ve identified the number of brand ambassadors with Asian Pacific American heritage versus each company’s total number of American ambassadors.

Mainstream camera manufacturers like Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax/Ricoh, and Sony are all based in Japan. Sigma and Tamron also belong on that list if you factored in third party lens makers as well. Hasselblad, Leica, and Phase One are the only notable exceptions, all with European roots. Some would even argue that Hasselblad is now technically a Chinese company after being acquired by Chinese drone maker DJI. Why aren’t more prominent Asian Pacific American photographers out there?

Camera ManufacturerAmbassador With APA HeritageAmbassadors Based In USAPercentage Of Ambassadors With APA Heritage
Canon Explorers of Light43312.12%
Fujifilm X-Photographers1166.25%
Nikon Ambassadors2355.71%
Olympus Visionaries0120%
Panasonic Lumix Ambassadors1147.14%
Pentax/Ricoh Ambassadors030%
Sony Artisans of Imagery4498.16%
Total121627.4%

The percentage of photographers with APA heritage representing Asian camera manufacturers are disappointingly low: in some cases, they’re non-existent. Asian Pacific American photographers are producing some of the most exciting work in photography today, but why aren’t more of them represented? Could it be that there aren’t enough Asian Pacific American photographers out there to begin with?

The Personal Experience and Hypothesis

Here’s my theory, based purely on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Most stereotypical APA parents place a heavy emphasis on academics (you know, the High Expectations Asian Fathers and Tiger Moms). This upbringing grooms their children to pursue careers in the legal, medical, scientific, or technology fields. Asian parents rarely encourage their children to pursue careers in the arts. It’s likely born out of the stigma around starving artists and wanting financial sustainability for their children.

The current crop of APA photographers hasn’t gotten their Crazy Rich Asians moment yet. Until that happens, the next generation will continue to be faced with the same stigmas. With more images being created on a daily basis than ever before, there’s never been more interest in becoming a photographer. As an industry with strong ties to Asia, we owe it to the next generation of Asian Pacific American photographers to do better.

Pauleth Ip

Paul is a New York City based photographer, creative, and writer. His body of work includes headshots and commercial editorials for professionals, in-demand actors/performers, high net worth individuals, and corporate clients, as well as intimate lifestyle/boudoir photography with an emphasis on body positivity and empowerment. Paul also has a background in technology and higher education, and regularly teaches private photography seminars. When not working on reviews and features for The Phoblographer or shooting client work, Paul can be seen photographing personal projects around NYC, or traveling the world with his cameras in tow. You can find Paul’s latest work on his Instagram over at @thepicreative.