John Simmons, ASC: Award-winning Cinematographer Wants to Change the Industry Optics
As told to the Television Academy
This past July, when it was announced that a record number of Black performers were nominated for the 72nd Emmy Awards making up over 30% of the nominees, I celebrated. It's exciting to see Black nominees receive the overdue recognition that they deserve. Even with this excitement, I still couldn't help but take notice of how many of the nominated programs still lack a significant number of Black crew members—even on the programs that depict the Black experience. There still aren't enough of us behind the camera in various departments (camera, sound, makeup, costume design, the writer's room etc).
In addition to working as a Cinematographer in the entertainment industry since the early seventies, I also serve as one of the Vice Presidents of the American Society of Cinematographers and I can confirm that, sadly, there's only a handful of people of color behind the scenes. One of my many goals is to change the industry optics. It took president Barack Obama to change the optics of what an American president can look like. When you think of a Cinematographer, I want you to be able to see a Black person in that role. I can't tell you how many times in the late '90s that I would show up to studio lots for work and be mistaken for a janitor or grilled as being someone who didn't belong. Not that there's anything wrong with a janitor but this is often the stereotypical assumption. I was speaking to a colleague who mentioned that while working at a major studio, you won't see a Black person's name on the staff list until you get about three or four tiers down from a senior executive.
As I work on Netflix's Family Reunion, I always strive to make sure the set is inclusive. When people come visit, they are always shocked to see such diversity—but shouldn't be. This should be the norm. I want young people of color to walk on a set and envision the possibilities of a future in Hollywood. I want them to see a set more diverse than when I was their age. Growing up in the industry, when I walked on set, I was lucky to see one or two people of color. There was rarely a balance.
Has Hollywood come far? Yes, but not far enough. I know where we've been and how far we have to go. I've documented important turning points in American history including many historical marches, protests, and speeches featuring significant figures such as Angela Davis, Shirley Chisolm, and more. 1965, when I was 15 and first became interested in photography, was the same year [the Voting Rights Act] guaranteed Black people were allowed to vote. Not being allowed to vote [due to systemic racism, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literacy tests] was an actual discussion at my home. My father was only 17 years old when Harriet Tubman died. It's always a jolting feeling to realize that I am just one generation away from slavery. All of these experiences have shaped me.
Witnessing the recent renewed conversations towards diversity and inclusion in Hollywood does offer hope. This time around feels different because the boundaries of politically correct speech have expanded. People are no longer softening the blow or holding their tongue. Everyone has been using their platforms to call it exactly like it is. So many people are now also recognizing their privilege as well as the lack of inclusion in the entertainment industry.
Hollywood can make a change by recognizing some of the barriers to entry. We have a lot of talented people in this business who have been working non-union their entire lives. They know how to work all aspects of the industry, but they aren't familiar with how to navigate the environment that we work in. With the restrictions on getting into the union and the whole "Catch-22" that continues to repeat itself, people have a hard time getting in. I also believe there need to be more mentoring and training programs that create a pathway into the union.
Black creators should also feel safe, unafraid, and empowered to speak up if they don't see enough representation on set. Let's not stay quiet and prevent other people of color from getting an opportunity. Don't fear how people will view you for speaking up. The opinions that you think you're saving yourself from for speaking up will be the same opinions that will keep you out of the door next time. We can all work together to create an industry that reflects the world we live in—in front of and behind the camera.
Many networks and organizations are already making efforts towards change. The ASC Vision Committee, where I am the co-chair, is constantly working to create an inclusive industry. There's lots of damage from the past we must work through in order to build a future that we all can equally flourish and prosper in.
John Simmons, ASC is an Emmy Award-winning Cinematographer currently working on Netflix's Family Reunion. You may view his photography at johnsimmonspictures.com.
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The statements and viewpoints expressed in the article above are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the Television Academy, the Television Academy Foundation, or their members, officers, directors, employees, or sponsors.