MAX Panel Recap: Representation and Creativity Now
Inclusion, authenticity, and representation — what do these words mean to us as creatives, collaborators, and artistic subjects? How can today’s creatives draw on their personal experiences to produce insightful, commercially successful work while remaining true to themselves and their communities?
In a recent panel discussion at the Social Insiders event at Adobe MAX in Los Angeles, we brought a diverse group of creative thought leaders together to share their reactions to these questions. In an honest and unscripted conversation led by Adobe Stock Creative Director Sarah Fix-Casillas, we heard from Emma Chiu, global director of content intelligence for Wunderman Thompson; Natika Soward, content development manager for Adobe Stock Premium; and artists Bethany Mollenkof and Adam G. Perez, who are featured as part of the new exclusive VSCO collection on Adobe Stock.
Here are four big takeaways from the discussion.
Consumers have unprecedented power—and they’re demanding more from brands
As a global director at Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, Emma said, “My job is to look at the macro lens in terms of consumer behavior and how that funnels down into representing brands, sector innovation, and key trends.”
In her observation, today’s consumers are markedly different, and social media has a lot to do with that.
“We’re living in a time where — for better or for worse — everyone has a voice, and everyone can channel that voice through social media,” Emma said. “What’s interesting and really positive about this is that we are able to really call it out when we think something is not right.”
One result of newly empowered consumers is a heightened awareness on the part of brands. With social media comes the potential for passionately engaged fans — and passionately negative reactions from consumers should a brand campaign offend or miss the mark.
“I work in a creative agency, and we don’t want to be called out for not being diverse, not thinking about broader topics, not being inclusive enough,” Emma said. “Today, people feel a lot more liberated. People can and will speak out on these subjects that were once quite taboo to talk about.”
Real representation is a team effort and requires trust
While increased awareness of “diversity” may sound like a positive thing, all too often brands seek to add a few extra non-white or otherwise non-normative folks to their photo shoots and call it a day. There’s an undeniable difference between creative work and campaigns that offer authentic inclusion and representation and those that simply nod at the idea of diversity in a photo or two.
Emma was quick to acknowledge the difference: “There are a lot of companies that feel it’s OK just to have a diverse-looking cast, as opposed to thinking more broadly in scope. We’re increasingly considering who is in front of the camera and who is behind the camera. There needs to be diversity in a more 360-degree, holistic level.”
Photographer and filmmaker Bethany Mollenkof pointed out the confluence of identities at play in a campaign she worked on in collaboration with photographer and filmmaker Adam Perez, for the Swedish clothing brand &Other Stories. “I think this is important: Adam, a queer Latino man, and me, a biracial black woman, worked together on a campaign for a Swedish brand. This is not a typical thing you hear about! I think what this highlights is trust. They trusted us,” Bethany said.
That trust between the brand, the creative team, and the diverse cast of models represented in the campaign was instrumental in the fresh, authentic images they produced. That authenticity clearly resonated with buyers, given the social media success of the full campaign.
Adam also attributed much of that success to trust and open communication between the brand and creative team: “This was a great example of working with a big brand but also working with something that felt so genuine. It was people we knew, they knew us, we had conversations with the brand, they brought us in very early with the visuals and the art, what it would be, and everything from access to aesthetics. It felt like a group of friends working together. Whenever you can get that environment, you are going to create something cool. The end result turned out very well, and we got a lot of great feedback from their clientele.”
Creating authentic imagery requires honest self-examination
Adam pointed out that at the beginning of his career, the lack of representation in his industry threatened to hold him back: “I’m a first-generation immigrant, a gay man, who grew up in a two-bedroom house with 10 people. It was a process for me to own that, to own my story. My first job out of school was at Time magazine, where I was the only person that looked like me, who came from that background, and I was really shy about pitching stories that were from my community.”
Eventually, he said, he found strength in his convictions about what were the most important stories to tell. He said, “There was a turning point where I realized: I don’t need to be waiting for these people. If they can’t catch on to [these stories], I’m going to do them myself! And I can! I built that skill to do it myself.”
Bethany is also in the habit of rigorously interrogating her own experience, potential biases, and motivations for the work she does. For her, this is crucial to helping her stay true to her intentions and fairly represent her subjects.
“I try to be super clear with how I approach any job I take and why I am taking it,” she said. “I ask myself, what am I trying to accomplish with the work? Why am I the person to do the work? Every time, I always try to question whether I the right person to tell this story, and will this be executed in a way that is helpful? …For me, there is a constant back and forth, looking at myself, looking at the work and what the work is showing me. And I hope to be creating work that is true to me and resonates with other people.”
We can all work to include more diverse voices
According to Bethany, her creative career has been enabled not only by her talent and hard work, but by access. Finding her way into the right networks has been pivotal for her success.
“I’m a part of a couple of different collectives which have been really important for my process and for my work to get out there,” she said. “[One collective called] Diversify Photo is an amazing platform, started by Brent Lewis and Andrea Wise. It’s a database of diverse photographers and creatives. I think the power of these platforms is in how they break down the idea that meritocracy is real — because it’s not. [Success] is all about access. It’s about what rooms you can get in to and show your work. Talent gets you this far… but if you can get access to the right people and get your work in front of them, your chances are much better. Then you get a job that opens a door to the next job. These platforms are so vital, so important, and I am thankful for them.”
Natika Soward, content development manager for Adobe Stock Premium, reinforced the idea that widening access was key to creating a more representative visual landscape, in the world of commercial photography and beyond.
“What we end up seeing out in the world is so driven by who is in the driver’s seat making decisions,” said Natika. “It’s really about understanding that the power, the impact, and what gets expressed is amplified by who is creating the images and making the decisions.”
With the recent Premium Collection and VSCO partnership, Natika noted that she kept these ideas in mind.
“For the Adobe x VSCO collection, my colleagues and I spent a lot of time focused on that mission. It’s really about making sure that these images can be surfaced, so that top brands and advertisers have this imagery when they need it. When you make sure that the people behind the scenes understand that those very specific social contexts can be captured… it makes a huge difference.”
Diversifying visual culture “is about amplifying diverse voices. [To do that,] make sure you look around, and ask: Who else is in the room with you? Check in with yourself and your surroundings, making sure that the power is distributed a bit more.”
Meet the artists
Adam Perez: The power of being seen
Bethany Mollenkof: Trying to find some sort of truth