A group of five young women gathered with world leaders at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos the third week in January to discuss the urgency of the climate crisis. The five climate change activists sat together on a TIME panel, sharing their thoughts and answering questions. But if you just saw the altered photo shared by the Associated Press, you'd think there were only four of them—and that they were all white.
The Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate called out the AP for cropping her out of the group photo, asserting that it hurt not only her, but the people of Africa. "It showed how we are valued. It hurt me a lot," she said, adding, "Now I know the definition of racism."
On Tuesday, the AP responded with an apology but Nakate said they continued to miss the larger point about passive racism by not even acknowledging her by name:
Greta Thunberg also publicly decried the photo cropping on Instagram, sharing both photos and her thoughts on Instagram:
"This Friday 5 representatives from Fridays For Future held a press conference in Davos. A news agency chose to edit the picture like above, cutting out @vanessanakate1 from the picture. This is totally unacceptable in so many ways. Like Vanessa said herself: 'You didn't just erase a photo. You erased a continent.'"
Thunberg, who has become the poster child for climate action, has deliberately pointed the media toward young activists from black and indigenous cultures who are at the forefront of climate change awareness and activism. "It is people especially from the global south, especially from indigenous communities, who need to tell their stories," she told attendees of the U.N. climate meeting in Madrid in December. "It's really about them," she said. "We talk about our future, they talk about their present."
The erasure of black voices from climate change conversation is nothing new. Black women in particular have been on the front lines of environmentalism for decades—they just rarely make headlines. To have Nakate literally erased from a photo of young climate change activists evokes an immediate gut reaction from people who recognize this pattern.
Considering that this phenomenon has been part of public discourse for a while now, it's a bit baffling that AP's photo editors would not foresee the problem with this photo cropping. Whether it was an intentional act of racism is debatable, but largely irrelevant. The impact was the same, whatever the intent. A black woman was erased from a photo with four white women, and damage was done.
The AP issued a statement (notably without an actual apology to Nakate) about the cropping:
We regret publishing a photo this morning that cropped out Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, the only person of color in the photo. As a news organization, we care deeply about accurately representing the world that we cover. We train our journalists to be sensitive to issues of inclusion and omission. We have spoken internally with our journalists and we will learn from this error in judgment.
David Ake, the AP's director of photography, explained to Buzzfeed UK that the crop was made "purely on composition grounds" because "the building in the background was distracting."
Even if the cropping was done purely for composition's sake (many have claimed that removing Nakate creates a more balanced image), there is no way in 2020 that the impact could be ignored. It seems implausible that someone in the media could be completely blind to the fact that cropping out the one black woman from a group photo—one that shows five activists who were all part of the same panel—is problematic on its face.
This incident is also a perfect example of why "colorblindness" is not necessarily a virtue. One could argue that Nakate's color shouldn't matter, that it's all about cropping the photo to create the best composition, but that completely ignores the historical erasure of black women from the spotlight. Claiming to not see her color (which is impossible, let's be real) makes such erasure seem like a neutral act, and it's not. Bending over backwards to explain it away as "totally not racist" ignores the fact that it perfectly mirrors classic racism.
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It's frequently said that racism is much more about impact than intent, and the impact here sucks, frankly. If a black woman says something feels like racism, we ought to take the time to listen and digest what she's saying.
Nakate tearfully explained her feelings about being removed from the photo, as well as having her story ignored as well, on Twitter.
"What really hurt me the most is that I was just thinking about the people from my country and the people from Africa and how much I've seen people being affected by the climate crisis in Africa and how I've seen people die, lose their families, their children, their homes and everything they ever dreamed of and hoped for and I saw this — and thought who is going to be able to speak for all these people and try and help these people bring their message across? Because even people we expect to share our message, that's the media, they're so disappointing."
She's got a point. Let's all work to ensure that activists like Vanessa Nakate are not erased, intentionally or not.