Brooklyn-based photographer Kenny St. George can usually be found courtside, shooting for sports and lifestyle clients like the NBA, Nike and Slam magazine. While he hasn’t worked in ad land himself, St. George recently learned that African Americans make up only about 5% of the advertising industry—and decided to shine a light on some of the people who make up that small percentage through the new portrait series Our Seat.
St. George went to Twitter, 72andSunny, Translation, Anomaly, SoundCloud, Wieden + Kennedy, Laundry Service/Wasserman and Tierney to shoot portraits of black employees at each agency. The resulting series portrays a vibrant community and captures moments of lighthearted joy. Most of the subjects are laughing in the photos, which St. George said was intentional.
“As people of color, we spend so much time upset and fighting for the things we feel we deserve. This moment was to be free and release that,” St. George said. “My main message to each person that sat across from me was that we wanted to have fun with this project and use this as a time of pride and celebration.”
Several of his subjects went on to share their portraits on Instagram with the caption: “I am what the renaissance looks like. Honored to be a part of the illustrious 5% shaping culture.”
The subjects range in title and specialty, from Wieden + Kennedy’s head of social strategy John Petty to Tierney PR account executive Crystal Williams, who posted her portrait on Instagram with the caption, “Having a seat at the table allows me to make room for more black and brown people to sit. If I eat, we all eatin’.”
A behind-the-scenes video shot by Philadelphia-based creative Mike Shields shows the party-like atmosphere that spread through Wieden + Kennedy’s New York office as St. George took his photos.
The energy in the photo series is unmistakably jubilant. But during the shoots, St. George said, the conversations were frank and often revealed the frustration that can arise from being part of a small minority in an industry that is plagued by a lack of diversity.
“Something absolutely has to change because, in all honesty, the advertising industry cannot operate without people of color,” said St. George, recalling that his subjects often relayed concerns about “their overall sense of visibility within their profession” as well as “a deficiency of relatability and acknowledgment” that stems from low black representation in the industry.
Perhaps because of that desire to be seen, the Our Seat portrait project has been met with enthusiasm and pride. While the initial series was limited to a small group of eight East Coast agencies, St. George has received inquiries from black professionals in the advertising space from around the country who want to participate. He hopes to travel to other cities and continue documenting black ad professionals on a national level.
“It’s been an honor and pleasure to not just feel the excitement,” said St. George, “but to hear about the conversations it’s sparking in barbershops, living rooms and group chats, agencies printing the portraits out and displaying them around their offices, seeing other photographers embrace this project.”
On social media, the portraits—tagged with #OurSeat—have sparked a discussion about diversity and change in the advertising industry.
But while the impetus for the series stems from a critique of an industry in desperate need of diversification, St. George’s main focus is on the pride of the black creatives, account executives and others helping to shape the culture. And the portraits are also meant to inspire a new wave of talent to enter the business.
“It was always about the people tirelessly working day in and day out to ensure the integrity of how black culture is portrayed in mass media,” St. George said, explaining his drive to capture the essence of being black in advertising. “It’s for the next generation to see clearly this is not only a career option, but one that comes with a lot of responsibility and power.”