BY BETHANY PASTORIAL
The organization focuses on better allyship in the equestrian community.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the resulting nationwide racial unrest, the equestrian community began buzzing with the call for more diversity, more inclusion, and more representation. Among those voices were four equine photographers who felt strongly pulled towards action.
Shelley Paulson (Shelley Paulson Photography), Bethany Pastorial (Bethany P Photography), Anna Smolens (Purple Horse Designs), and Erica Hills (Erica Hills Photography) met via the all-too-common video conference to openly discuss how current events had impacted them—the sting of racism, the guilt of white privilege, and the desire to take action.
The group felt drawn to open that conversation up to others who may not feel heard or seen. They knew that was the path forward towards inclusion—to give everyone a voice.
The discussion led to the creation of the Equestrians of Color Photography Project, a weekly blog amplifying the voices of equestrians of color ready to openly share their story with the community.
Photographers across the nation applied to join the project as an Ally. “Each of us is an ally first, and a photographer second,” says Smolens. “It’s only by working together that we can bring positive developmental change to our industry on a large scale.”
The project’s goals are twofold with the first being to provide a safe space for equestrians of color to share their story. They do so through an honest interview regarding their experiences as a diverse member of the equestrian community and in front of the camera with a project ally.
The resulting images and interview responses are combined in a blog published every Monday at equestriansofcolor.com.
Each participant has had such a unique experience, some positive and some negative. But every one of them has generated genuine conversation about the issue of discrimination in our communities and encouragement for other equestrians of color. Speaking from personal experience, when I was a young rider, the Internet didn’t exist, but I wish I had had something like this to help me identify my place in the equestrian world.
The second project goal is to raise awareness regarding the lack of representation in equestrian visual media and support an inclusive, diverse community of horse lovers.
Over the last year, major brands and publications have paid more attention to their imagery used in marketing collateral and advertisements. Even photographers participating in the project have had to take a hard look at their portfolio.
Paulson, whose commercial work is widely renowned, says, “A few years ago, I was contacted by a major stock photo library about becoming a contributor. After a call with the team, one of them spoke up and said, ‘We have one piece of feedback for you. We would like you to explore the idea of adding more racial diversity to your work. From your website, it looks like horseback riding is for rich white girls.’ He wasn’t wrong. As my library grows and more brands and publications are using images on a regular basis, I feel an even greater responsibility to offer photos that show diversity.”
Participating ally Rachel Griffin (Rachel Griffin Photography) adds, “It’s easy to point to larger businesses and media as the root of representation problems, but as portrait photographers we are just as responsible for perpetuating or fighting racism. While my heart has always been inclusive, this hasn’t been reflected well in my portfolio of work. As an ally I’m committed to changing that.”
Now, a year later, the project has published over 50 stories from breeders, trainers, non-profit organizers, riders, barn owners, and horse lovers across the nation. There are currently 53 photographers across the United States and Canada seeking stories to share with a readership of over 10,000. And the impact is significant with increased diversity seen in publications, advertising campaigns, associations, and nation-wide movements.
The group is moving into year two with persistence and plans to expand stories to non-profit organizations serving communities of equestrians who are racially diverse.
“The work we’re doing with the project and blog is too important to come to an end after one year,” says Hills. “Our roles may change over time, but our compassion and dedication to the project’s mission will be life-long.”
If you are an equestrian of color (16 years or older) interested in sharing your story through The Equestrians of Color Photography Project, you can connect with a local photographer ally via the project website at: equestriansofcolor.com.
The Plaid Horse also plans to feature these stories in future issues.
Photos © Equestrians of Color Photography Project
*This story was originally published in the September 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!