How University Photographers Developed An Ethical Guide for Documenting Inclusive, Diverse Representation in Higher Education

‘Tell Us More’ is a content series that highlights PhotoShelter clients and industry innovators who challenge the status quo with creative content strategies and leading-edge practices. Take notes on the expert advice shared below!

What Does Diversity On Secondary School Campuses Across America Look Like In 2022?

After two years of empty campuses and virtual classes, colleges and universities are finally beginning to foster student communities again, but things definitely look and feel different post-pandemic and it’s not just because there are new health safety guidelines to adhere to.

One increasingly expressed observation is that America’s higher education student bodies seem to be becoming more diverse. Has it really—or has it always been this diverse and we just haven’t seen or celebrated it properly?

Let’s hear what the students of today think.

In an article published in January 2022, Mary Ann Villarreal wrote:

“Nearly six of every 10 students reported a ‘noticeable increase in diversity of students and employees on my campus this fall.’ The fact that students notice more diverse campuses is a wonderful first step, but there is more work to be done to foster a sense of belonging.”

Mary Ann Villarreal

In actuality, this graph from The National Center for Education Statistics shows that over a 10-year period (2009-2019) the American Indian/Alaska Native, White, and Black student populations decreased by approximately 26% on average. Conversely, Hispanic and Asian student enrollment increased by almost 50% on average over the same period of time.

Developing An Ethical Guide For Documenting Diversity On College Campuses

In an attempt to further foster a true sense of belonging through visual storytelling, a group of four compassionate, dedicated higher education professionals with shared photography backgrounds and divergent personal backgrounds, gathered together during the early days of the pandemic to develop a necessary, first-of-its-kind guide: Best Practices for Inclusive and Diverse Photography in Higher Education.

Who are these dedicated higher ed professionals who care enough to advocate and develop an ethical guide to help creative marketers and higher education communications team members represent students from all walks of life fairly and accurately?

Cydney Scott is one of the driving voices and forces behind getting The Best Practices for Inclusive and Diverse Photography in Higher Ed officially accepted and written. She’s been a professional photographer for 24 years; she’s currently Boston University’s Staff Photographer, a teacher of photojournalism, and VP of the University Photographers’ Association of America (UPAA). You might remember her from our Women In Focus panel honoring three professional women photographers for Women’s History Month (March 2022).

Amanda Pitts is the Senior Photographer at Grand Valley State University. During her 14-year tenure, she’s won numerous awards for her work from CASE, PROOF, and UPAA. She also serves on the board of the UPAA (University Photographers Association of America) as the Corporate Relations Chair. When not busy at GVSU or with UPAA, she loves spending quality time with her family.

Trevor Jones is the digital engagement manager for United Way of Anchorage. Before moving to Alaska in the summer of 2020, Jones was a photographer and digital asset manager at Ohio Northern University for almost six years. Prior to that, he was a photojournalist at newspapers in Ohio and southwest Indiana.

Susan McSpadden has been the marketing and communications photographer for Johnson County Community College, the largest community college in Kansas, for 10 years. Prior to working as a higher education photographer, she worked as a photographer and photo editor for The Kansas City Star and freelanced in the Kansas City metro area for companies, organizations, and publications. She’s also on the board of directors for the University Photographers Association of America.

We recently caught up with this group of changemakers to break down how the groupthink process worked and to understand what tools or processes helped power their team’s remote collaboration. Simply put, we asked them to Tell Us More about collaboratively developing this necessary guide for higher education photographers

If you have a big creative project you’re thinking of developing, dive into the actionable insights below and learn how to effectively advocate for turning your passions into impactful projects at work.

Research and Discovery

What led your team toward researching and developing this guide? What was the motive? What statistical and qualitative research did you find helpful?

Cydney: I spoke with UPAA member Matt Cashore, a photographer at Notre Dame. Cashore was the person who brought the idea to our organization’s president.

About that he said the following:

“UPAA is made up of photographers from all backgrounds, working at institutions throughout the country and internationally. As full-time staff members, we’re in the position to not only apply our technical expertise in our jobs, but our institutional knowledge and thinking about larger questions in higher education. Nearly everyone in UPAA has probably asked the same questions I have: Where is the right balance between representation and authenticity?  I’m not an expert, but it occurred to me that collectively, UPAA is. I thought this was something worth thinking about in a formal way and I asked UPAA President Glenn Carpenter about making a DEI statement a project for our 2020 Symposium. He was enthusiastically in support of the idea and immediately sought out UPAA members to form a committee who became the authors of the paper.”

Matt Cashore, Photographer at Notre Dame

Susan: As the professional organization for the field of higher education photography, we felt like it was important to produce not just a statement about diversity and inclusion, but a detailed paper that really gets into different aspects of visual representation to serve as a guide not only for photographers but for graphic designers and other marketing professionals working on college campuses.

What feedback did you get from peers or university leaders that officiated the project or oversaw your time and bandwidth?

Cydney: This project was done entirely by us on our own time. So we were responsible for making it happen on our own since we weren’t given deadlines from our employers. We knew we had goals for when we wanted to be able to share it, so we worked within those confines to stay on track. 

Susan: It was a strange blessing to start this project after the pandemic hit. Most campuses shut down and moved to virtual learning so we had more time on our hands than usual, and that really allowed us to dedicate attention and collaboration to the project in a way that would’ve taken much longer in more typical times. I didn’t have to ask my supervisors for approval to work on it and many didn’t know what I was a part of until it was done!

What qualitative research did you gather? Did you do interviews with real students?

Cydney: Very little. We dug around a lot for relevant studies, reports, and research papers, but it had never really been done–that we could find anyway. We knew we could use past mistakes made by various institutions and publications as examples of what not to do, but aside from that, we relied on our own brainstorming and discussions, and interviews with DEI experts. We did not interview students, but we interviewed university professionals who work closely with students affected by the kind of problematic marketing we are hoping this paper will have us all moving away from. 

Amanda: We reached out to our institutions’ librarians to see what they could dig up for us and also did some searching on our own and found very little that directly spoke to what we were attempting to address. 

Susan: Our own searches turned up very little so we turned to our research librarians who also couldn’t come up with much. It gave the project a higher level of importance when we realized we were breaking ground with the topic of DEI in higher education photography.

Trevor: I thought a lot about the experiences I had when looking at colleges. It was several years ago. Before you visited, viewbooks were the first contact I had with a lot of schools. I’m Black and when I looked at the photographs I looked at the people who looked like me and tried to interpret what kind of experience I could have on that campus.

When we were forming the paper, we knew that simply being purely representational in photos of faculty, staff and students was not right for every institution.

“An institution can be aspirational in their images of the BIPOC community, but going too far can damage relationships with current or prospective students.”

— Trevor Jones, Digital Engagement Manager for United Way of Anchorage

Trevor (continued): In the past, I had spoken to BIPOC students at my campus about their perceptions of representation on our campus. Before they arrive, students today have so many more options on how they learn about life on a college campus. Students are also aware that schools are trying to expand their reach to underrepresented communities. In my conversations, the students I spoke with expressed that if their image was being used in a genuine manner they were happy to be a part of the visual record for their school. Those conversations helped me when I went to work with my camera and what we can say in our paper.

What were the challenges you had as you collated research and your collective findings?

Amanda: In my opinion, one of the challenges we faced was which DEI professionals to quote in the final paper. We had such terrific feedback and responses from those we reached out to, that it was difficult to narrow it down.

Trevor: One of the challenges I had was looking at my own work and examining what stories I was telling about the BIPOC population on my campus. At the time of the paper’s creation, I worked at a small rural Ohio school.

All of the authors worked at different institutions with different challenges. The challenges I had were not the same at a school with a different population.

We wanted to create a statement that was general enough to apply to all of our members. It seems like it might be easier to create such a broad statement. I found it was not and it really forced me to think outside of the experiences I had at my university.

Susan: I think the biggest challenge was making sure we were addressing all aspects of diversity from color to representing differences you can’t see such as religion or sexual identity. It was also challenging to come up with ways campuses with very little or no diversity in their student population could show in images that they are aspiring to be more diverse.

Amanda: We each individually collected answers to our questions from DEI professionals. Then we shared them with each other via google docs and google sheets. We did collect images from members to demonstrate certain points in the paper. Those were housed in a PhotoShelter account used by UPAA

How did you make sure your research was representative, accurate, fair, and affirming to those you were representing or speaking on behalf of?

Susan: We asked our campus DEI leaders and professionals to read over the drafts and offer up suggestions on better wording or further detail in areas that needed it. We also asked our UPAA President Glenn Carpenter to look it over as we went along as well as UPAA member Matt Cashore of Notre Dame who had brought the idea of our organization doing the paper initially.

Collaborating and Creating the Guide

How did you collaborate digitally?

Amanda: We met semi-regularly via zoom to brainstorm, talk, share findings, etc. Once we had some data, we put together an outline for the paper on Google Docs and all digitally collaborated and commented on that. We did the same with the drafts of the paper.

How many iterations of design did it take until you found a format you all were happy with publishing?

Susan: The cover design was the trickiest part of it! We went through about a half dozen design changes until we landed on one we felt was as representative and striking as we wanted it to be. The graphic designer, who volunteered to do it, was very patient with us! This is a groundbreaking paper, so we wanted to get it right.

Who edited it?

Amanda: Susan put together the paper and did a lot of the editing. We also all put in our thoughts and comments and edits. We shared it with DEI professionals to see if they had any further input before publishing, and also shared it with some of our colleagues who are writers to proof and edit the paper. 

Susan: Although I put the puzzle pieces together, it was definitely a collaborative effort every step of the way.

Did you consider printing it or was it always meant to be a digital resource?

Amanda: We did print the paper and it was inserted into our organization’s annual magazine as a stand-alone piece. This was useful to show and share with colleagues and superiors. 

Susan: Many of us also distributed a printed version to our campus marketing offices to have on hand and to easily refer to. We also shared the digital copy with the graphic designers in our departments since they are the ones who choose and work with our images the most.

Making A Solid Marketing Strategy

How did you and the team develop a successful way to market something that has never existed before?

Amanda: We did not put together a strategic marketing plan. We discussed in meetings how we could put the paper out there. It was printed and sent out via our annual magazine, it was also sent to our members via email, social media, etc. I know several of us emailed the link to the online version to colleagues and bosses and shared it in staff meetings. We were then approached to present the paper and approached some organizations ourselves to present the paper, and it kind of took on a life of its own from there…

Who is the most unlikely audience for this kind of guide that’s given you positive feedback?

Susan: Since we were targeting photographers and marketing departments primarily, I was surprised by how many deans, professors and other leaders on my campus took notice of it and were so proud and supportive of the effort. The professor of Film and Media Studies on my campus made the paper part of her curriculum.

What strategies have been most successful thus far?

Susan: I think our collective outreach to organizations we work with, in higher education, has made the biggest impact. We’ve done conference presentations via Zoom as well as a few print interviews in addition to getting the word out to our membership about it.

“It’s been very much “one thing keeps leading to another” as far as who asks us about it and expresses gratitude that we did it. Many UPAA members have mentioned how valuable it is to have something tangible they can take to their bosses about best practices for DEI imagery.”

Susan McSpadden, Diversity and Inclusion Guide to Higher Ed Photographer Co-Author and Marketing Photographer at Johnson County Community College

What metrics and KPIs did you identify to prove the success of the guide? (e.g. external publications, website traffic, guide downloads, or something else?) 

Susan: To my knowledge, we haven’t kept up with the metrics. I’m sure when we updated the paper recently, that gave it a bump in views and downloads, but we did not take quantitative note of that.

Evolving Access

How do you see the guide evolving as the movement to make the digital world fully WCAG + ADA-approved continues?

CydneyBest Practices is a living paper—meaning it will be updated and will evolve over time as needed. It has already undergone one minor update where we considered students outside the 18-22 age range and we added representation for a wider range of body types. Humans come in all shapes and sizes and marketing material should reflect that.

Beyond accurately depicting life on campus, what other important conversations or movements have happened from finally having a diverse visual representation guide for photographers, creative marketing, and communications professionals?

Susan: I think more than anything the paper has made higher ed photographers and colleagues in their marketing departments more accountable for their responsibility of accurately documenting the diversity on their campuses and within their campus communities.

“It shines a light on both the positive and negative impacts our choices make in coverage and usage. It may also force some to recognize their own (hopefully unintentional) biases that affect what they photograph as well as what images graphic designers choose and why.”

Susan McSpadden, Diversity and Inclusion Guide to Higher Ed Photographer Co-Author and Marketing Photographer at Johnson County Community College

How University Photographers Developed An Ethical Guide for Documenting Inclusive, Diverse Representation in Higher Education is written by Larissa D Green for

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