A new photography and illustration agency has been launched which aims to shine a spotlight on creatives from underrepresented backgrounds.
Studio PI has been co-founded by Bridge Studio creative director Sachini Imbuldeniya who tells Design Week that she was frustrated by the lack of diversity in the commissioning talent pool.
The new agency has a roster of nine photographers and ten illustrators, who will be represented by two agents working across the sector.
It is the first studio launched by News UK, the media group which publishes The Sunday Times and the Times Literary Supplement among others. Bridge Studio is the strategic content agency owned by News UK.
“There’s a lot of nepotism in the media industry”
As a creative director, Imbuldeniya works with agencies to commission illustrators and photographers but says she has been frustrated by the lack of opportunities for women, people of colour, people with disabilities and those from working-class backgrounds.
“There’s a lot of nepotism in the media industry as a whole. I felt like a lot of people got into the industry because of who they knew rather than just how good they were,” she says. “As a result, there were loads of exceptionally talented individuals whose work I had just never seen.”
She continues: “If you didn’t have the right connections, it was really hard for you to get that foot in the door.”
Work that is “worth championing”
Planning for Studio PI began in January 2020. Imbuldeniya trawled through creative spaces from around the world, including Instagram and more career-focused platforms like Behance and The Dots, to find work that was “fresh and innovative” and “worth championing”.
The time was right, she says for a few reasons. Now that she is in a more senior position, Imbuldeniya felt she had more opportunity to do something that would “benefit the industry”. And after the mass protests from Black Lives Matter raised issues of diversity within the creative industry, it was about turning “words into action”.
She sent the portfolio of potential talent to a judging panel comprising 50 industry experts including Pentagram New York partner Matt Willey, The Sunday Times Style creative director Suzanne Sykes and British GQ art director Kevin Faye.
Imbuldeniya asked them to be “as honest as possible” in their criticism and say whether they would commission the people she had put forward.
All personal details were removed so that it was a blind judging process. This was an attempt to avoid any unconscious bias in the decision process, which Imbuldeniya says is prevalent within the industry. “If we removed everything and just focused on the work, there’d be no pre-judging of people,” she adds.
From this process, she put together a roster of nine photographers and ten illustrators. The agency is starting out relatively small she says, so that each artist has access to the right amount of support and dedication.
Imbuldeniya adds that she will release details of everyone else on the shortlist so that they have an opportunity to be commissioned as well.
“It reflects the society we live in”
The final roster “reflects the society we live in” and is a “balanced view of visual content as opposed to the skewed reflection”, she says.
Two agents have been hired to represent the talent: Tara Bonakdar Cleary and Claire Cheung. They will aim to find the photographers and illustrators work across the whole publishing industry, not just on News UK titles.
It might also be a good time to launch an agency which has a focus on illustration. While the pandemic has brought up many challenges for the design industry, illustration has benefitted from its adaptablity, Imbuldeniya points out. It’s much easier for illustrators to work remotely, for example.
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The agency’s line-up is diverse in terms of backgrounds but also visual styles. Los Angeles-based Janice Chang (whose work is shown above) is a 2-D illustrator who draws people with distinctively long limbs. She’s particularly notable, Imbuldeniya says, because she can also animate her work, meaning that it can flex across multiple platforms.
Ngadi Smart meanwhile has created illustration work for London’s Vagina museum but is also a photographer, with work appearing in Italian Vogue and The Atlantic. Sinem Erkas also crosses a stylistic divide, between work on paper and in the digital space. Her themes of “powerful feminism” have brought acclaim in the sphere of book design.
A focus of the agency will be on mentoring, Imbuldeniya says. She has spoken to all the creatives individually about their process and specific challenges they face.
“In the future, it should just be the norm”
If things go well, she hopes to expand the roster of talent as long as she can also grow the number of agents to ensure the level of support is maintained.
“I’ve grown up in an environment which is mostly dominated by white affluent men,” Imbuldeniya says, noting that she is the only female of colour who works as a creative director at her company. “Until we’ve broken down these barriers, something needs to be done and this is why [the studio] is necessary at the moment.”
“In the future, of course, it should just be the norm,” she adds. “But it’s only changes like this that can affect the bigger picture.”