Working in Australia has posed a few ethical discomforts for me of the cultural variety.
When I first started applying for jobs in Melbourne after I graduated, and didn’t have the experience I have now, I knew I just needed to get my foot in the door somehow. I felt the only way I could stand a chance against other applicants was to lie on my CV: I never put my full name anywhere on the PDF I e-mailed out. I feared the name ‘Avanthi Senaratne’ would elicit unnecessary questions about my competency when it came to English, even though “Graduated with Distinction (Bachelor of Communication)” was typed, in bold, right beneath it. I would check and triple check for typos and I went over the grammar with a fine-toothed comb in case an innocent mistake gave anyone the wrong idea about my Australian nationality. Final drafts were always sent to my grandfather and at least three friends, and I would worry over any amendments that were sent back.
When I did get into the advertising industry 7 years ago, I would on occasion sneak women of colour into my concepts and rough layouts. They were quickly edited out as not being representative of the target audience, and even though my hard work was stamped as a ‘do-over’, I had to agree. Everywhere else, white women and men were representing that product or service. What argument did I really have to substantiate my ideas?
I went away to Tokyo and when I came back, diversity in advertising had become a key component to creating more meaningful, authentic communication. I rejoiced but was immediately faced with my next challenge: where were brown and black women in stock image libraries? Working in small studios without indulgent budgets meant my quick, targeted image searches only uncovered badly photographed, awfully cliched photos (why were brown women always in Sari’s or badly cut business suits? Could their hands do anything other than Namaste?). These images just could not be considered for well-designed campaigns.
While working at Venus Communications, I had the great fortune to discover the Getty Image Lean In series and promptly contacted them to collaborate with us on a website I was designing. Getty broke the mould for empowering photography. Their aim was to create a suite of images of multi-cultural, multi-aged women away from the kitchen, wearing aprons, wheeling shopping trollies, or blonde joggers wearing pink workout gear while running on treadmills. Instead they were photographing real people: a mother with a sick, inked sleeve, cradling a baby on her thighs as she typed on her laptop; a designer with an afro in a busy studio, proudly beaming at the camera; a brunette with untidy hair under some serious bench-press weights; a white-haired corporate giant, easily 50+ in age, standing up and running a meeting in a boardroom, and an Indian girl wrapping up her fists before she started her muay thai training. Many images libraries have now taken up the mantle, including Unsplash.com - where we have sourced most of our initial imagery here at TCK TOWN.
I now freelance with an agency in Port Melbourne named Tank, where ethnic diversity isn’t even a question that needs to be asked. During my first month there, the initial draft of a report I had designed for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning came back with a few revisions. One stood out sharply: “the photography you have chosen is not ethnically and gender balanced. Please revise draft 2 with the following images from the collection we sent through at the start of the month to include more of our female and international staff”. I was overjoyed that our clients were sharing my views about the reality of Melbourne’s multiculturalism and was stupidly happy that I had been the one who was culturally behind in my thinking. I ran back home (keeping confidentiality in mind of course) and told all my friends about what happened at work that day.
Last month, though, was when I hit the pinnacle of my art direction career in Melbourne, professionally and personally.
At Tank, I was assigned to conceptualise a product launch for our client, Bank Australia, and managed the creative side of the campaign, their look and feel and the photo shoot that would bring the ideas to life. Authenticity is the driving force behind the Bank’s operations and communications, so it was no surprise to us that their marketing team sent out an enquiring e-mail to their customer base: “we would like to photograph Bank Australia customers for our upcoming campaign instead of using paid models. Please reply if you are interested in representing the Bank in our online and print media.” Expecting only a handful of replies, we were prepared to put the hours in to somehow engineer a successful shoot and buckled down to wait for responses under very tight timelines.
Over 150 e-mails flooded in almost instantaneously, with smartphone pictures and personal anecdotes attached, all in eagerness to illustrate their loyalty to this amazing institution. My director put a short list together, and our producer and I narrowed the call sheet down to 7 inspiring customers for our two-day shoot.
At 7 am I was on location, after being up till 11 pm the night before, drafting an hour by hour breakdown of how each customer was going to move from wardrobe and makeup, to still photography, to our video interviews, to our final section of video stills. I was coordinating three different teams (including photography and video), directing three different aspects of creative, cracking jokes, filling our talent in on what to expect next in case anything felt intimidating and keeping an eye on Bank Austalia too - who were at the shoot for both days.
We had cast two mixed-race couples. Three customers were from the LGBTQ community. We had a single parent and a variety of ethnic backgrounds in front of the cameras. After my history in the industry, I was absolutely frothing at the smorgasbord of diversity we were able to encompass in a campaign I had grown to love and feel extremely proud of. The incredible (and I mean vastly, unimaginably incredible) truth behind this pool of individuals in front of the lens was that the Bank never saw their nationalities or sexual orientations. We were having discussions with the Marketing Manager about one customer he wanted to include because of her outstanding involvement with the refugee crisis in Australia. The rest of the marketing team had fallen in love with a couple who were actively involved in inspiring work within gay community radio and creative projects relating to the homeless. In our weekly meetings, as the campaign creative was refined, KPI’s about diversity weren’t dryly discussed, no percentages were thrown around to ‘reach more of our multi-cultural targets’ and there were no unfortunate jokes like ‘shouldn’t we have someone in a wheelchair there too to really mix it up?’ - which I had witnessed in previous workplaces. Bank Australia was part of the solution. The mixed-race, gay couple I was going to direct was simply ‘the couple on day two of the shoot.’
Warren and Sanjeev stepped in front of the camera. I hopped forward and encouraged them to stand together as we were photographing the couple for a portrait tram shelter poster and they needed to cosy up closer for the layout to work. Sanjeev was taller so I encouraged Warren to snuggle in under his chin, with their arms wrapped comfortably around each other, holding snug for the oncoming pictures. Sanjeev rubbed Warren’s arm with his thumb to help his partner feel comfortable as the crew gathered around behind the camera for the last round of shots for the day. “Is this too close?” Warren asked. Out of habit, I wondered if I would be reproached for the intimacy of the pose. I then remembered where I was and how the last few months at Tank had taken me on this incredible journey. I smiled big. “Not at all. This is perfect.”
I trotted back and stood at Daniel the photographer’s shoulder, watching through the viewfinder as he began clicking away. The photographs looked phenomenal, and the encouragement and excitement from the Bank and the rest of the crew were palpable. “You two look beautiful, just keep doing what you’re doing!” was the only professional opinion I could offer - the support from the team and the natural chemistry and love between Warren and Sanjeev created work I know I will cherish for the rest of my life. I stood still and quietly for the first time in those two days and blinked back tears. Here I was, a Sri Lankan, 28-year-old woman running an entire 2-day shoot for a proudly Australian bank, who were genuinely excited and grateful for the contributions this gay, interracial couple had made to their local community.
They were genuinely excited and grateful for the contributions this couple had made to their local community.
Looking back at last month, I realise I have been changed - I don't think I can look at cut-and-dry advertising the way I once did, but I don't think I mind. Instead, I am overjoyed at the opportunity to take part in such an endeavour. This Australian bank celebrating such diversity gives me hope for the future of Australian brands, and the little, brown art directors who want to work for them.
First published in September 2016