Posted on July 29, 2021

The Lack of People of Colour in Science Images Must Be Fixed

Nature, July 28, 2021

Last month, Nature published a Comment article on how researchers and communities helped each other during a water crisis in Flint, Michigan. While sourcing pictures for the article, Nature’s photo editor discovered that there are few images available of the people involved, many of whom are Black.

Recently, we also needed an image of the physicist Elmer Imes, who, in 1918, became only the second African American to be awarded a PhD in physics in the United States. {snip}But university archives that Nature contacted did not have a copy of his photograph. Commercial photography agencies also had nothing. Low-resolution, grainy images do exist, but, shockingly, even the US Library of Congress in Washington DC — which holds images of many important scientists from the nation’s history — does not have a photograph. However, such images are available for a number of notable white scientists from Imes’s time.

This is far from an isolated case. Nature often illustrates articles reporting on communities and countries that are under-represented in science using generic images, in part because universities, national libraries and commercial photo agencies hold relatively few images of people from such communities.


Systemic racism and science’s diversity deficit extend to images, creating a distorted and exclusionary picture of science’s past and present. This is an issue that needs attention, and there are several potential ways to rectify it.


Arguably the most difficult, although no less important, task will be to bring about change in the commercial photography agencies. {snip} At Nature, we use them all the time, and credit them next to the images. But, more often than not, our searches for photos of particular Black scientists and scientists of other marginalized ethnicities yield negative results, and we are compelled to fall back on generic images of people modelling a generic scene, instead of photos of the scientists themselves. {snip}

Nature approached six large agencies and asked whether they have a dedicated staff member — or an organized process — for improving diversity in their science-related images. Representatives of three agencies responded. None has such a person. One photo repository acknowledged that Black people are not represented in its images of clinical medicine, and that it is actively working to correct this. Tracking diversity needs to be a priority for these agencies.