What could theVanity Fair effect do for you?

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah
6 min readSep 25, 2019
Vanity Fair 20th Annual HOLLYWOOD Cover, March 2014. Photograph: Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair

It’s one of Vanity Fair’s appreciated front covers, some might even say iconic. Five years ago, the bastion for portraying Hollywood’s powerful featured, for the first time, several black actors on its front cover. They were Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Naomie Harris, and Chadwick Boseman.

It could have happened sooner, but that’s another story. Each of the ensemble cast had stories to tell. Each chosen actor, and of course there could have been more, had claimed the right of the admiration gaze through the quality of their work, their endeavour and chutzpah. But as a collective stellar you were drawn to the sum and more of the image — everyone.

That Vanity Fair look isn’t just an assembly. You’ve seen enough conference group huddles and gathering shots to forget instantaneously. The Fair look is an art form, of patterned composition, style, power perspective and mastery of lighting, taken by one of the world’s celebrated photographers Annie Leibovitz. It’s punctum at its most powerful. There’s a tutorial about literally the art in achieving the look.

The Fair look , which is not the cure all to diversity issues, (someone’s going to tweet the absurdity of a photo solving diversity!) does something else, which appears paradoxically so normal, because, well, it’s just a picture. But it’s more. It celebrates a zeal for heroes and role models. It starts off a chemical process, hormonal releases of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, activation of the prefrontal and visual cortex, and then the amygdala and hippocampus — the seats of memory. It’s like a crowbar prizing open your brain and inserting pictures and then stories inside, you’ll rarely forget.

The focus on an individual would elicit similar behaviour. There’s a reason why journalism invests in photography and the splash of the front cover. As a collective imposing image it draws a “wow” — an image that will resonate with generations and those beyond.

I was so enamoured by its impact and the photo, A Great Day in Harlem from 1958 featuring US Jazz musicians lined up posing in front of a Brownstone, that it would be an influence for co-producing a UK-wide project featuring some of the UK’s major black, Asian and ethnic talent. A story that needs telling after telling and more retelling.

More on that in a minute, but the story starts off with a moment of disappointment. The question about how to explore “ideas of power, privilege and patriarchy intersect and shape journalism’s institutional forms” was the question from the #ISOJ for its forthcoming conference. This morning the email I received declined my proposition as a paper for its conference.

I found myself taken back to my days in television in the 90s, and the alternative future I would discover with the Internet. When an idea failed to take off, now finally there was a platform elsewhere to publish, to share the idea for others to ponder. This fortune would favour me with future presentations at Apple, SXSW, and the International Festival of Journalism.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have liked my idea on television, just as it would be at the ISOJ, but rejection fuels new thoughts, and can ultimately be a requisite towards later achievements.

How can one reimagine journalism in modern times was a question posited by the call for papers? For all that is said about journalism’s future, telling stories about diverse groups, having journalists of diverse backgrounds tell stories, and moving away from the patriarchal homogenous approach has to be one of the strongest panaceas.

This week, Sir Lenny Henry captured it with thudding clarity in an address to the Royal Television Society. It gained huge traction. Here’s the tweet I captured that leapt out amongst other flying quotes.

A reimagining of diversity should be no more difficult than journalism. Simply put, to re-quote Sir Lenny, “put your money where your mouth is”, and hire the talent who more than demonstrate ambition and big dreams. Hire the talent because they exist. We know that. You, perhaps know that. Except those in power seem not to know.

I’ve spent almost thirty years in journalism, living highs and disappointments. The debate around reform has a strong legacy of advocates, before my small additions, proclaiming rightful answers around lobbying, movements, and fairness. In the 90s, a group and I called ourselves the Creative Collective to urge change. We had as our patron one of the UK’s much respected news anchors Jon Snow. In the early 90s I went to work in South Africa, where Apartheid was still active. It said something about Britain’s market place to make that move.

Just as in broadcasting, the debate can often be intellectualised; fuel for thought. It must move beyond the boardrooms and conferences — that’s amongst my rallying cries. Bring talent together to make it happen.

Hence our project, shaped by five unpaid people, had a purpose eliding ideas from Vanity Fair and this. In the summer of 1999, the eve of a millennium, The London Evening Standard placed several young black talent, including me, on the front cover of its magazine. It started a conversation, though in the absence of social media it was limited. Now time for a reboot and some.

This fresh thinking was to shine a focus on those whose work we admire and you would too. It was to aestheticise them (as if they needed it) and their work. It was to draw curiosity and questions. It was to re-imagine diversity and journalism by philosopher’s Husserl words in “being”. Being present. By making the extraordinary ordinary and to celebrate the many who seek as Viola Davis would say “opportunity”.

Photo David Freeman/ Leaders’ List

This then is the Leaders’ List, which occupied an exhibition space, Mayor’s office and toured schools.

At one on the schools where it was exhibited, the teacher would tell me, the school children were fascinated asking questions about who the people were. They were curious learning, for instance, about David (eight from the right, back row) who writes for Dr Who, or that Abigail Dankwa( far right, front row) is one of, if not only, few live television sport directors who is black.

Pat Younge, Angela Chan, Aaql Ahmed Photo David Freeman

If you don’t know them, the video below introduces a handful. Imagine being at a (journalism) conference and being captured like this amongst your peers. What’s not to like? But equally important, the once hidden in plain sight is now visible. Your relationship with this gives weight to a phenomenon known as social proof. Generations now seek to aspire to be similar, if not more.

To learn more about the list, email me at Gyimahd@cardiff.ac.uk

Photo Leaders’ List /Photographer David Freeman. Producers: Co-producer/co-creator Simone Pennant MBE and Dr David Dunkley Gyimah. Background photograph Gerald McLean. Book and Design Gerald McLean.



Dr David Dunkley Gyimah

Creative Technologist & Associate Professor. International Award Winner Cinema journalist. Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled Top Writer,