Creative Changemaker: Virgilia Facey
Written by Carmen Bellot
Creating truly diverse and inclusive environments takes more than just representation, it requires sometimes uncomfortable conversations to reiterate how necessary it is to have multiple voices and perspectives within the same room. It’s an idea that Virgilia Facey champions with her two companies, which despite being two separate entities, are rooted in creating opportunities for minority groups.
Her first venture, The Colour Balance, was founded in 2017 as an initiative to promote Black and POC inclusion within photography. “It’s a journey that I’ve found really fulfilling,” she says. “Making a difference in leveraging my own network to connect aspiring entrants to industry, and growing that to help people leverage their own networks.” Next came Gather, a creative production agency that represents minority talent to give them further opportunities. Having worked in the photography industry for over a decade, Virgilia saw first hand how often people of colour and other minority groups got overlooked. “When I started The Colour Balance, I’d been a photography agent for six, seven years,” she explains. “[In that time] I had only ever met one black photographer, which was insane, because I’ve met hundreds of photographers.” Work like hers has helped, and continues to help, many creatives get their foot in the door.
As one of our Creative Changemakers, we spoke with Virgilia about her career, how to create meaningful representation in the creative industry and how understand our privilege will create change.
FMR: Can you explain your career and how this led to founding Gather and The Colour Balance?
Virgilia Facey: I took a Fashion Promotion degree at London College of Fashion, with the aim of going into fashion journalism and graduated in the 2008/2009 recession, which was obviously an incredibly hard time for publishing. It was at that time, coming from a low socio-economic background, I looked at my career pathway and knew that I couldn’t go into something that I felt wouldn’t pay me well for a very long time. So I applied for different sorts of jobs, and very quickly fell into being a photo agent. It was by luck that it was a career path that really suited me; I really enjoyed being in the creative space and connecting creative people. Although I wasn’t directly a creative, there was a creativity in being able to manage people’s careers and help them progress and grow. So I did that for 12 years across a number of agencies and really enjoyed it.
Somewhere along the way, I began to really tire of seeing how the opportunities were just spread between the same demographics of people, and how the industry really thrived on a lot of nepotism and elitism. I saw firsthand a lot of the structural racism that underpins the advertising and creative industry. So in 2017, I founded The Colour Balance, which is an initiative that works to promote black and POC inclusion in photography. Whilst working full time and running The Colour Balance, I found time to do an MBA at business school. I really wanted to do that to strengthen my understanding of the business landscape and find ways to challenge other people to address their ways of working. At the end of 2020, which I think was a year of deep reflection for a lot of people on how they could show up and do better, I founded Gather with my business partner Victoria. With Gather, we look at inclusion in a wider scope. So not only the black and POC inclusion, but my business partner is from the LGBTQIA+ community, so we champion all underrepresented talent in the industry. That’s very much from our own personal experiences of not seeing the representation we needed when starting in industry. Gather is a creative production company, and we connect brands and agencies to inclusive shoot teams: the output is better when we work inclusively.
You were saying that when you were starting your career you noticed these barriers. Our platform is very much centred around young people trying to start a creative career, and it feels like in terms of those barriers, not much has changed. Do you think it’s getting better and is it happening quickly enough?
And I think it is changing from [when I started], and I think people are more aware of the issues. What maybe doesn’t change fast enough is that people are aware and they sympathise and they’re like, ‘Yeah, God, that’s awful.’ And then they just go about their normal day. What I try to encourage through Gather, but also in The Colour Balance, when I speak to the audience of interested parties from the industry, is just to always encourage them to wield any power they have, because everyone has power in [some form of] decision making. Whether that’s if you’re the office runner and you get the tea and the coffee, if you can find an independent Black business that you can buy that from, or whether you hire and fire and you can look at the diversity within your own team. Usually people have an element of power over a process of the business in small or big ways. And I think what slows change is people not realising the power that they have to change, or how those small decisions can be really meaningful. Even if it’s addressing nepotism, and saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t take so and so’s nephew, that’s not how we give opportunities.’ Even if it’s within the shoot team, the people that you’re employing are saying, ‘How are you going to address diversity in this shoot?’ Those hard questions need to be asked upfront. I think it’s changing slowly, I would say. I’m a very positive person, so I have to see that. If I didn’t, I don’t think I could do what I do, because I think it would be very sad and soul destroying to think that no change was happening.
Yeah, absolutely. You were saying about having to ask these hard questions, I guess a lot of your work with Gather is that you are constantly confronting people on the fact that their team might not be diverse enough, and that they should look to choose from this group of creators as opposed to falling back on the ones they always use. Do you find having those conversations can be difficult, constantly having to remind people of the fact that you need to look through a wider lens?
So I think generally, we really approach the conversation with openness. We try to challenge people to widen the diversity in their team and not interrogate or accuse. Because sometimes, as has been the case for some people, some of our clients come to us, and we don’t choose the principal creative, that’s chosen by the client, and we’re there to build an inclusive team around them. And [that creative] will never have considered it, not truly. And we’ve had people come to us after the fact and say, ‘You’ve really opened my eyes. Moving forward, I will consider this because I had never thought about where the opportunities would go, and how I could make a difference.’ So that’s the best case scenario. We’ve also had it where we’ve asked the head of department, ‘What is the diversity in your team like?’ Once, we asked this to one who had three assistants, and this question made them so stressed out they cried. It’s a journey for everyone, I guess if that’s the first time they’ve ever been asked that question, they feel very sensitive to it. There is an element of privilege to that; to even find that question so upsetting. Every shoot is different and every shoot will have its different challenges, especially when you get to very specific things, like when the talent pipeline hasn’t been supported up until this point. Sometimes it’s opening people’s minds to a different way of working. It’s always different, and I think that keeps it fresh. I think if it were always people crying every time when we ask if they can look at the diversity in their team, that would be extremely draining. I think it’s always a learning curve for us. After every job is finished, we always feel proud of the ways that we’ve achieved inclusion, because it’s not always the same.
I read your piece for Darklight Art talking about privilege and having to be introspective about how privilege is a spectrum, rather than thinking you have it or you don’t. A lot of what you’re doing is making people realise that they’re privileged in some aspects and some ways not. Do you think if people were able to see privilege in that way, would that solve a lot of diversity issues in the creative industry?
I would say that falls back into my previous comments about the power that you wield and the degrees of power you have to make change; I think that’s the same for privilege. An attendee of A Colour Balance workshop came down to London for the day from Scotland, and it blew my mind. And we do have people from Birmingham and Manchester, but someone came all the way down from Scotland, because they were seeking an opportunity. That’s how hungry people are to get into the industry. That’s somebody you want in the industry, that is someone that has got the drive to get up and go – imagine what they’re going to bring to your team if you can harness that energy. And without giving that person access, they’re stuck localised – how do you ever bring that person in? I think people realising, what privilege is and I think I say in that article, it’s not a dirty word to say, ‘I’ve had privilege, I’ve had access to that.’ Just everyone owning that would make a huge difference.
“Changing someone’s career isn’t always getting them a huge campaign, sometimes it’s the small things”
Going back to The Colour Balance and the type of workshops you do, you’re probably surrounded by so many young people. How do you think they view the creative industry? I think every generation wants to bring something new, what do you think they’re going to bring?
I think they are ushering in an era of authenticity, they’re demanding it. They challenge and interrogate things far more than I did. When I joined the industry, I was bobbing along being like, ‘Okay, this is how it’s done. We don’t speak about all these things. That’s weird.’ And these people say, ‘No, sorry, why would I work on the weekend? I’m not getting paid for that.’ Or, ‘No, I don’t want to work five days a week, I want to have a work-life balance, I want time for my creative process. So no, I can’t give you my blood, sweat and tears.’ And I think it’s amazing that they’re so bold. It will be interesting, because they’re not afraid to use their voices, to see how that does shake things up from the bottom up.
I think the thing that hasn’t changed the most, that I remember when I was starting in the industry, I was so energised for it. And I think by working with so many people starting their careers, that energy is infectious. If you can be around that energy, make sure you are because there’s nothing more infectious than someone that’s really hungry for it thinking everything that they’re a part of is a privilege. They’re so happy to be there and so keen to collaborate and make things work.
It’s quite well known how important workshops and mentoring schemes are for any sector. Can you explain from your experience with The Colour Balance, how you’ve seen it help people? And why you feel like these initiatives need to be supported and given a lot more attention?
For The Colour Balance workshops, I wish I had the time and capacity to run more. Every time we put one on, we have a set number of places, and it’s normally four to five times oversubscribed every time we launch a new date. There’s such an appetite for these workshops and access, that’s why more people should run such things. When people say there’s not a talent pool to choose from, they are there, they’re just so restricted in training and the things that they can get access to. I say all that you need to have is a desire to want to work in the world of photography. Even if you’re not sure that you 100% want to be a photographer, don’t limit it to that, because so many people come to our workshops and just say, ‘I didn’t know what a photo agent was,’; ‘I didn’t know what a studio hand was,’ etc. The base workshop that we do is called ‘Introduction to Assisting’. People don’t realise that a decent, regular working assistant could be on about 50 to 70k a year, depending on how trained they are. They don’t realise that could be a career in itself, let alone a career that would pay them while they develop their own creative practice. So I feel like if you don’t know somebody in it, you don’t know all the roles that there are. People sort of understand the role of a photographer or a director, but they might not understand all the roles that support that principle creative. It’s not a solo enterprise, it’s a team collective effort.
Through networking, and finding like minded people, all of these other avenues are opened up to you. I left university, I didn’t do a photography degree, I didn’t know what a photo agent was, I didn’t know about all the roles that would possibly be open to me in the creative space. It’s just something that definitely doesn’t get taught in schools. I see so many people coming to The Colour Balance with a uni degree in photography, and they don’t really understand how to get work. There is photography practice, but you also need to make it a career. There’s an important gap sometimes, not to say this is about all academic courses, but I always say it’s not the only way. And sometimes it’s not the right way for the people that I meet.
Gather was your more recent venture and ties in a bit more with your career route to this point. What is it that you love about working for, firstly, your own company and one that champions diversity within a sector that you love and have worked in for over a decade?
I think the real difference with my work at Gather to previous roles is that I find it really fulfilling. And that’s not to say I didn’t have fulfilment in previous roles. I think as a person, I’m really goal oriented. But just seeing how the industry is set up for certain demographics to succeed and for others to fall away, that is something that is very uncomfortable, or should be very uncomfortable for people. And it really is so joyous to know that you’re achieving all of your same goals – like winning new clients, making great work achieving great projects – but actually at the core and the baseline of everything we do, we create opportunities, we open doors, we are changing people’s career paths by the opportunities we’re able to give. And that’s in terms of access and showing people those possibilities. Changing someone’s career isn’t always getting them a huge campaign, sometimes it’s just the small things. We did an award winning campaign for Tesco Ramadan and we used a photographer that had never been given the opportunity to shoot food before. It’s about broadening his portfolio so that he could go to another client and say, ‘Hey, we did this award winning work, I know you typically see me in this lane, but I can also do this. And so don’t leave me out when you’re considering that brief.’ It’s the changes that you can make for people. These are the ways that we specifically need to support underrepresented groups. Because if they exit the industry, they won’t become the principal creatives. We will end up with the same talent pool that we’ve always had. So it’s about giving certain groups extra support to progress them to level the playing field.
I like what you were saying about having that support allows for a creative to grow and expand. Especially in an industry that can be really hyper competitive as well, it’s about changing the way that we work within that industry, and making it a better environment for everyone to be a part of. Because that’s where the best work is from, when everyone is able to have their viewpoint listened to. I think traditionally, the creative industry has worked in a really hierarchical way and now that’s starting to feel a bit more outdated.
That’s exactly what we say with Gather, because diversity and inclusion is what we do. And obviously between my co-founder and I, we bring two decades of production experience. So how we do this is tried and tested, and then we bring these diverse crews together. But why? The why is for the social impact, because we need to support the new talent pipeline. But in the immediate day to day, the why is because the sets are so collaborative. They’re not just ‘Oh, I just do this role so don’t ask me to do that. Don’t ask me to even look at that light while you go to the toilet! Don’t ask me to stand here,’ The way I’ve heard people speak to each other on the Gather shoots – there’s none of that. The energy is different, the air is different, just the levels of collaboration, everyone communicating with each other, there’s no way that that doesn’t feed through to the work. That’s the element that can be fully imagined, like how different the work would be and the wave it’s created. We knew the change needed to happen but actually experiencing it, it’s something that everybody feels. Which is amazing.