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Seeing the unseen: why News UK set up a creative studio for unrepresented talent

Studio PI is the first-of-its-kind from a media owner, aiming to address the lack of diversity in the creative industry

This week, media giant News UK opened a photography and illustration agency to support unrepresented creative talent, with the aim of tackling nepotism in the media. Its founder and managing director, Sachini Imbuldeniya, explains more.

This September, Misan Harriman became the first Black man to photograph a cover of British Vogue in the magazine’s long 104-year history.

“It really touched me,” shares Sachini Imbuldeniya, creative director for Bridge Studios, News UK’s content agency, who has just opened ’Studio PI,’ billed as a first-of-its-kind agency that will address the lack of diversity in the creative industry.

What struck Imbuldeniya about Harriman’s breakthrough was the fact he had only picked up a camera three years prior. “He wasn’t a fashion photographer, but Vogue UK editor Edward Enninful saw his photographs from the BLM protests and recognised his talent and gave him this opportunity. Which has now massively elevated his profile, everyone knows who he is,“ she says.

“I wanted to do the same thing for our artists... to give them this opportunity.“

It’s no secret that women, people of colour, people with disabilities and people from working-class backgrounds have been greatly underrepresented in the creative sector, a situation the pandemic has only exacerbated.

According to a Creative Access survey, of 250 young people working in or looking to enter the creative industries, 89% were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, 19% of respondents identified as having a disability and 85% were female.

Considering her experience of the media industry, Imbuldeniya muses: “There has always been a bit of nepotism as a whole, where people get their foot in the door through their social connections. As a result, there were always really exceptional talented people who’s work I’ve never come across.”

Imbuldeniya explains that, due to busy workloads, art directors (herself included) can fall into ‘default mode‘ – going to the same places each time to find creatives. And so, she decided to challenge herself to search the world for fresh, innovative work she wouldn’t normally come across and champion those artists.

After putting out an open call on social media to find talent for Studio PI, Imbuldeniya was inundated with portfolios. The challenge progressed from finding the talent to narrowing it down. And so Imbuldeniya pulled together a panel of 50 experts from the industry, including Suzanne Sykes, creative director at The Sunday Times Style, Paul Pensom, art director at Creative Review and Kevin Fay, art director at British GQ, who selected nine photographers and 10 illustrators in a blind judging process.

“These are the guys that would be commissioning them. So it‘d be great to get their input and feedback,“ Imbuldeniya explains. “I removed all names and bios of the artists and they were just judged solely on their work so that there wasn‘t any sort of unconscious bias.“

Straightforwardly named ‘Studio PI’ (the P stands for photography and the I for illustration) the agency will sit alongside Bridge Studios in News UK’s agency portfolio. Imbuldeniya stresses that is important that the agency stays small, so that every individual gets the right amount of dedication, mentoring and support that they need for development. “I didn’t want anyone to feel like a number,“ she says.

Pursuing commissions from publications and creative agencies across the sector, as well as News UK’s editorial brands and commercial teams, she explains that the team of seven (including herself) have started reaching out to creative directors, arbitrators, and art directors. “Essentially anyone that's actually commissioning, and that will be across the board. So other publications, other creative agencies, other advertising agencies, so brands, clients, everyone, basically, we just want everyone to know that we exist, we want everyone to know that these artists are here.“

While this a major move for a media owner like News UK, it’s unlikely it has the capacity to fix such a deep rooted, systemic problem. While June’s Black Lives Matter protests were likely a turning point for attitudes towards race in the UK and US, Imbuldeniya admits we’re still far away from fixing the problem.

“Sadly, there is still an issue, there’s a problem,“ she says gravely. “I can see that through all of the artists that I’ve signed... a lot of them are really thankful and grateful for the opportunity to have the exposure, to have the platform to be able to shine.“

While we may be a long way off from Studio PI becoming redundant, in the coming year, Imbuldeniya says that ’success’ will mean getting her artists on to the front cover of The New York Times Magazine or Vogue, just like Harriman.

“We want to get them to a place we’ve helped them, we’ve championed them, and we’ve celebrated their diversity,“ she concludes.

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