A New Angle: Sachini Imbuldeniya on founding an agency with diversity at its core
In the first of our new editorial series championing industry changemakers, we hand the mic to Studio Pi founder Sachini Imbuldeniya to discuss her vital work, its challenges and how we can all help.
- Jenny Brewer
- 8 December 2020
- Reading Time
- 6 minute read
Welcome to A New Angle, the first in a new editorial series that aims to give a platform to creative industry changemakers who make it their mission to disrupt the status quo. Each week we’ll chat to a person or team doing important work in the sector, making it a fairer place, championing vital causes, supporting underrepresented groups and tackling pertinent issues facing creatives everywhere.
This week we meet Sachini Imbuldeniya, founder of Studio Pi, a photography and illustration agency that promotes equality and celebrates diversity.
It's Nice That: What is your mission, and what about the creative industry are you hoping to change?
Sachini Imbuldeniya: Fundamentally, my mission is to champion diverse voices that bring a fresh perspective to the work we – as an industry – produce. The UK Government's All-Party Parliamentary Group for Creative Diversity found that certain sections of society are greatly under-represented in this industry. Women. People of colour. People living with disabilities. People from working-class backgrounds.
I launched Studio PI to redress this balance. It’s a photography and illustration agency whose mission is to promote equality, celebrate diversity, and help provide our nation with balanced visual content that is a true reflection of the society we live in. Content that is forward-thinking, bold and innovative. For too long the creative industry has been stuck in a rut. Advertising creative is determined by planners based on clicks and likes; creative agencies dominated by focus groups and big data; and much of the industry driven by the stereotypical ‘ad-man’.
We didn’t need #OscarsSoWhite to tell us that the real problem at the heart of the creative industries is a pattern of the same kinds of people, from the same ethnic background, with a similar view of the world making all of the decisions. What we need – and what greater diversity can give us – is a creative revolution.
INT: Tell us a bit about your background, or the background to the organisation, and what led you to this point.
SI: As a woman of colour from a working-class family, I always felt like a unicorn in an industry that can often be blighted by nepotism and unfairness. There are countless occasions throughout my career when I have either been the only female present at a meeting or the only non-white face. I’ve experienced discrimination first-hand at every level and at times that has made a job I love demoralising and far more difficult than it should be.
When I became a creative director, I decided that I would use my voice to try to change things for the better; to make sure I supported talented individuals in the right ways, so that they didn’t have to face a steep uphill climb to get the exposure they so obviously deserved. So, I founded and launched Studio PI. It’s a creative space that will hopefully help our industry embrace a more diverse and more dynamic future.
Studio PI currently has nine photographers and ten illustrators on its roster. They were selected by a panel of 50 industry experts via a blind judging process and assessed solely on the quality of their work – all names and biographies were removed to avoid any unconscious bias. The final roster of talent includes: Kofi Paintsil, Philipp Raheem, Martina Lang, Ejatu Shaw, Brunel Johnson, Jameela Elfaki, Ming Tang-Evans, Chantel King, Eddie Blagbrough, Selman Hoşgör, Ngadi Smart, Janice Chang, Harriet Noble, Sinem Erkas, Daryl Rainbow, Sneha Shanker, Gem D’Souza, Frieda Ruh and Ana Yael.
Photographer Kofi Paintsil sums it up well: “In these times, not only is it necessary and relevant for a new agency like Studio PI to exist, but it is also long overdue. Diversity should not be a buzzword; it is the reality of life, and it should be championed to every degree and within every space. This is especially true for me as a black creative artist, living and working in London. I am excited to join Studio Pi, for the potential of the agency and its capacity for effective change within the industry.”
What are the major challenges you’re facing, and why?
SI: The biggest one we all face, of course, is the global pandemic. We’re looking at a long and difficult winter ahead with clients and brands desperately hoping for normality to return. Artists have had an especially hard time due to reduced commissions, cancelled graduate shows, limited budgets and shoot restrictions.
I’ve been told that it’s not the ideal time to start a new business – but the lack of diversity in the creative industry is a problem that has needed addressing for as long as I can remember, and the sooner we start turning words into action, the better.
The recent death of George Floyd and the subsequent BLM protests have created a huge shift in the focus towards diversity. It’s shameful that it took another tragic event to highlight just how deep the injustice goes, but this global movement has opened people’s hearts, eyes and ears, and made them more aware of their own privileges and of the need for greater equality. It’s fundamentally created an opportunity to reset. But one of the biggest challenges is ensuring that we react to this new awakening in the best possible way so that it not only has a big and positive impact right now, but also the longevity and sustainability for future generations to come.
How are you tackling these challenges?
SI: With regards to the coronavirus pandemic, we have an amazing production team that makes sure any location work we do is conducted under strict guidelines with safety precautions in place.
As for creating a fair and equable industry to work in long term, I hope that I have the support of all of my industry contacts and peers in understanding that this is a problem we need to collectively solve. It was especially rewarding to see industry experts from other media owners, advertising agencies, creative agencies and design agencies join forces to be a part of the Studio PI judging panel and support this much-needed initiative. Their feedback was invaluable and enabled me to carefully curate our final roster of exceptional talent.
But this isn’t just about promoting diversity of people working in our industry: it’s about creative diversity too. I think brands will also benefit from a wider range of fresh voices bringing with them a new perspective to the content they produce. It isn’t just the right thing to do in terms of supporting people in our industry; it makes our work better too.
INT: How can the creative industry help your mission?
SI: I would love for creative directors, art directors and picture editors across the globe to support underrepresented groups by actively commissioning their work. But this doesn’t have to be limited to the artists specifically on our roster: if the process of creating Studio PI taught me anything, it’s that there are gifted individuals from all walks of life who deserve recognition and support for their craft – they just need to be provided with an opportunity to get their foot in the door.
Vogue’s September issue was photographed by Misan Harriman. The first Black man to photograph a cover of the magazine in its 104-year history. Misan wasn’t a fashion photographer and he had only picked up a camera three years ago, but Edward Enninful recognised his talents during the recent BLM protests and gave him an incredible platform to shine. We should all learn from this and make a conscious effort to champion those artists who bring a fresh perspective to our products and brands.
The other thing I would say – the most important thing – is to make sure that any support is not just a token gesture. There’s a real risk that artists are considered a reflection of a certain time, or movement – such as LGBTQ+ artists being commissioned around Pride, or female artists for International Women’s Day. It doesn’t have to be that way. The former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman recently said: “To all those stuffing my inbox with requests to do stuff for Black History Month, please note I’m Black all year round and happy to consider doing stuff all year round. You don’t need to cram all your requests and activities into October.” And those words ring so true.