Race and Photography
January 5, 2015
It kind of goes without saying that I've been black all my life. Being black has put me in some interesting situations that revolved around my race. I've received backhanded compliments on how well-spoken and articulate I am, I've had people think they were showing me some form of respect by referring to me as "educated". I've grown up always feeling slightly uncomfortable by these things, but it took a lot of searching and honestly, a lot of finding people who shared similar experiences and feelings of frustration to come to terms with my own feelings. This also allowed me to see things differently, both in hindsight and in present-tense.
A few months ago, I watched a documentary called Through A Lens Darkly. The film was brilliant. Not only did it allow me to see black photographers like Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee, but it also allowed me to see black subjects, in a time where the image of blacks in America was completely handled by whites.
The keyword there is "completely", because while it is not completely handled by whites today, there's no denying that they still hold a major share in how people of all colors perceive us. Anyway, it was really refreshing to see photos of elegantly dressed men and women during the Harlem Renaissance. It was amazing to know black people were being shown with dignity in a time when it was much more common and acceptable to show us as buffoons with exaggerated features. It was comforting to see portraits of black people in a time when it was preferable for us to be photographed hanging from trees, in a time when lynchings were ticketed events of entertainment. It was also really angering at the same time. I was sitting there and just thinking about how many times history has been covered up, staged, and skewed and for what? The effects of it all are inescapable.
Living while black is different, and that is regardless of what you earn, what you do, or what your upbringing is/was. The film is set to air on PBS next month, so please keep an eye out for it.
I've shared PetaPixel's article about photography's old white guy problem before, and it really hits home. It's disheartening to think that a camera company, or any company, would stick to such an archaic representation of what a photographer is. Now, I'm not saying that these companies are actively disqualifying black photographers as representative of their camera brand, but I am saying that systematic racism has soaked in the bones of our culture enough that we can be completely overlooked and it's not seen as odd or questionable. The scenario can be viewed at a high level and be seen as benign, but it's not. It's a real problem. You don't know how happy I am when I go to a concert and I see that there's a woman in the pit, another person of color, etc. It means a lot. It would mean more if I could see more diversity in how people are represented by the industry leaders.
I once had a discussion with someone about highlighting photographers of color, after having seen a similar campaign done for female photographers, which I thought was wonderful and necessary. The discussion really didn't go far, because I was shocked to find that the women's campaign was being halted. What was even more upsetting is that the campaign was being halted with the founders departure, which says to me that they didn't respect what she believed in enough to keep it going without her. That definitely meant that any chance for a similar campaign highlighting black people, or any person of color for that matter, was off the table. Not only that, but I noticed that, following this discussion, the person I had spoken to was increasingly distant. I tried to write it off as coincidental; the person was busy with their own things, budding successes and the like. However, as time progressed it was clear that there was a barrier. We were mutually following one another across social media, and then I noticed this was no longer the case. This was not an "old, white guy" I was talking to, but he would be one eventually, you know? I didn't bother to address the issue, or the distance, but it definitely made me take an inventory of friends and confidants. Is this guy racist? No, not at all. The thing is, he was able to look at the current situation around equal representation and ignore the fact that there's an imbalance. He chose to comment that the way to go was to "continue to include everyone", which ignores the imbalance that exists in the first place. You don't get to have a head start, then halfway decide that we're going to both run on our own strengths, when you're still clearly in the lead.
It's awful to think about how many double standards exist. When I asked people to help fund the purchase of my 24-70mm f/2.8 last year, I got some help, which I was very grateful for. However, I also got snide remarks about how I'm expecting people to pay for my gear, which is absurd. These people were friends of mine. Why is it that when I ask for something, it's a handout, but I know for a fact that other people could do the same without question? I asked for assistance because I needed it. I spent lots of money I didn't have for an art I love, and I really couldn't comfortably afford this particular item. I even offered prints in exchange, but nope, I must be some sort of freeloader. So after a month of feeling like crap about it, I closed the fundraiser, took the money I had raised, and paid for the other 80% of the cost myself. That, added to the other times I made an investment in my art and received no return, has me pretty severely in debt. Of course, the debt is my own and is no one's fault but mine. However, I should not have to feel guilty asking for help. It's really upsetting.
It's also upsetting to think that my work is probably not as well received because don't have the "right aesthetic". I don't mean my work's aesthetic, I mean mine. My face, my features, my skin, my name. Sometimes I try not to think about it, because it's discouraging. However, I refuse to ignore it. As I said, it is definitely a constant part of existence for me as a black man, just as the ease of ignoring it is a constant part of existence for a white person. You know what was really painful? To see all the things happen last year surrounding young black men, killed by police, and thinking that it could just as easily be me. I could be walking the street anywhere, taking photos, and all it would take is one call from someone about a suspicious person wandering the streets, and I could be stopped, harassed, assaulted, killed. I have been followed after taking photos before, and I have been questioned. Fortunately for me, these have been non-threatening situations, but they weren't comfortable ones.
I looked at my bank account, my credit card bills, and my stockpile of unsold prints, and it just made my heart heavy. I think about the recent success stories I know, and no one looks like me. I'm tired. I'm not quitting, but I'm tired. I'm essentially broke, and I'm broken. Continuing what I do is entirely because I love it. People who look nothing like me scoff and say—from a pedestal of success—that you have to do it because you love it, as if I was unaware. I can't financially afford to invest in what I love, and I can't emotionally afford not to. That doesn't change the fact that when I go to conventions and speak to my friends, and they are in the presence of influential people, that I am spoken through, not to, if my presence is acknowledged at all. It doesn't change the fact that a large number of people that speak there aren't people who resemble me.
I write this with trepidation, because I know that people will probably assume that I'm just whining, but I assure you, I'm not. I'm extremely proud of my accomplishments and who I am, but I won't actively ignore reality. I have had literally everything I've ever done that deviated from stereotype questioned all my life, from my intelligence, to my demeanor, to my interests, who I date, etc. Whenever these things come into question, it is always a matter of race. Always. I've even had a good friend question my manhood because it didn't fit in with a certain type she was used to from other black men. That is not cool. I digress.
Anyway, it's pretty depressing to have to write about this. You know what else is depressing? That even if I do become successful beyond my wildest dreams, I'll still have people assuming that I got a pass. It's depressing and angering, so I'll stop here. I do want to encourage discussion about the subject. Please leave a comment, share with people you think can contribute. I really appreciate it.