The Photo Issue
Introduction by Eugene Robinson
Racism is this nation’s telltale heart beating ominously in the collective subconscious. From time to time we come to believe we have expiated and silenced it once and for all. But then it is back — changed, perhaps attenuated, but unmistakable.
Eleven years ago, we were congratulating ourselves on a historic milestone: the election of Barack Obama, the first African American U.S. president. Some dreamed — foolishly, it turned out — that we had finally entered a “post-racial” era. Instead, we find ourselves at a hyperracial moment of heightened friction, a time when six in 10 Americans believe race relations are “generally bad,” according to a Pew Research Center survey, and nearly two-thirds believe it is now more common for people to express racist views than when Obama left office.
More than half of us blame President Trump for making race relations worse, according to Pew. But Trump may be more of a symptom than a root cause. If he exacerbates and exploits jagged divisions for political gain, he is able to do so because those divisions were already there.
It is depressingly easy to quantify the stubborn disparities that linger from our centuries of racism. The median black family earns just 62 percent of what the median white family earns, according to the Census Bureau, and has little more than one-tenth the accumulated net worth — gaps that have barely narrowed since the 1970s. Latinos fare, on average, just slightly better.
Much harder to catalogue is how Americans feel on a personal level. Racism hurts. A growing body of research shows it negatively affects the mental and physical health of its victims. Like any burden, it wears the bearer down. Sometimes it makes you feel like lashing out. Sometimes it makes you feel as if you are drowning.
In what surely is not a coincidence, racism is rising along with diversity. The country’s 10 biggest cities and two biggest states are already majority-minority, meaning non-Hispanic whites no longer constitute more than half the population. The nation as a whole will reach that tipping point around 2045. Hispanics are now such a huge minority that one could argue the nation is already functionally bilingual. Perhaps the sense that demography equals destiny has something, or maybe everything, to do with the fact that about half of white Americans, according to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem in the United States as discrimination against minorities.
This is how the war against racism goes: progress, setback, optimism, despair — a cycle that frustratingly repeats and yet somehow inches us forward. Racism may be worse than in the recent past, but the individual and collective punishment it metes out is a shadow of what black Americans suffered a half-century ago. We have no choice but to believe that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. We have somehow taken a detour, however, and must find our way back to the true path.
This issue is devoted to photography that documents this moment — not just our external struggle with racism, but the internal struggles as well. Some of the images are beautiful and unsettling. Some are jarring. If some make us uncomfortable, that is progress. An easy conversation about racism is not a real conversation at all.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist focusing on politics and culture.
The photographer created his own crime scene. The infraction? Being black.
Text and photographs by Marvin Joseph
When I was tasked with creating imagery that shows what racism looks like, what came to mind were all the troubling but increasingly common ways African Americans die at the hands of law enforcement. Recently, for instance, a young African American woman, who was at home in Texas with her nephew and had been playing video games, was shot through her bedroom window by a police officer.
For further inspiration, Malon Ali and I visited the Spirit Halloween store. While we were looking for the ugliest masks we could find, we spotted the faux crime-scene tape. The epiphany took hold instantly for both of us. The tape would illustrate the message: that being black in America can be a crime. Malon’s dark-skinned body would be wrapped mummy-like and consumed by this tape — which is proving impossible to shake off. His attempts as he leaps, poses, runs or even dances are in vain. He cannot escape the ever-looming presence of racism.
Marvin Joseph is a Washington Post staff photographer.
Speak Your Mind
Talking about discrimination can require careful navigation
Text and photographs by Marvi Lacar
If the pain of overt racism is like a brutal stab wound — instant and searing — the trauma of systemic and casual racism is like the phantom pains from an amputated limb. It is the constant pinpricks of a wound that can’t fully heal. It is the external reminder that you’re not quite like the others, and the gnawing self-doubt that you may never be enough.
But to speak of this type of pain can be risky. You can be told, “You have such a chip on your shoulder. Get over it!” or “You’re always acting like a victim!”
Most people of color play a balancing act when advocating for ourselves and our children. We straddle the line between finding a space to speak openly about injustice and trauma, and guarding ourselves so that our experiences and our grief aren’t turned into racial tropes. We proceed with caution, lest our stories be stripped of empathy and subsequently used against us. There are consequences of vulnerability.
Yet some parents, like Ilka Alcantara and Alicia Volel, are cognizant of their inherited trauma and are more open to addressing the reverberations of hate around their two girls. Best friends Indiamara and Ayainna, both 11, grew up in middle-class homes in Dorchester, Mass., with two working professional parents. What is grim about their stories is the commonality of their experiences. They speak of everyday realities many children and families of color have grown inured to — realities so typical, in fact, that these daily offenses no longer possess an urgency in their hierarchy of problems.
Marvi Lacar is a documentary and commercial photographer and director. Her personal work is centered on the emotional and psychological manifestations of generational trauma.
Even in dolls, our tendency to objectify black female bodies comes through
Text and photographs by Delphine Diallo
As a French Senegalese woman, I contend with the stereotype of what the black woman should represent. I’ve been a graphic designer, art director, video editor and now a professional photographer for the past 10 years, and yet, throughout my experience working in the industry, I was seldom given credit as the woman doing the work. People still ask me, at 42: Are you a model? In everyday professional life, I’m too often seen as an object, the fantasy of the exotic black woman. Even now I still have to answer “How did you get the job?” It diminishes not only the work I have done, but who I am.
When we are looking at the success of stars like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj — and the archetype they represent — we see how over-sexualized their bodies are. That focus can bring about real pain in girls of color who don’t look like them. I respect the work of those artists, but I’m sick of the perpetuation of “body first, mind after.”
When I began exploring how to represent the black woman as an object, I didn’t want to photograph a real woman because I wanted the focus to be the woman as a subject, not as an object. So I started to research the different types of black dolls the toy industry has created through the years. To my surprise, Mattel’s Barbie had the most choices: curvy, skinny, light-skinned, dark, big hair, braids, short hair, colored hair. Despite that range, the dolls ultimately still represent preferences about the black body. Toys are for children to play with, but they can also carry their own messages.
Delphine Diallo combines artistry with activism in an effort to empower women, youth and cultural minorities through visual provocation. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Artsy, Vice, Essence, Smithsonian Magazine, Time, Vogue Portugal and Aperture.
Face to Face
How our skin color affects the way others see us
Text and photographs by Jana Curcio
Despite the universality of one’s desire for freedom and acceptance, achieving that desire takes on a very different meaning based on one’s culture, race and the tonality of our face. “Skin Tones” is an art project that examines the notion that an individual’s perception of her- or himself is inherently tied to one’s skin color, and this, in turn, determines one’s perception of others. It influences bias on a personal level, and bias across races at a macro level. Race and racism go hand-in-hand, back-and-forth in different directions.
“Skin Tones” visualizes this idea through the use of color blocks — based on the human skin tone set. The faces are presented as fragmented forms and are intended to ask, “What is racism these days?” Do the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty, still hold true? And as we respond to people seeking freedom and acceptance both within and outside the borders of the United States, how do matters of race come into our responses?
In combining multiple faces to form a collection of images, I wanted to look at the interconnected nature of our skin, its tonality and the perceptions we have of ourselves as well as the perceptions others have of us. In doing that, I juxtaposed many ethnicities — and also the many facets and faces of racism.
Jana Curcio uses composite digital photography and mixed media in her artwork to explore issues of interpersonal relationships and the complex struggle around one’s identity. Her work has been selected for numerous international awards and has been shown in galleries across the United States.
In some areas of Chicago, the signs of environmental injustice are everywhere
Text and photographs by Carlos Javier Ortiz
For the past 15 years my work has focused on addressing injustice in black and brown communities. I target issues of structural discrimination, violence, poverty, migration, marginalization and human rights. My work in film and photography has always revolved around what I call the beautiful struggle: life after death, family stories, human resilience and bridging the spaces between these subjects.
For this issue I was compelled to address the topic of race in a different way and thought about neighborhood effects on people of color, who are the most vulnerable population when it comes to environmental injustice in urban America. Environmental racism begins in the barrios and neighborhoods where black and brown people live, go to school, work and raise their families. In the third largest American city, Chicago’s black and brown people live in some of the most polluted neighborhoods, surrounded by superfund sites, toxic landscapes, illegal dumping and air pollution.
We often don’t correlate racism with polluted neighborhoods in American cities. That seems like something that happens on the other side of the world. But the reality of environmental racism has been rooted in America’s history, in which municipal zoning laws and restrictive policies such as Jim Crow and redlining have locked the poor into toxic neighborhoods — and today not much has changed.
To illustrate the landscape where environmental injustice takes place in contemporary Chicago, I spent most of my time driving in and around black and brown communities: neighborhoods on the South, East and West Side of the city, once populated by European immigrants considered to be the undesirables many years ago. I didn’t have to look hard for the structures polluting our neighborhoods; they tower over us, hiding in plain sight behind schoolyards, between ribbons of concrete highways.
The residents in these neighborhoods have injected their culture and labor to make the city what it is today. Chicago’s politicians need to step up and provide safe neighborhoods, living-wage jobs and excellent public schools with a clean and healthy environment for the people who hold the city on their shoulders.
Carlos Javier Ortiz is a director, cinematographer and documentary photographer who focuses on urban life, gun violence, racism, poverty and marginalized communities. In 2016, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for film and video, and his work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and the Library of Congress.
The dangers of internalizing racism
Text and photographs by Jahi Chikwendiu
I keep hope, but I have lost all faith that this country will ever appreciably cleanse itself of deeply entrenched racism. Its barrage is constant and unavoidable warfare.
Before reaching school age, I knew of only one family in our neighborhood that wasn’t brown. I was mostly shielded from even the idea of racism until yellow buses transported us out of brown stomping grounds and into school hallways that flowed mostly pink. It didn’t take long to recognize how we all were being primed to understand racial differences and unequal treatment. My rambunctiousness compared with that of pink classmates seemed to always bring much harsher reactions — teachers’ scolds from behind stern glares. I met with the principal’s paddle more than a few times. When I stopped giving him the tearful response he seemed to seek, he’d solitarily confine me all day in the office’s supply closet. The only light came from a sliver under the door that would allow my eyes to adjust from seeing total blackness to seeing the room as clear as day. Outside the door, chummy adult voices greeted one another as if there wasn’t a child locked away nearby.
I was still in elementary school and playing in the living room at the home of friends when their teenage brother popped from one of the back rooms wearing what must’ve been their father’s white Ku Klux Klan outfit. As my younger brother and I instinctively lurched back, he lifted the pointed hood to reveal his laughing face. Their father was also one of our peewee football coaches.
“Why are all the niggers in the back?” It was the first time, but not the last, I heard our high school football coach launch the n-bomb. It was during warm-ups, in front of all the players, in one of my first team practices after transferring to the school. When I found myself the only one openly protesting his racial slurs, the coach told me, “Son, I could make you a star. But I’m not.”
Trying to list every racist act I’ve shunned and overcome would be impossible. Instead, when presented with the challenge to visually depict how racism stymies the collective potential of black people, I decided to create a series of photos meant to be a “Whitest Hands” version of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” In that book, Pecola Breedlove — a young black girl — is convinced that her life would right itself if only she had long, blond hair, white skin and the bluest of eyes. The images here are intended to be sirens: startling alarms to wake us from internalizing the myth of white supremacy and the reality of racism, which has led us to blind, deafen, silence, even choke ourselves. To refrain from internalizing racism’s offerings is to give ourselves better chances of breaking the surface of racism’s murky depths, like lotus flowers blossoming skyward.
Jahi Chikwendiu is a Washington Post staff photographer.
The Race Card
The photo industry’s historical bias toward particular skin tones
Text and photographs by Marc Baptiste
In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the Shirley Card was used by Kodak as the guide across the board to match the skin tone in photography to a white woman (the original Kodak model at the time was named Shirley). It took Kodak years to modify its film to more accurately capture tones.
I have spent my entire career testing and mastering lighting, using various films, learning early on that you cannot use the same lighting for all skin tones. I believe that the level of integrity, care and responsibility of up-and-coming photographers — and my peers — to uphold a positive and accurate cultural narrative is changing for the better. Social media has given rise to those who embrace melanin and can create their own narrative. But there’s still work to be done inside the media to ensure that the level of technical lighting skills matches the assignment when it comes to our representation.
Lack of inclusion and diversity in photography continue to have an impact. Colorism! In 2015, Kerry Washington was on the cover of InStyle magazine and appeared many shades lighter than her actual skin tone. More recently, Rihanna was on the cover of American Vogue and appeared much darker then her actual skin tone. Just saying.
As a photographer, I like all skin tones. We are all different, and we need to celebrate that. We need to keep it real.
Marc Baptiste was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and moved to Brooklyn at an early age. An internationally known fashion and portrait photographer, Baptiste says love for his birthplace influences all of his work.
Styling by Alexander Garcia.
Carved in Stone
At Georgia’s Stone Mountain, the state’s ties to the Confederacy cast a long shadow
Text and photographs by Sheila Pree Bright
“Georgia is beautiful. Yet on its beauty rests something disturbing and strange.” — W.E.B. Du Bois
This photo essay — which I’ve titled “Invisible Empire” — explores the tension at Stone Mountain Park outside Atlanta. These landscape images are my visual journey around this appealing mountain, which features an enormous memorial that became a symbol of the white South and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. The stone is the largest exposed granite in the country and home to a carving depicting Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
In 1914 the United Daughters of the Confederacy advocated for a memorial so that the memory of the Civil War would stay alive and support the making of more Confederate memorials. On Thanksgiving night in 1915, white, male, middle-class citizens met atop Stone Mountain with a flaming cross and a Bible. The carving of the memorial began in 1923 and finished in 1972.
In the early 1920s, “evangelical Protestants in particular flocked to the Klan,” according to Nancy MacLean’s “Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan.” They were mobilized by campaigns using the movie “The Birth of a Nation” and recruited from fraternities such as the Elks and secret societies such as the Freemasons — organizations that for decades had strict laws ensuring that they were for whites only.
Today the mountain and its surrounding park are known as a recreational spot for families and visited by 4 million people a year. On a sunny day, as I walked through this serene park looking at the yellow daisies — called Confederate daisies — I asked myself: What does it mean to absorb this energy in a public space? How should I feel confronted with this symbol of the Confederacy, which has terrorized black people for generations, while enjoying the alluring beauty of the mountain 10 minutes from my house?
My mother and father grew up during the Jim Crow era. In their daily lives they endured the trauma of racial hatred. I know I have internalized the same psychological upheaval. But I try to imagine what liberation from this painful legacy of violence looks like.
Sheila Pree Bright is an acclaimed fine-art photographer known for her photographic series “Young Americans, Plastic Bodies, and Suburbia.” She is the author of “#1960Now: Photographs of Civil Rights Activists and Black Lives Matter Protests.”
In Our Skin
A photojournalist depicts what it feels like to be on the receiving end of ignorance and hate
Text and photographs by André Chung
I talk about race and racism with my friends often, sometimes daily depending on the temperature of our collective anger. So when I started this project, it was vital to create something collaborative because I knew there was more to be said than I could say alone. We have all had different experiences that led to different reckonings, but it was understood that none of us were unscathed.
When I think of racism, I don’t think first about the injustice; I think about how it strikes my body. Racism knocks me outside of myself. Sometimes different versions of me rush forward to inhabit my corporeal self, giving me the strength to survive the psychic and physical onslaught. This is the feeling that I wanted to infuse the project with. As a photojournalist, documenting events is intrinsic to my work. However, documentary photography is too literal to get to the emotional, extrasensory experience that I think is necessary for these images. I encouraged my friends who were involved in the project to think about how racism makes them feel and to bring those feelings with them to the photo shoot. What I’m interested in are raw, emotive images that draw on symbolism and a disruption of realistic imagery. It is important to me to capture and render this viscerally, because I don’t believe that we can interpret racism entirely through our intellect alone.
We cannot escape racism any more than we can escape our skin. Post-racial America has been and will remain a myth. I’ll settle for a post-racist America, because in this moment we see that the distance we have traveled isn’t far enough. For this project, we took aim at a country that won’t recognize our humanity, or citizenship, or even our right to take umbrage. We insist that racism is the racist’s problem, that our own humanity is intact, and that the people who spew hate are the ones who have the greater problem. We took the pain and used it, and became stronger than we were.
André Chung is based in Maryland. His work has always explored the relationship of people of color to the world.
Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Christian Font.