The V&A is currently showing an amazing exhibition of contemporary South African photography, investigating race, gender, sexuality, street style, HIV/AIDS, post-Apartheid life and more through the eyes of some of the country’s leading photographers.
I had the privilege of seeing the show this afternoon under the tutelage and guidance of my friend Amy, who wrote the exhibition catalogue. And thus, needless to say, knows her stuff.
If you’re in London between now and July 17, I highly recommend checking it out.
Elsewhere: Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography (Victoria and Albert Museum)
I’ve already drawn attention to Beppie’s post on intersectionality and privilege in last week’s “Best of the rest of the internet”, but I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about in more detail here.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, “intersectionality” is a way of talking about power and privilege that recognises that these things operate on multiple axes. People aren’t just female, or Black, or Asian, or straight, or working class, or trans, or a parent, or prone to depression - everyone falls into a number of different categories that colours their experience of the world in specific ways. In the feminist context, it serves as a useful reminder that not all women have the same experiences, and calls into question the still dominant notion that the neutral “female” experience is one that is white, heterosexual and middle-class.
I’m also a fan in part because it just makes feminism a whole lot more interesting. Gender is not the only front on which the personal is thoroughly political, nor should it be the only one we talk about.
Beppie’s post is about “addressing the squishy bits”, those parts of our political engagement where we face up to our own assumptions and privileges (or lack thereof) and are forced to step outside our own comfort zones. She writes about identifying those times when we should speak up, and those times when we shouldn’t.
Part of the reason it’s so important for people who occupy particular privileged positions to just shut up sometimes is because it’s impossible to escape that privilege: because no matter how good one’s intentions are, that privilege is embedded in the structure of the language that we use, it’s embedded in seemingly innocuous cultural assumptions, and simply by speaking, if we occupy that privileged ground, we reinforce that privilege.
Her post reminded me of a workshop I went to at a conference recently, ironically on feminism and intersectionality. It was clearly a “squishy” topic for a lot of the people there, because much of the conversation was uncomfortable and stilted. What perhaps made me most uncomfortable though was that in this room of 20-25 women, only two were not white, and neither of them said anything throughout the entire session. I wondered if they found the situation as ironic as I did.
The internet feminist textbook would suggest that, as a middle-class white woman, this would have been a very good time to shut up. I didn’t, mostly because I feared that shutting up would make the conversation even more stitled than it already was. I also considered asking the two non-white women in the room what they thought, but I figured this too would be rude and presumptuous - what if they simply didn’t want to say anything?
And so the entire session played out in pretty much exactly the way intersectionalist feminists critique clueless white women. I don’t know how it could have played out any differently, though. Perhaps better moderation would have done the trick? In any case, it definitely qualified as a “squishy bit”.
Have others encountered similar situations? What would you have done if you’d been in that workshop?
Image: See, hear, speak no evil.
Or a little bit of both?
Something you may not know: as part of my last job, I was responsible for sourcing and lightly photoshopping images for publication. This could mean different things, depending on the image in question - cropping for size, creating composites of different celebrities, adding a question mark or an arrow to an image, and so on.
Regardless of the other work involved, every image would undergo two procedures before it was uploaded to the website: it would be sharpened for clarity, and we’d play around with the ‘curves’, making the image brighter or, yes, lighter.
On images of white people, this has the effect of creating that glowy, luminescent look you see in so many glamour or advertising shots of celebrities. It’s part of the reason they look prettier than the rest of us. On images of non-white people, as in the case of Gabourey Sidibe above, it has the unfortunate effect of making them look whiter.
In my case, I had enough social/political/media studies knowledge to keep this in mind when employing my rudimentary Photoshop skills on images people of colour. But the experience does make me look at these controversies, when they inevitably arise, a little differently to some of my feminist/media blogger counterparts.
One retouchers’ trick is to increase the most highlighted parts of a models skin to make it seem more dewy. It’s the same seen here with Naomi. Glowy highlights blown out.
The lighting of the ‘before’ shot in the blog post you sent me has a completely different style of lighting [to the lighting used on the Elle cover]. Classic beauty lighting often involves a silver lined umbrella and card and this technique is not necessarily the way to shoot dark skin.
Still, the Jezebel blog post used a very extreme example in the other direction. Here is [an unretouched shot] of Sidibe on the red carpet with different lighting again…
The fact is that skin reacts to all different types of lighting in all different ways.
It all starts with how the photographer shoots the subject. In this case, the image should have been darkened all over. Looking at the colour of Sidibe’s hair on the cover shot, it’s really really light.
In other words, it isn’t that white magazine editors hate black people, it’s that they erroneously employ photography and retouching strategies that work best on white people. It’s not unlike the issues Jezebel identified the week before with how Sidibe’s hair had been styled - seemingly by someone inexperienced in styling African American hair.
None of the this, of course, is to excuse the image. Racism that stems from the blind assumption that what works for white people will work for all people is still racism, even if its roots lie in ignorance rather than prejudice or disgust. And one of the first things I learnt as a student editor was that what people make of what you have to say is as important as what you intend to communicate: the systematic whitening of black models’ and celebrities’ skin has been discussed enough that it’s something any magazine editor, art director or retoucher should be aware of when designing a cover.
I don’t think covers like these stem from a perception that black skin is ugly - although they probably do stem from an assumption that white models, and white magazine buyers, are the unmarked default - but by this point, editors must be aware of what the consequences of their choices are likely to be.
What do you think?