I was 12 years old and paging through a photo album; my memories of the days seemed to fade in the photo’s recreation. In some pictures, I am a mud brown, in others I’m a blue black.
Some of the pictures were taken within moments of one another. “You look like charcoal,” someone said, and giggled. I felt insulted, but I didn’t have the words for that yet. I just knew that I didn’t want to be seen as a quality of a dark black that would invite hatred on my skin.
A year later, it was 1988 and the overhead kitchen light burned the dullest yellow as my mother placed four proofs on the table from an Olan Mills photo session. Each wallet-sized print contained various permutations of my little sister, my mother, father, and me. She wanted to know what we thought.
I considered each of the images. I couldn’t see my face.
“Why do I look so dark?”
“Maybe it’s just dark in here.”
She flipped the curtains upward and wound them around the curtain rod to let the dull winter light in. It didn’t help. The clothes were OK — the bright blue vest over a striped blue shirt underneath. The updo wasn’t the camera’s fault. But my eyes looked like sunken holes in a small brown face, and my pupils were invisible.
“I don’t even look like me.”
The photos were horrible. Mom was kind of blown out on one side; my father’s hair, a scalped crop fro, disappears into a faux marbled background. He’s half brown and tan, teeth capturing the strobes’ glare. My mom had saved up quite a bit of money to try to create a pastoral scene of domesticity of our rough and ragged family to give to loved ones.
I just couldn’t understand how the camera could get us so wrong.
Photography is balancing an equation between light and documentary. Beauty and storytelling. Honesty and fantasy. The frame says how the photographer sees you. I couldn’t help but feel that what that photographer saw was so wildly different from how I saw myself.
Is that how you see me? Could you not see blackness? Its varying tones and textures? And do you see all of us that way?
Teaching The Camera To See My Skin