Let’s Talk About Race and Photography
I got a comment on a photo on Flickr today of a white couple that I shot at Liberty Cafe in Bernal Heights from Sentridoh, the comment read, “how come you only shot the white people that live in bernal?” It’s not the first time that this criticism has come up with regards to my photography. Recently another photographer that I admire wrote me privately saying, “i hate to say it, but man, all your subjects are so painfully white and upper middle class. it’s scary!”
This is not true of course. I do have photos I’ve taken of black people and other people of color, but on a proportional basis, I’m sure that I do have a higher percentage of white people than not. In part this probably has to do with the locations that I live and shoot in, but maybe there’s something more to this too.
Race is a messy thing. Talking about it inevitably brings up strong emotional feelings and reactions and you risk putting yourself in a position that people end up calling you a racist. I’m not a racist though.
I actually would like to shoot more people of color than I do. Maybe I’ll try to focus on more of them that I see out and about shooting street. Or maybe I’ll just not worry about it and shoot whoever I feel like and see that looks interesting.
I do think that part of this issue involves where I shoot. I shoot a lot for San Francisco Magazine and also where I work in downtown San Francisco.
I also shoot a lot of tech events. At tech events I think there are less black people perhaps than are more generally represented in the population. This is not absolutely the case though and I’ve shot black people and white people at tech events — but the fact of the matter is, if you show up at TechCrunch 7 in Menlo Park and shoot, you’re going to see more white people there than are generally represented in the broader population. Same goes for geek dinners and photography meetups and other events that I find myself at from time to time.
In the case of San Francisco Magazine, typically I’m shooting very specific venues. These are often more expensive restaurants, clothing stores, bars, etc. in upscale neighborhoods or suburbs. Typically there are more white people at these venues than black. Although again, not always of course, here’s the shot that SF Magazine ran when I shot the Big Four Restaurant at the Huntington Hotel up on Nob Hill for them.
In part there may be something more subconscious going on as well. I have had actually some reasonably uncomfortable run ins with black people when out shooting street. Part of this may be because I’m a middle aged white dude or maybe not. Earlier this week I was shooting downtown Oakland and this black girl really freaked out and went off on me when I was trying to shoot the De Lauer’s neon sign. She told me to get my ass and my camera out their neighborhood and a consensus was quickly building with about a dozen black kids that I wasn’t welcome there. Fortunately for me a cop came out of the drugstore as the altercation was getting more serious and I quickly hoped over to a nearby street and shot over there. This is not the first time that I’ve had altercations with black people while out shooting street. I’ve had white people object to my shooting as well, but in terms of the general public it seems that the confrontations with black people have been slightly more intense.
I think I also tend to avoid some of the more high crime neighborhoods, especially after dark and so my night shooting especially tends to be in neighborhoods more proportionally representative of white people. I don’t shoot often in West Oakland after dark without a large group of photographers because I’ve personally been both the victim of theft in that neighborhood multiple times and I’ve witnesses assaults first hand in that neighborhood. Carrying around about $8,000 worth of camera and computer gear especially makes me think twice about shooting in some of the worst neighborhoods after dark.
I think part of the answer to the race question also has to do with how I shoot. Except for my close friends and family, generally I interact very, very, little with the people that I shoot. Because I don’t interact with them, I think that there is a natural distrust of strangers with cameras. This distrust may be magnified by both racial and economic disparity between me and the people that I might shoot.
Building trust takes work. It takes time. Some of the best photo journalists spend years with their subjects really getting to know them and really building a foundation of trust that can create truly a level of intimacy with photography. I don’t do this. I rarely open myself up to people that I meet in person with my photography. Most of the people I shoot, white, black, or otherwise are not even aware that I’m shooting them. I don’t take the time to get to know people or do this kind of photography. Maybe I need to spend less time shooting and more time building the personal relationships that would allow me better access to worlds beyond my own socioeconomic world.
I actually would like to shoot more black people and if anyone would ever like to invite me to a specific event where me and my camera would be welcome I’d look forward to an opportunity like that. I don’t know a better way to build bridges necessarily than that.
Race is a tough thing to discuss. Before you call me a racist though recognize that I’d like to actually see more black people represented in my photography and honestly hope that a conversation, education and dialog can help make that possible.