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.

Conversation on this here.

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  1. Daniel says:

    I’m sure the black people can show themselves well .Thomas hawk is very good .I met some discussing about him on EbonyFriends.com. He treats everyone in a fair way.

  2. Nice work, Thomas. This is such a tough subject to broach without someone feeling like their toes are being stepped upon, but I think you handled it well.

  3. Not only did Thomas Hawk shoot me, he made a brother look good. I only wish I could say I returned the favor. I thought I knew how to get up early when I went out to Half Moon Bay last month, but he was out there even earlier, bless him.

  4. ToAsTy! says:

    Your not racist Mr Hawk. i think the term racism has been misused too often lately. Racism involves hate and with blogging the actual mentioning of hate.
    I also agree with your example at Oakland. Because of this incident with that group of teenagers, it makes the problem worsen.
    Maybe thats why The story of Carlos Miller, the Photographer of Miami PD’s finest got harassed and arrested? It’s not racism, it’s the anonymity of not knowing your subjects and taking pictures of them. And maybe thats why the only claim someone can make is a racial one?

  5. JeffH says:

    Thomas,

    I would not be too concerned about the comment posted on your photo. I do not know you personally, but I have been reading your blog and following your photography for almost two years. Nothing you have ever said, or photographed has ever made me think that you were a racist. Your tone of writing and variety in your photography makes me think that you are generally a fair and open minded individual. I think, as you stated, a person’s photography is a product of their environment. You shouldn’t have to make excuses for that. It seems that you have actually made an excreted effort to stray outside your usual environment to photograph, often to places others would not feel comfortable going, (for many reasons, not just social or racial), and have made some wonderful photographs as a result.

    Jeff H

  6. JeffH says:

    BTY, when I click on the ‘Conversation on this here’ link at the bottom of your article, flickr presents me with a ‘This group is not available to you.’ error message. I do have a flickr account and I’m logged in. Any reason why I can’t see the discussion?

  7. in2jazz says:

    I have had the pleasure of meeting Thomas once and I admire everything he shoots. I think there is a natural apprehension from people when they see someone with a camera not matter the race. I remember walking through Harlem last year and getting all kinds of strange looks as I shot photos on the street. Keep doing what you do and keep the great photos coming.

  8. Cecily says:

    I don’t know you from Adam (though I’ve occasionally commented on your shots), but I’m curious about something: why did you feel it was necessary to justify that particular critique with a response?

    I’m saying that as non-confrontationally as I can.

    Only you know what is inside your heart and head. I don’t think you owe anyone an apology for your chosen photographic style. If, however, you equate black with high crime, then yes, that may be something that requires a bit more analysis and soul searching on your part. I would hope that you have enough self-awareness to know the difference between a deep-seated distrust/dislike of people of color, versus a lack of opportunity (which to my mind, this is). You’re defending yourself against a position that you may not hold. You’ve been placed on the defensive, and rather than refusing to dignify it with a response, you’ve had to go through this public apology (of sorts) for something you haven’t done.

    Did you ever stop to wonder why you did that?

    Race is such a potentially loaded subject, and the way that people are so quick to hurl accusations of racism around mean that true acts of racism – whether individual or systematic – are treated with relative indifference. So on the one hand, it seems like you wanted to diffuse what could have become a ticking time bomb. On the other, by making this declaration, you drew attention to something that really might not have been a big deal at all.

    Sometimes I wish people would see fit to answer such questions with a simple “No” and then move on, without fear of what the fallout might be.

    And for the record, some kids tried to talk smack to me when I was walking through San Francisco with my camera out. I talked back to them and they were stunned.

  9. the maestro says:

    mr. hawks; race should be talked about and talked about a lot more. do you think it is a racist statement to say, “in milwaukee’s central city, one of the most poverty sticken segregated cities there are places where i, white, would never go’ is racist/ or, “i am always aware of my surroundings”
    or ” i am sure that’s a crew note the clues, ect.”? anyone saying this is racist has never been in milwaukee’s central city because the fact is your chances of being jacked or worse are posible. this is the reality. does this mean i don’t go to these neighborhooods. no. i have hung out and worked there for over 15 years and go most anywhere i want to during the day and when i am with a black friend almost anywhere at night. the point is there are some dangerous people- but on the other hand note all the store front churches and i have met too many really great black people not to know that “black IS beautifull” and also there are some that do not have a reason to value their life so why would they value yours? and remember; a camera can always seem intimidating to any one- especially someone with a bad attitude. neutron

  10. Michelle says:

    Hi Thomas, I have been reading your blog for a while via rss. I love your pictures & also your insightful thoughts on what you do. As a black woman, I was affected and touched by your post.

    The very fact that you’re openly talking about this says that you’re not a racist. If we’re to heal our society from its terrible history, these kinds of discussions and questions must be brought to the forefront. I have no problem discussing race with my white friends–most of them are genuine, like you, and honest. It’s great–although many in the black community still see this as “fraternizing with the enemy.”

    I agree with your idea of the subconscious–not a subconscious racism, but maybe a desire to photograph things/people that move you, and naturally those would be things/people that seem or remind you of yourself. Throw in societal biases and you have a pretty good recipe there. Or maybe it’s just, as the other poster said, lack of opportunity.

    I noticed that your experience of blacks is based on some limited examples (ie., camera theft). Any type of crime is traumatic, but if you’d been mugged by a white guy you probably wouldn’t be judging white people by that incident. It would just be one messed-up guy that stole your camera. Why? Because your experiences with whites aren’t that limited. So if you expand your experience, you’ll have more background and more positive feelings about the “other.” Both whites AND blacks have to work on this one.

    You don’t have to limit your photography of blacks to “black” areas–only some of us live there anyway. The rest of us are in the suburbs or other urban areas, and not segregated. The thing that struck me about your photos was that they are beautiful, and that the blacks in them were depicted as “people,” not, “This is a black guy I met…” or whatever. Continue doing that, because yes we’re black but more importantly, we are people and we are everywhere–eating, shopping, living… just like anyone.

  11. People always say to me that I should have more white people in my website. Go figure

    http://www.martaphoto.com

  12. Anonymous says:

    Glad to see you address this topic so directly and with a limited amount of self-consciousness. I think you make a lot of reasonable points that would often be edited out or changed for fear of readers finding a way to draw the worst conclusions from your statements. There are many people who don’t look to do this, but with race being such a sensitive topic, it seems much more prone than most for people too take reasonable words and read racism into them.

  13. Anonymous says:

    You ain’t racist, just White. White people don’t like to hang out with other races much so it’s only natural that most of your photos depict the people you see and hang out with.

  14. Anonymous says:

    It’s pretty racist of you to say that you would only see people of color when you go out shooting “in the streets”.

  15. Michelle says:

    P.S. And, thanks for adding me as a contact today! 🙂

  16. Daniel says:

    Thomas did a very good thing .Thomas hawk was heard by me on EbonyFriends.com. I am sure I will appreciate.

  17. Steven says:

    I wonder if you’ve thought about the two conflicts you’ve had recently – choosing to walk away from the people in this story vs. standing up to the cigar store owner – and how the situations were different or similar; that’d be an interesting conversation to have.

  18. Disoriented says:

    Thomas,

    I wish I had a chance to respond to this when it was first posted, but work just keeps getting in the way. But I do frequent your blog and I love your work! I was born and raised in San Francisco, moved to Los Angeles for graduate school, and am currently a resident in Arlington, VA. Your photos of “The City,” your analysis and commentary, and work keeps me in touch with my home and roots. I am a graduate student with hopes of being a professor, but I am also a photographer — not a pro, but a longtime enthusiast of the medium and what it can do. My primary work and research is on questions of law and culture, but I also have secondary interests in representation, visual culture, and race, be it in film, art, or … photography! So you can imagine at my surprise when the intersection of all these interests became evident in your post about race and photography. Anyways I thought I’d share a few comments and contextualize the your topic in a different way so here it is … better late than never.

    1) You’re not a racist. I don’t think you don’t need me to tell you that, but whenever subjects regarding race, it inevitably comes up. The term has very specific definitions both legally and politically and it centers around intent. Simply put, if you’re motivated to act on the basis of a bias, real or perceived, then it’s racism. It’s “subconscious racism” that generates a lot of problems that many of the posters are referring to. I never liked psychoanalysis in graduate school, and I still find “subconscious racism” problematic. Anyways …

    2) It’s not about you per se, but the camera and the medium itself. Your experience with photographing in a black neighborhood is revealing on this point. One way to think about that moment is that the camera is not simply an artistic tool, but it can be a form of surveillance, not unlike videos, phone cameras, etc. It’s not about what you are taking with your camera, but what is revealed about them to others with your camera. In the context of, for example, an impoverished, minority neighborhood, the camera is one of many forms of surveillance that often is intimately linked with the police. This leads to my last point …

    3) Photography is a politically powerful medium. It’s not solely about the art, but it’s inherent. I remember reading your posts regarding “public spaces” and private security in which you were harassed and chased out. Like your experience in the black neighborhood, it’s not you, but what is revealed about them through your photographs. For a public space, like a Muni bus station in downtown SF for instance, it could reveal a liability in public services, unaddressed safety hazards, etc. — something that people in charge don’t want to admit but can be powerfully revealed in your photographs. Photographs work like evidence. However, unlike a public space, the camera in a, for example, a poor black neighborhood, is different because it is so often linked with forms of policing. In this sense, and here is the awful irony that is revealed in your work … what is regarded as “public” is increasingly “privatized,” and what ought to be private (like a home and neighborhood), is increasingly “public” and open to scrutiny. This is the “flip-side” of your work on the the politics of photographing “public spaces,” but I hope you can understand that when race is involved, the medium of photography, the space itself, and the politics change as a result.

    I do apologize for the lengthy post and its tardiness, but I hope this adds a different light to your work and to the discussion on the post. I also would love permission to use your thread and the subsequent discussion as research materials in the future. It’s a great post and something that is often not acknowledged enough or with the care and thoughtfulness that you wrote. Thanks!

    Max