The Impact of Racial Bias in Photography

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Photo by Aileni Tee on Unsplash

One of the subtle motivations that drives my business is to address inequality: whether gender, racial, or socioeconomic. A point of frustration for me as expressed by many darker Black and Brown social media influencers is how their photos have them portrayed in an unrealistic manner.

When I became a professional photographer and started my business, I began to notice how black and brown subjects looked worse than non POC subjects. I am not sure if it is based on the lack of skill and will on the part of culturally insensitive and/or tone deaf photographers or something different altogether. As a Black Photographer whenever I see standard photos of a person of color, ranging from portraits to headshots, it makes me cringe.

This is not meant to throw shade at my fellow photographers. I am being brutally honest which is something many can’t handle. The grey cast or washout editing that makes the subject look over exposed, dead or sick. I call this terrible editing “Casket Ready.” It’s more apparent in studio and indoor photoshoots. I learned about the term Casket Ready from Makeup influencer Jackie Aina when she complained about the lack of shade range for complexion makeup. Shades that were available for women of color gave a grayish cast. Wearing makeup taught me about undertones and color balance in my photography. People of color have golden, red, and olive undertones; not just neutral. When complexion makeup clashes with the natural undertones of the wearer, it creates a greyish cast. Most of the time when the makeup clashes it’s very obvious in the frame under studio lighting. Instead of correcting the makeup (yes there are makeup artists who can’t work on melanin skin tones), the photographer just lightens the photo. Want some examples of Casket Ready makeup, google photos of Black celebrities in the 1990s.

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1990s Makeup Tumblr

Many people did not understand what it meant when I used the term “Casket Ready” until I showed the Instagram of a local model I shot and noticed his posts had his skin tone ranging from flat out grey to being three shades lighter. I even compared a frame I took of him and against another photo of him shot by a different photographer. What’s worse is when the Casket Ready editing is done by a black or brown photographer. Many times they are untrained and following the status quo as learned in school or other experiences. It occurred to me that it’s not really their fault because the hidden bias in editing darker skin tones is unnoticed.

While society is making strides in demanding inclusion in the workplace, social media, and entertainment, there is still much progress that needs to be made. The white washing or graying of Black and Brown people in photography has gone unnoticed for so long that it took the advanced technology of 4K television and the smartphone for people to start noticing the stark contrast. Part of the reason behind this problem being unaddressed is due to the number of Black photographers in high end fashion magazines paling in comparison to White photographers. In 2018 Vogue commissioned their first black photographer Tyler Mitchell for their September issue only because Beyonce requested him. If it wasn’t for her request Vogue probably would go another 126 years before they ever hired a Black photographer to shoot their coveted September issue cover. Since then Vogue hasn’t hired another Black Photographer to photograph their cover.

Vogue isn’t the only high fashion magazine that lacks a range of diversity behind the camera. In 2020, Dario Calmese became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vanity Fair. In 2019, Dana Sruggs became another first Black Photographer when she shot the cover of Rolling Stone. Less than 10 Black Photographers in the last five years have shot covers of prominent high end fashion magazines. This says a lot. Or actually screams a lot, regarding the lack of opportunity for Black photographers to succeed at publications such as Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. This is disheartening to say the least. Subconsciously, it says Black photographers do not belong in the exclusive space, in adding these high profile magazines to their portfolio.

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Photo by thom masat on Unsplash

While many well known photographers make their money selling presets, many don’t take into account that not all presets work on the 50 varying shades of melanin. Purchasing presets saves a lot of time on editing but I personally find myself having to go over and retouch frames where my subject is a person of color.

Even simple corporate headshots have the same greyish Casket Ready hue. Edited to the point the skin tone clashes with the subject’s clothing and even the background. The lightening and over darkening of melanin skin tones is an all too common practice. In some situations, the background clashes with the cover model’s complexion. Take the latest Vogue cover of Simone Biles; her complexion is literally blending with every background and the family portrait has a disgusting washed out hue to it. Seeing her profile I couldn’t help but to think, “wow did they publish this on purpose?” Many critics argued she should have been photographed by a Black Photographer. My argument is she should have been photographed by a qualified photographer who knows how to edit melanin skin.

I would recommend when searching for a photographer look at how many people of color they have photographed. Are they capturing their subject’s true to shade? Is the subject’s skin tone rich and alive? A photographer should know how to edit all skin tones; unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case as you shop around. As a customer about to hire a photographer, I would argue the biggest thing the reader should pay attention to is the portfolio. Has the photographer photographed a wide variety of diverse skin tones? As a person of color don’t accept the Casket Ready or washed out hue. Don’t accept having your skin washed out darkened beyond reality, or lightened. Demand that you are captured on camera vibrant, glowing and in living color. You’ll thank me later.

Until Next Time
Do you, Be you, Love you

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