My dear friend A. has struggled with #endo for years and never thought she'd be able to carry a pregnancy. After some careful planning and fantastic health choices, she and her husband got the most amazing surprise as a little baby sprouted up in mamma's belly. After shaking off the excitement, we decided that a celebratory maternity photography session was a must because, let's be honest, every mama deserves to feel amazing about herself as her body morphs to bring about a new life.
As a person of color, A. has experienced some explicit, horrendous racism in her life, but also that steady stream of micro-agressions and systemic racism that wears down on the body and soul. When it came to photography, needless to say, A. was worried about how the session would go when a good chunk of my portfolio includes white families.
Why would someone be anxious to be photographed, you ask? Well, first, there are issues around skin tone.
Take a look at this history. When color photography came out, the camera and printing companies used portraits of white women to "properly" calibrate their colors and tones. These portraits became known as the "Shirley Card." They were included with Polaroid and Kodak (and other brands) products so the machines could be calibrated to take and print photographs with the colors and tones decided to be "right" by a white man's industry. The effect of the calibration based on the skin tones of a white women meant that photographs of other skin tones were rendered without definition and nearly invisible. Not only was the skin of a black person printed as so entirely black that you can only see teeth and eyes, but the skin tones of Latina or lighter skinned black persons were often tinted weird tones of yellow and pea green all so that white people could look true to life.
After a significant amount of complaints and backlash, the companies began changing the "Shirley Cards" to include women of various ethnicities, including Asian and African American (albeit light skinned) in an effort to render true skin tones for everyone. Now, the images we get straight out of camera are extraordinary and true to life for all of us (as long as other settings are correct).
Flash forward to the 2000's and computer software has allowed photographers to create "presets" and "actions" (more commonly likened to filters) that change the coloring of straight out of camera photographs to look like older film images. You'll recognize the variety of editing techniques if you browse wedding photographers on Instagram. There's "dark and moody" photography which claims to be true, film style color tones that have heavy blacks, low light, and an overall orange tint. On the other hand, there's "light and airy" photography which sometimes brightens the image way too much and often aims for a perfectly peachy skin tone with otherwise pastel colors. One of the problems with subscribing to these editing styles without having a view of inclusivity is that applying these "filters" to a photo of persons of color may drastically change their skin tone because it's being shoved into something made for white people. Now, there are many businesses out there who create presets and actions who work extremely hard to make sure that their formulas work for all skin tones, Mastin Labs is a common one and works very well for people of all tones. However, these are often expensive and many photographers aren't aware or invested and will apply coloring techniques that grossly misrepresent the tones of non-white clients.
For me, I create custom edits for each session because no two people/skin tones/environments are alike and, honestly, I don't want a homogenous look. I've worked with a few people of various ethnicities and have always been able to keep their tones true, all the while maintaining my general lean towards bright, vibrant, and happy light and colors.
Coming back around to A., she didn't even know about the history and imbedded race bias in photography, yet one of her major fears was about what the final representation of her skin tone would look like. Would I whiten her? Would I tint her a weird green or yellow?
Following up on the skin tone, I provide "nude" shorties in the studio that women can wear over their own undies and under the gowns in case they have a high slit or are somewhat transparent. Evelyn and Bobbie is a bra and underwear company that I particularly like because they're size and color inclusive! They have knickers that are one-size (for real, check it out!) and they come in a variety of five skin tones. I have all five in my studio so women of all sizes and colors are provided for when they arrive at my studio.
Next, there are plenty of issues around general anxiety in a private situation with another person, often a stranger. In some cases, people have experienced trauma, are fearful of being touched, are worried about their safety, and more. In some cases, there are worries about even feeling worthy enough of to have the photography session in the first place.
In this case, I've been in those shoes, have experienced severe trauma, and know what it is like to feel unsafe in my general surroundings. Because of that experience, I am generally sensitive to and aware of these fears within my clients. I try my absolute best to make sure that my studio is warm and welcoming and that I provide a private space. I always ask before fixing a hair or a sleeve or strap and never want to advance towards someone without asking permission. The last thing I ever want to do is frighten a client who I'm supposed to be making feel safe.
Are there ways I can improve? I'm sure! If you have any thoughts, please tell me, I'm always receptive to constructive criticism or being made aware of things I may not be noticing.
Do you have any thoughts or feelings about photography and inclusivity? If so, share them in the comments below! I think it's important to not only be passively inclusive, but to be explicitly so. The anxiety that some groups feel doesn't start after they've booked a photographer, it starts way back at the beginning of the search.
Elusive Photography is a fine art maternity and newborn photographer in Portland, Maine and Boston, MA. We have a photography studio in Westbrook, ME and a full wardrobe of size-inclusive gowns for you to wear and feel fabulous in.
See more of the maternity photography portfolio here, and check out the new Baby Plan while you're at it! I'm here to make you feel beautiful for your maternity session, but also to give you cohesive, safe, and stunning newborn photos and baby photos as well. Get in touch, I'd love to meet and get to know you!