So I got my first “You’ve got a lovely suntan” of June yesterday. The person who asked me realised half way through that she was asking a potentially problematic question and veered off into the world of holidays and sunshine, but the damage was done. It didn’t help that I was at an opening and the people I was with had been at the sauce for a while so their I’m going to pretend I don’t know how much that pisses Tina off faces didn’t quite coalesce fast enough for my new friend to not catch it and start looking a bit panicked.
I’m sure the person was being nice when she asked me, but the fact that she would ask me and that people ask me this all of the time, well it grates.
While I was in Barcelona last week (I was not on holiday), I got asked by a few people so when I got quorum I played the you get three guesses and if you win, I buy you dinner in the most expensive restaurant you can think of but if you lose, well you just lose, game. They lost. On reflection I think I need to tighten up the stakes here and start rewarding myself a slap up meal or maybe a book token.
I can’t help what I look like, I am here because a woman from Sunderland and a man from Mogadishu bumped uglies without sufficient precautions in the early 1960s. I was born, fostered and then adopted into a white family in one of the whitest parts of the country. My suntan has been a topic of conversation since forever and, my god, it is not the most important thing there is to know about me.
I’ve only really come to terms with my skin over the past couple of years. By that I mean come to terms with being public about just how much looking the way I look means to me and how I am not prepared to accept some thoughtless person telling me that I am lucky to be this colour. I took years of abuse for this wrapper as just part of the territory I had to inhabit because I was told I had to inhabit it by people who could never really be arsed to stop for one moment to consider what it might be like to be me. People often sympathised, thanks; but sympathy isn’t empathy and that’s the pathy I most needed.
So I kept it to myself. In as much as I was ever able to keep that kind of thing to myself. It was going to Open School East that made me realise that it is possible to have not only a public dialogue about skin colour but to bring it into the work I make. When I think about why I am standing hand holding a pinhole camera for an extended period of time, I know that I am doing it in order to be present in the image too. I’m not just showing you what I decided to photograph, I’m giving you the experience of my body taking the image because my body is all of me, not just the skin, the colour, the bones. Nobody has the right to cherry pick the bits of me they like and denigrate, underestimate or flat out ignore the rest. It’s rude people, really really rude.
These days I am thinking more about portraiture again. When I photograph a person, it’s because I am fundamentally interested in that person, in their experiences and what makes them inhabit the world in the way they do. What I am not interested in is the colour of their skin in terms of aesthetics because that way lies madness and disappointment.
Over the past couple of years, I can see a change in my facebook feed and twitter stuff. The majority of what I post or repost is related to race because I’m a transracial adoptee and I grew up in a white household in a white place and I have white friends and for years I have been looking at their interests without ever really engaging with my own. I’m probably a bit too far the other way these days for some of them, but hey imho, wet plate collodion is frequently boring and yes Vivian Maier was an interesting photographer, but she is not the only woman to have ever walked the street with a camera and certainly not the best and I’d much prefer to talk about stuff like that, only now fully acknowledging the skin I’m in and the importance it has to the work I make.