Photographing People of Different Races

Photographing People of Different Races

Several years ago - more like several decades ago - I was photographing a piece for National Geographic WORLD magazine. The article was about edible wild plants and how kids loved to learn about them and even cook using them in the ingredients.

In those days, society was only in the beginning stages of including a mix of racial and ethnic groups in magazine stories, but I suggested to my phenomenally wonderful editor that I shoot a scene with both white and black children, a suggestion she eagerly embraced. The fact is I was strictly a landscape photographer back then and had no idea of the trouble I was getting into.

So, on a nice Fall day, I assembled a group of kids, parents in tow, to shoot the scenes in a wooded area in Delaware. The shoot was uneventful and the kids, parents and I had a fun time with it. Since I knew this would be a test shoot (thankfully), I sent my film to a lab rather than dropping them off at Nat Geo for processing. Good thing.

When the film came back, I was shocked. When I exposed for the white kids, the faces of the black kids went totally dark and lost all detail. When I exposed for the black kids, the faces of the white kids were entirely blown out and featureless. Lessons learned. Fortunately, I was able to reschedule the shoot, gave the parents reflectors and diffusers to cope with the discrepancy and we laughed our way through the entire shoot. That experience also taught me to respect environmental portraitists.

The reason I mention this is that in preparing for an upcoming workshop I came across a funny, but also poignant article on this phenomenon written by journalist Dodai Stewart, who happens to be African-American.

If you are interested in the history of photography, of Kodak’s development of new films, and especially the issues involved in filming black and white subjects together, you should take in this short and very readable piece.