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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Racializing Infants: When Anne Geddes Came to Seattle

from Google image search for "Anne Geddes"
by Sharon H Chang

She's been called legendary; famed; one of the world's most respected photographers. Her images are award winning, internationally acclaimed, considered iconic and beloved by many. She's sold over 19 million books and 13 million calendars in at least 83 countries and translated into at least 25 different languages. Anne Geddes is a globally renowned photographer famous for her whimsical portraits of infants and children in fanciful, fairytale-esque costumes and settings. The Australian born artist is also a global advocate for children. She founded the Anne Geddes Philanthropic Trust in 1992 and has worked to raise awareness around many child-related issues from abuse and neglect, to premature birth and the threat of meningococcal disease. "Protect. Nurture. Love," her website reads, "These three words have served as my mantra and inspiration throughout my 30-year career as a photographer."

But that's not exactly what happened when Geddes came to Seattle last year for a three day workshop and photo shoot for her 2017 Zodiac Calendar.

I remember the Geddes newborn casting call very well because when it was cast to local families of color by CreativeLive (the Seattle studio hosting Geddes's visit), it immediately raised eyebrows. "[Geddes] is looking for 6-7mo babies of African American descent" and "newborn babies of Chinese descent," wrote CreativeLive in their solicitation. I of course was struck by the strange specificity of looking only for African American and Chinese. What about Native, Indigenous, Latin@, etc. identifying babies? Other local families wondered, why Chinese and not any of the at least 23 other Asian ethnicities represented in the U.S.? Particularly puzzling given the largest Asian population growth in the United States from 2000-2010:

[source: API IDV]

And further, where did mixed-race babies fit into this? CreativeLive offered a seemingly simple explanation. "Final images will incorporate images and symbols referring to the Chinese zodiac so [the Geddes team] are hoping to find proper cultural representation," wrote a production assistant, "If the baby is multiracial - half Chinese, they will still be considered as a participant."

But that answer didn't make sense at all given the inclusion of white babies and call for African American babies, nor did it address the exclusion of non-Black, non-Asian babies of color (don't even get me started on the "half Chinese" bit). And it turned out the production assistant was flatly wrong, throwing the purported quest for "proper cultural representation" into gross light. Anne Geddes's 2017 calendar is themed on the Western zodiac, not the Chinese zodiac, which is blatantly obvious when you watch the behind-the-scenes video of the shoot CreativeLive later posted to YouTube:

How could a paid employee of CreativeLive not know this extremely relevant piece of information? Consider the level of cultural insensitivity and ignorance here and the danger of those behaviors in a racialized environment. Already the practice of ethnic casting itself is difficult in having sprung from a standard definition of beauty as white, which then must label anything other-than-white to include people of color in that same definition. Given this, it would seem highly advisable to proceed with as much awareness, sensitivity and thoughtful respect as possible in trying to recruit families of color in a nation fraught with a long history of racism. However when Seattle mom Sarah* brought her mixed-race baby to the Anne Geddes shoot, she alleges things did not improve in the slightest. Sarah was extremely disturbed and upset by her experience. On day one she recalled:

The Black babies were dressed up as lions (this was revealed once all the babies and their families had shown up to the shoot) and it appeared that the darker skinned babies were selected to be photographed first. This gave me the impression that they purposely wanted a baby who "appeared Black" - all the babies were Black but there was, of course, a range of skin color. [It] felt very stereotyping.

On day two, Sarah said (and as you can see in the YouTube video), Asian babies were dressed up as goats for Aries. On day three white babies were dressed up as flowers in pots for Aquarius. "So the babies of color were dressed up as animals and the Black babies as lions no less," Sarah noted wryly, "And then the white babies just got to be white babies in little pots." If you're having trouble understanding why this is problematic, please know: (a) animalizing people of color is a long practice of racist framing, the higher up the better, the lower down the worse, (b) only 4 of 12 Western zodiac signs are represented in human form (Aquarius, Gemini, Virgo and Sagittarius), and (c) Aquarius, bearer of water, also meant "The Great One" in Sumero-Babylonian according to Wikipedia.

Greek zodiac signs [image source]

If you find yourself doubting the veracity of Sarah's testimonial you need look no further than the YouTube video posted by CreativeLive to see the truth in her words. You'll notice the conspicuous absence or downplaying of people of color. Babies are consistently surrounded by Anne Geddes's team which scans entirely white/light-appearing. In being interviewed, Anne Geddes gives her thoughts, opinions and backstory to a white representative presumably from CreativeLive. Parents of color are featured only in wide shots (mostly profiles and the backs of their heads) receiving instructions with generally unreadable emotions. White parents, on the other hand, are featured prominently in closeups clearly smiling, laughing admiringly and having an enjoyable time.

If you find yourself admitting the racial under/overtones but still thinking the whole thing pretty innocuous, another case of "he said she said," and wondering how much it matters anyways -- let me add one final piece to the picture. The 2014 Seattle shoot was the first time Anne Geddes opened up her creative process to a public audience. The shoot was livestreamed by CreativeLive for free to anyone and everyone with access and interest all over the world. Considering Anne Geddess is so famous, I imagine that was quite a few people. CreativeLive co-founder Craig Swanson told Komo News it was a "bucket list item" for him and that his company worked for 2 years to make the livestream happen.

It's probably a vast understatement to say that this was a pretty important event.

[YouTube screen capture]

But it's also vastly important to acknowledge the depleting impact upon families of color and their children when cultural insensitivity and ignorance perpetuate race, stereotypes and disparities. These are the recurring obstacles to self-worth that families of color routinely face not just in modeling, but across all segments of society. We also need to acknowledge how difficult it is to call out and surmount these obstacles. "I feel that this is a situation that's easy to not think critically about because it's Anne Geddes and it's babies," pointed out Sarah, adding it's easy to get distracted by the cute outfits and not look at what's actually happening. But "I feel like they are poaching off of [families of color]," she criticized, "I don't really care what their intention is because the impact is already there." Sarah said a friend of hers wrote to the Anne Geddes team to inquire about their intentions and to draw attention to their behavior, but never got a response.

Still while our questions often echo frustratingly across an empty desert of others disinterest, it's also true that pinpointing where to begin making change can be like trying to capture an invisible butterfly. Looking at Anne Geddes's formidable body of work to date, which spans decades, it's easy to see wide representation of diversity. It's clear that Geddes has an eye to the importance of capturing babies of all backgrounds and heritages. So it's surprising and confusing that her visit to Seattle unfolded the way it did. How did it happen? Who do we hold accountable? How do we work together to make sure it doesn't happen again? I don't have concrete answers to these questions. But I do know "Protect. Nurture. Love." means listening to each other so that we may be honest about our hurt, keep in conversation, and continue asking the questions. And this perhaps is the most important of all. Here's to hoping that writing and reading this post opens that door even if just a little. Anne Geddes will be back in Seattle May 6-9, 2015 for a second shoot. Let's make it a different experience this time.

*Name changed to protect the mother's identity

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