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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What It Was Like Being Mixed-Race Photographed By National Geographic

[image source]

by Sharon H Chang

Remember these pictures? They were part of National Geographic's mixed race photo campaign "Changing Faces" published in October 2013. "We're becoming a country," stated the magazine, "Where race is no longer so black and white." The images were shot by famous German portrait photographer Martin Schoeller who said he liked "building catalogs of faces that invite people to compare them." I think it's safe to say that happened. The gallery was widely viewed (it being National Geographic after all) and more or less greatly admired (it being Martin Schoeller after all). But there was some criticism, including my own, which I wrote about for Racism Review in Mixed or Not, Why Are We Still Taking Pictures of "Race"? One of the larger questions I raised was around the idea that we use images of mixed race people to debate race, without including those mixed folk in the debate themselves. I concluded that essay with a proclamation:

While modern race-photography believes itself to be celebrating the dismantling of race, it may actually be fooling us (and itself) with a fantastically complicated show of smoke and mirrors...We need to make much, MUCH more space for something ultimately pretty simple — the stories of actual people themselves which in the end, will paint the real picture.

But here's a truth I want to share with you. I also felt at the time that me making this proclamation wasn't enough. That I had to do more than just say it. I needed to live it; make a commitment to the practice I was preaching. So. As an old friend used to say, "Where attention goes, energy flows." Soon after making this personal resolve I had the amazing good fortune of running into Alejandro T. Acierto, a mixed race identifying person who was photographed for National Geographic's campaign. He graciously agreed share with me/us what "Changing Faces" was like for him through his own experience, his own words, and his own lens.

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[image source]
Alejandro T. Acierto is an artist and musician who works in time-based media (definitely check out his stuff which is incredible He holds a Master of Music from Manhattan School of Music and an MFA in New Media Arts from University Illinois at Chicago. He identifies as mixed race Mexican and Filipino. He heard about the National Geographic photo shoot through a Chicago-based mixed race listerv in January 2013. Ultimately Acierto's picture was not published. Nevertheless he found participating a profound episode that lead him to reflect deeply on many, many things. I leave you now with his story...

What was it like being photographed for this piece?

Acierto recalled a stool, a backdrop, and multiple lights. The LED panels, he said, were pretty bright and about two feet from his face on each side. This approach is what creates the signature aesthetic of Martin Schoeller's potraiture which is known for blunt full-face closeups, little to no editing, and unflinching attention to facial detail.

So you sit on a chair with these lights that are really close. It’s actually a really tight fit to get into the booth, onto to the chair. And then Martin was positioned with a tripod and a 4x5 camera basically right in front of you. The camera was, I don’t know, maybe about a foot and a half, two feet, in front of you. So it’s fairly claustrophobic. It’s really like – he’s in your face. There’s no question about it.

The shoot was very quick said Acierto, lasting maybe 5-10 minutes, with Martin Schoeller flying through the exposures of two rolls of films. Having assisted on photo shoots before Acierto was aware what his role was as a subject. "I knew I had to look at the camera and just do as [Schoeller] told me," he explained, "Sometimes [Schoeller] would turn my face. Sometimes I would smile. Sometimes I would make a serious face."

Did you meet other participants?

According to Acierto, there were a lot of models there who had found out about the shoot through modeling agencies (which had been contacted by National Geographic). This was very surprising to him given the original recruitment email he got came through a family-oriented, ordinary listserv and specifically noted no modeling experience was needed. Acierto thought National Geographic was looking for a broad selection of everyday people and arrived expecting subjects to not have any experience at all:

So it was a little bit weird for me to hear somebody else ask me, what agency am I from? (laughs) [Sharon: was it another participant or somebody working on the set?] It was both. Both. One of the people who was working asked me right off the bat, “Did you hear about this from an agency?” And I was like, “Oh I just found out on a listserv.” And then one of the participants was like, “Oh yeah I work with such-and-such agency. Which one are you part of?” And two of the participants who were women were exchanging contact information – one of them was a stylist and the other one was actually a model.

Was there anything about the process you found problematic?

While Acierto said it was kind of fun to participate he also said the project raised a lot of questions for him. For one, he wondered about National Geographic's decision to employ Schoeller. "They know that [Schoeller's] famous and a big portrait photographer."  "And so," queried Acierto, "How does that impact what gets published?"

Taylor Swift by Martin Schoeller [image source:]

In the same vein Alejandro Acierto also had to wonder about the politics of who was photographed. That is, who got be a part of the shoot, who didn't get to be a part of shoot, and who got to decide. Acierto acknowledged it made logistical sense for National Geographic to pre-screen so Martin Schoeller wouldn't waste his time. But then:

What were the qualifications of choosing people to shoot? And what was the pre-screening process like in order for Martin Schoeller to see his subjects and then photograph them?... If I’m thinking about the process as a whole there’s a pre-screening on National Geographic’s side [by] a team of editors and then [chosen subjects] get sort of “advanced”, if you will, to the studio…Martin takes pictures of them. And then from there, Martin and the photo editor work together to select the final twenty-five images that were published and became “the face” of the Changing Faces campaign.

What was your perception of how the article was received?

Overall there was something about the whole campaign that troubled Acierto. He observed that many people, even within his own family, were excited and happy to be visibilized. But "the discussion that happen[ed] around it," observed Acierto, "Didn't actually ever really problematize the idea that race is a construct." For instance, Acierto pointed to the fact that the magazine solicited modeling agencies and the images eventually published all "look good." Privileging beauty/appearance is common in mixed race representations today. Still:

[It] reinforces the trope of beauty of mixed race folks I feel like you get a lot. “Oh your kids are going to be beautiful.” Or like, “Oh that combination is so great. You get the best of both worlds.” Those sort of things that are, I don’t know, sort of weird and strange. Sort of like exotic-ethnic.

Acierto also pointed to the fact that there's a legacy of accentuating facial features in racist thinking and practice. Pictorial representations of people of color have historically often
exaggerated certain physical characteristics on purpose:

I’m thinking about how Black folks, their features, were accentuated in minstrelsy. So when someone would adopt Blackface they would make their mouths bigger or they would like flare their nostrils. Any sort of pictorial representation of these folks is highlighting something that’s really big. For Asians it would be like tiny eyes and super-smudged eyes that would come across even like around the head it seemed.

Such depictions have served as an important tool of race-making differentiating people of color from whites. In photographing mixed race people of color the way Schoeller did then Acierto felt it was important to ask: Did the choice to center facial accentuation become another case of racial etching drawn from a long history of the same-but-different? In other words, do these photographs re-inscribe notions of race?

The lighting technique Schoeller used really washed out skin tone. Thoughts?

Certainly, I mentioned, when the Changing Faces portraits were first published and went viral some of the reaction was incredibly unhappy. Critics denounced what seemed like representation of predominantly "lighter mixes" and the colonizing of people of color through "lightening" or "whitening." Acierto said that criticism is valid and real. But he also said what we see in the images isn't likely a very reliable representation of the mixed race people themselves.

On one hand, Acierto acknowledged, the lighting technique Schoeller uses (with bright panels close to the sides of the face) is vital to the signature of Schoeller's work. It provides dimension, depth, and detail to the face where techniques like a softbox or filters applied to the lights would usually flatten the face out. But on the other hand, added Acierto, the lighting technique Schoeller uses does risk washing out skin tone. This was certainly true in the case of the images published by National Geographic where Schoeller's approach had the effect of making subject skin tone eerily similar (and lighter) when it probably was not in real life. In fact Acierto himself did a color analysis of the Changing Faces portraits:

I actually did sort of like a color comparison of each of the photos that were published. The spectrum of color on most of the faces was relatively similar. Like shockingly similar. Which was very weird. So I think there’s two subjects that are darker-skinned whose cheekbones, nose area, and most of their face, was lighter by several tones than the outsides [of their face]. Cause that’s where light wasn’t hitting directly.

Rosario Dawson (left) on, then (right) by Martin Schoeller

In the end did you find participating in the project a validating and empowering experience as a mixed race person?

The thrust of Martin Schoeller's work, remarked Acierto, is that all you need is a face to capture the essence of the person. But to Acierto that choice feels entirely political. For one, Schoeller could have chosen not to light the mixed race portraits the way he did even though it was a signature technique/style. Different lighting would have made the color spectrum (i.e. skin tone) more consistent over the face. For two, said Acierto, Schoeller's individual portraits are people without context. Subjects were told to wear solid-colored shirts:

People were asked to take off any jewelry or any sort of identifying article of clothing. People are not located in a specific space. It’s a solid color backdrop; clearly a studio space. It could be anywhere. So all that’s present is the person, the human, that’s in the frame. And just their face. You can’t tell if somebody’s arm got cut off through a conflict somewhere else. Or if somebody was sitting in a wheelchair. Like you have no idea about any of that stuff. All you know is that this is their face.

Ultimately Acierto said he wouldn't call the experience he had empowering. He agreed it's important to put mixed race on the map and conceded it was hugely significant that National Geographic chose to do so. But:

If our story is going to be part of and validated in this way, we also then need to be careful about the details of how the story's being told through the visual representations that are with it. When we’re talking about race we’re talking about images. Race is a construct built on visual stimulus. Knowing the history of those images…is an important part that needed to be considered in the publishing of the story itself.


  1. You might like to compare these portraits with those by kip fullbeck in "Part Asian; 100% Hapa."

  2. Thanks for this! I wondered about this series because I thought it was another case of mainstream media talking about mixed-race issues in the most trite way possible, by reducing us to our faces, cast in a clinical, "specimen" lighting that is disturbingly similar to colonial imagery of indigenous people.
    I agree with lihsia that this series is very similar to Kip Fulbeck's, except it has an even more high-tech look to it, suggesting futurism and sci-fi, I suppose since mixed people are the future?
    I think it just encourages people to scrutinise the faces like insects under glass, rather than engage with the real personalities and experiences of the people.