Minority Photo Series Highlights Achievement through Diverse Voices, Not Just Hollywood Elite

“WHAT DOES IDENTITY MEAN TO YOU?” Notecard Board, Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles, CA. Photo Credit: Bridget McCarthy

LOS ANGELES, CA — What does identity mean to you? That’s the question that photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is asking at his installation in the Annenberg Space for Photography. The entire portrait series features headshots of famous figureheads from different minority lists: “The Black List” “The Latino List” “The Women’s List” and “The Out List.” The installation also premiers the new fifth List of photos, which is “The Trans List.” Each list is accompanied by a documentary film aired on HBO. The trans list just aired last night.

Greenfield-Sanders himself does not fit into any of these minority lists he covers. He is a straight, white man who grew up in Miami at a time when it was racially segregated. According to Greenfield-Sanders, the exhibition focuses on the triumphs amidst the many obstacles that these minority communities face.

At first, the concept perplexed me. I had seen the various posters across Los Angeles advertising the exhibit, which featured Pitbull, Neil Patrick Harris, and Chris Rock. Even though I respect these artists and the minority communities they each belong to, I wondered: would this exhibit, which is supposed to give a voice to those not always heard, focus only on the rich and powerful?

Seeing the photographs of the Hollywood elite across Los Angeles was in fact what enticed me to go in the first place. The recognizeable names and celeberity faces with the words “The Out List” or “The Black List” underneath was what drew me to look it up.

My first thought after viewing these advertisements was not about the everyday person who belongs to these communities. However, gradually as I planned my visit, I experienced some uneasiness that it appeared to not focus on the average person who lives in these minority groups.

Right before I went to the exhibit, I thought about how strange it was that in such a diverse city like LA, it had still taken portraits of stars to make me listen to the disadvantaged minorities all around me. On my way to the exhibit, I felt a lot of guilt. I felt like I should be looking at profiles of the latinx community all around me, instead of looking at photos of Eva Longoria.

But, upon entering the free exhibition, I was pleasently surpised that Greenfield-Sanders, the straight, white man from Miami, had worked to feature more than just movie stars.

The 150 plus photographs range from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, to Caitlyn Jenner, to trans army Sergeant Shane Ortega, and to 19-year-old trans activist Nicole Mainnes.

Back in 2008, Greenfield-Sanders’ first documentary and photography series was “The Black List.” His goal was to feature not only high-profile people, but also black history makers that may otherwise go under the radar.

Greenfield-Sanders said in an interview with the LA Times, “I started to think of African Americans that I knew who were so accomplished, who were remarkable people, but you didn’t really see them,” he said. “They were lost in the celebrity shine of Oprah and Barack Obama. You didn’t see Faye Wattleton [the first black and the youngest president of Planned Parenthood] and T.D. Jakes [an influential preacher]. I thought that would be interesting for a portrait show.”

It became clear through the exhibit that even though some of these subjects were of upper-class celebrity status, they were still a part of the struggles in each of their respective minority groups. Greenfield-Sanders wanted to show their accomplishments while also displaying lesser-known activists, and present all these people as equals. He does so successfully.

Next to Laverne Cox is a portrait of a 6-year-old trans black boy, and both are equally as piercing, celeberity or not. Each subject is given the same amount of wordspace near their photo, no more and no less. The exhibit didn’t only focus on the achievements of Hollywood stars, like I feared. Instead, it beautifully told the stories of individual triumphs within minority groups, each with the same significance as the last.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders uses a view camera to produce the exact same image as is on the film. That’s what makes every portrait across the lists so intimate.

“View Cameras are large format cameras in which the lens forms an inverted image on a ground glass screen directly at the plane of the film.” — Annenberg Studio, Photo Credit: Bridget McCarthy

The exhibit also features a short documentary of five people from each list, including Nicole Mainnes, Sonia Sotomayor, Elvis Mitchell, Neil Patrick Harris and Gloria Allred.

Gloria Allred, a feminist lawyer, says, “When I was about 25-years-old, I decided I wanted to move from Philidelphia to California. I had 2 suitcases, $100, a 5-year-old child and a lot of dreams. And I was a single parent.”

Allred describes that a year after the Watts riots, there had a been a lot of white flight, and a loss of teachers. So she applied to teach in Watts. “I felt there was nothing to fear, even though the neighborhood had been burned down. ’Cause I knew they were just young people, and they wanted change, and they wanted a better life.” Allred also describes that in civil rights, what attorneys often seek in the moment isn’t always popular, even if it’s what’s right. Allred’s comments directly relate to Los Angeles, and racial injustices that minority communities like Watts still face today.

She encourages those who have been the victims of injustice to be assertive, and to seek out those who will help. As a victim of sexual assault and a feminist, Allred powerfully speaks about trying to gain equality with men. “If a person is not a feminist, I have to believe they are a bigot. We should all be proud to be feminist.”

“If a person is not a feminist, I have to believe they are a bigot. We should all be proud to be feminist.” — Gloria Allred

Neil Patrick Harris also talks about how the fear of being gay growing up was always the fear of being affeminate, or not being a masculine man. “I never felt sexually comfortable in my skin,” he says. Growing up in Hollywood, Harris much rather perferred to be teased for playing Doogie than for being feminine.

As he got older, Neil Patrick Harris says he was concious of presenting his sexuality in a way that would give him the most work. He felt pressures from his managment to be sexually ambiguous in order to be a successful actor. “I do think it’s difficult for someone whose got a syllibant s,” Neil says putting on a fake lisp, “even if they’re really masculine, if they’re talking with a hardcore lisp, it’s hard to play the football quarterback in a movie.” But now, he finds there are so many examples of gay people in popular media, that sexuality no longer fits into those stereotypical boxes.

“It’s such an interesting time now, cause the gay visibility is so present,” says Neil Patrick Harris. “Normal, mainstream middle America that doesn’t witness a lot of diversity, can now get that diversity through television.”

Greenfield-Sanders’ exhibit also features a virtual reality portion, that shows him taking portraits of trans Olympic athlete Chris Mosier. It gives the viewer a 360 perspective looking down from above, supplying yet another way to see the artist’s subjects.

VR Area, Annenberg Space for Photography. Photo Credit: Bridget McCarthy

On my way out, while filling out a “What Does Identity Mean?” note card, I wrote down confidence. I watched as a young latinx man in an Oakland Clippers jersey pinned down his notecard on the board before leaving quickly. He had “LA” in big letters with other supportive phrases, each about getting out there and accomplishing something.

To me, his phrases summarize what the exhibit was supposed to represent: achievements within minority groups. And making sure you are always willing to reach your goals, no matter if you’re a woman, latino, gay, black or trans.

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The exhibit runs through February 26 at the Annenberg Space for Photography.

Annenberg Space for Photography, Photo Credit: Bridget McCarthy

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