‘Portraits of Color’ As Told By George Aye of Greater Good Studio

George Aye of Greater Good Studio photographing Kandise Le Blanc. Photography by Theresa Stewart.

In partnership with Greater Good Studio and Dodd Pro Rental, we piloted our first ever Portraits of Color event: an all-day studio event where professionals of color can leave with a kick-ass new headshot for free. Portraits of Color is a small way the community can help give professionals of color one more asset to help level the playing field, giving them headshots at the same quality of their peers so they aren’t dismissed immediately as candidates.


I’ve been imagining this photo shoot for years, and to know that people were just about to start walking in was pretty sobering.

The first two hours of preparation time had me in sheer panic. Not only was I getting all of the gear ready and lights set up, but it finally dawned on me that this event was really happening.

All sorts of questions ran through my head. What if they hate their portraits? What if, in fact, I’m a terrible photographer and this entire idea is totally stupid? What if I take all these photos but the files all get corrupted?

Ugh.

I figured some structure would help ease the nerves of everyone involved. The process followed a simple but thought-through formula: I would first ask the portraitee to walk over to the lighting set up and have them stand on the mark. I then gave them a quick review what all four lights were doing—reassuring them that all the lights will just wrap them in a warm blanket of light.

‘There’s nothing you have to do — you look amazing just as you are.’

From left to right: (Top) Nia Easley, Janell Nelson, Tayo Akinyemi, Sejal Shah-Myers (Bottom) Marianella Osorio, Reveca Torres, Rhonda Hardemon. Photography by George Aye at Greater Good Studio.

It’s after all of that that I would take my first exposure—to make sure all the strobes are firing—and the first photo would appear on the huge iMac tethered to the camera.

The participant saw themselves within seconds—and it’s in that moment where they saw themselves looking powerful and beautiful.

Up until that moment—up until seeing your own face—getting a portrait taken of yourself seems slightly abstract. It’s a startling moment, but I saw that fog clear every time I photographed someone at Portraits of Color.

George Aye of Greater Good Studio photographing Ingrid Nelson. Photography by Theresa Stewart.
Ingrid Nelson. Photography by George Aye of Greater Good Studio.

Because I had designed the interaction between photographer and subject in this way, I was able to quickly make each person comfortable. Building rapport goes a lot faster when each party is not nervous.

Once I had my first participant photographed, I was able to stay in flow for the rest of the day—a great contrast with my usual day as a co-founder of a design studio which is packed with meetings and phone calls back-to-back.

The most impactful moment of the day for me was working with a young woman who was visibly nervous (more visibly nervous that the rest of us) to get her head shot taken.

Her and I looked at the previous person’s photographs so she could get a sense of how the portraits were looking, and in turn, how hers would look. It only helped a little.

From left to right: (Top) Zhenqi Ong, Vivianne Segura, Tomi Obikunle, Will Ngo, Kamya Bijawat (Bottom) SueSan Chen, Ryan Dai, Avery R. Young, Theresa Stewart, Andrew Yoon. Photography by George Aye at Greater Good Studio.

But as soon as I started to take photographs of her, she was stunned.

“I’ve never seen myself look this good,” she said.

I responded, “Really? You’re beautiful!”

She started crying as soon as I finished the sentence, and that’s when it really hit me.

Maybe she truly has never seen herself look like this—maybe this is the first time she’s had a visual evidence of her own beauty. Or maybe she genuinely doesn’t consider herself to be beautiful.

She really helped me understand how important this project could be for people of color holding any amount of self doubt to be truth.

Lauren Viera and Nche Onyema editing her resume. Photography by Theresa Stewart.

It’s been said that you can’t be what you can’t see, so my hope is simply to increase the chance of a person of color to see themselves in a professional community more frequently.

Even now, I still struggle to find Asian leaders—not only in design but across multiple domains of business and the social sector. It makes the phenomena of ‘imposter syndrome’ even harder to get over. It’s one thing to feel like you are a fraud, waiting for someone to call you out, but it’s another thing entirely if you never see anyone look like you in your journey to where you are today.

Portraits of Color is inherently a very simple idea, and it’s designed to be scalable, portable and practical. That’s why it’s especially important that I thank Theresa Stewart. Not only did she and Ingrid Nelson provide hair and makeup on the day of the shoot, but Theresa also had the foresight to invite Lauren Viera, a writer who provided resume clean up services during the event.

From left to right: (Top) Ariel Hargrave, Lauren Viera, Luis Santillanes, Kandise Le Blanc (Bottom) Devi Bhaduri, Lotus Lindez, Yash Rastogi. Photography by George Aye at Greater Good Studio.

Portraits of Color can be—at one level—purely aesthetic or highly practical.

I would love to see and hear of others taking this idea and treating it as a platform to advance equity for people of color everywhere. Anyone with access to a cellphone and a big window can make Portraits of Color work for them.

Anywhere there’s a community of people of color, there’s a need for beautiful, powerful portraits to be taken. Now more than ever do we need to make spaces for people of color to be celebrated for who they are — without performance needed or permission given.”