Women of color, stop trying to change your hue in photos
The photo technician who knows you’re using skin bleachers
There was never any question from me about what my career would be in. Although multiple relatives couldn’t wrap their minds around why I didn’t go to law school (admittedly I am aware that I can argue for hours on end without tiring and did end up co-blogging a legal series with my former lawyer), during my early undergrad years, I briefly tried making photography my minor.
I’ve been taking photographs nonstop since I was 11 years old and have bookshelves full of photo albums. I refuse to give up my CDs full of pics and stubbornly only buy laptops that allow me to use an external disc drive just in case I want to look at old photos again. So it made complete sense that I’d want to learn how to develop film and become a part-time photo technician.
During my undergrad years and a few months after graduation, I worked in two major retailers’ photo departments (disappearing by the minute). People and their photographs are interesting. Similar to the gripes of beauticians, people want magic to happen in their photos. Gained a few pounds? Make them look slimmer anyway. Took a photograph completely out of focus? Figure out how to sharpen it.
I was used to people asking for impossible tasks for amateur photography. But there was one particular lady of Middle Eastern descent who stood out among many. I was fairly new to the photo department, and several team members had already told me not to bother waiting on her. She only wanted a blonde European photo tech to handle her photos. I thought that was dumb. She and I would physically do the exact same job so why did it matter who touched her film. I ignored both guys (one of which was my Mexican supervisor and the other was African-American) and walked over to talk to her when she came to the counter.
The woman, who had sharp features hidden behind her hijab and sunglasses, was fairly pretty. Nothing about her struck me as this intense lady that had been described to me. So I smiled and asked, “How can I help you?” She looked me up and down and immediately asked, “Where’s [insert blonde, European employee’s name here]?” I confirmed that she was on her lunch break. The lady barked, “I’ll wait.” I insisted that I could develop her photographs now. Her response, “You can’t. You won’t do it right.” I raised an eyebrow and explained to her that I was new to that particular photo department but had been developing film for awhile at a past store.
She told me not to develop her photographs, but I could take her order. I was still confused, but I shrugged and took it. I went on to develop other orders and noticed that she kept pacing by every few minutes — as if she thought I was going to sneak and develop her photos anyway. Initially I wondered what in the hell was on the 35-millimeter film that was so precious.
The blonde co-worker came back about 20 minutes later. The customer raced to the counter, hissing into her ear and looking at me. My co-worker nodded and said, “I’ll take care of it.” And then the customer glared at me again and left the store. I’d had enough of the secrets. I wanted to know what the big deal was, and why my supervisor nor the brotha would tell me what was going on besides her preference for this particular blonde tech. It turned out that the woman — a dark-haired and tortilla-complexioned wedding photographer — did not want black women (or minorities period, apparently) developing her photographs because we would make the people in the photos look “too dark.”
When the blonde co-worker completed the photo development, I looked at images of this customer’s loved ones and clients who looked like ghosts. This wasn’t just a matter of lightening the photographs so darker hues wouldn’t blend in with the background. These photographs were lightened up so much that the people in them looked unnaturally pale. And it made me sad to realize that a woman could not even be satisfied with the actual appearance of darker hued people in the photographs. Not only was she not satisfied with my complexion in person but also did not trust darker-hued photo technicians to develop the photographs as requested. It was as if she knew that a brown-skinned black woman like me would see nothing wrong with the actual complexion of the people in the photographs.
This customer kept popping into my head while watching a recent Red Table Talk episode, “Colorism: Why Black People Discriminate Against Each Other,” featuring a black woman who bleached her skin until her fiancee told her that her natural complexion was beautiful. It took a man telling her that she could stop before she humored the idea of loving her own complexion, and it made me sad. It also made me wonder what happened in that wedding photographer’s life that she clearly couldn’t be happy with her pictures unless everyone looked like Beetlejuice. I don’t know what ever came of her. I ended up finding a better-paying job and moving an hour away from my childhood home, about seven months after I started that photo tech job. But I hope that she has finally come around to liking the skin she’s in, too.
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