Seeing a Room Full of White People
December 27, 2012
Author: Nora Uitterlinden
A few years ago, Myra Greene, an American photographer and professor of photography, attended a workshop on wet plate collodion taught by Mark Osterman. This nineteenth century technique makes photographs look old and, due to the necessity of sitting still for the long exposure time, the people in them become dreamlike and majestic looking. One photographer who is famous for using this technique is Sally Mann, also educated by Osterman.
When Greene tried the technique by making a self-portrait, she was shocked. Instead of the angelic portraits that Sally Mann made of herself and her kids, Greene found herself terrified by her first wetplate photograph: “O my god I look like a slave!” she cried out. (note 1)
Why did Greene think she saw a slave when it was her own face and her own body she looked at? Why couldn’t she recognise the dark skinned person in the photo as herself? She had been taking pictures of her own body for years, so she knew the looks of her body very well. Possibly it was because the sad truth is that there simply weren’t many pictures of black people from the nineteenth century, except those of slaves.
We don’t always know what to make of something we haven’t seen before, so we’ll subconsciously pigeonhole it. Some people, upon encountering a woman in medical scrubs in a hospital might register the woman as a nurse, rather than a doctor, simply because the concept of female doctors is still novel. Others might not notice the people responsible for keeping their office clean, they have adjusted to the phenomenon of entering a clean office every morning.
The implications of perceptual blindness for photography are that it’s impossible to know what you are not seeing in a photograph. Greene, who had photographed her own black skin for years, was fascinated by the lack of racial consciousness in her white friends, and wanted to draw attention to this in her photography: “I recognize it when I’m the only black person in a room. My white friends will notice I’m the only black person, too. But they don’t notice a room full of white people,” Greene recently told New York Times Lens Blog. She decided to photograph only white people and try to somehow focus on their whiteness.
The series My White Friends features simple colour portraits of people in their everyday environments. As the title indicates, the subjects are all Greene’s friends, and they’re all white. Greene asked them questions about “being white” while she photographed them, but they also just chatted as friends. The result is that some people look casual, relaxed, others lost in thoughts, even a bit tense.
The portraits aren’t overly interesting in and of themselves. They are set in her friends’ daily surroundings: a classroom, a yoga studio, a few living rooms, a golf field, a kitchen. But the emptiness and slightly boring settings offer room to think: There is a question hanging in the air. The answer will vary for each person who answers, yet it bears asking:
The next time you’re in a room full of white people, would you see it?
note 1): As she recalled in a lecture