Are These Photos Racist?

There’s been debate and clamor in social media about the pre-nuptial photos of Philippine celebrities Billy Crawford and Coleen Garcia shot in Ethiopia:


Image by MyMetroPhoto | Oly Ruiz


Image by MyMetroPhoto | Oly Ruiz

Some people have expressed concern and even rage that these photos appeared to make “accessories” or “props” out of the Ethiopians in the shots. Concerns over racism erupted, with some netizens pointing out how it seemed the Ethiopian women and children were included in the photos just to highlight the “glamour” of the couple against a backdrop of relatively simpler-dressed locals. Others didn’t go as far as saying the photos were racist; but said they did feel the photos were “not right.”

I read a lot of comments, on multiple posts about the issue, to inform my opinion about this one. It’s a tricky matter to comment on. What exactly is in these photos that triggered a whole variety of reactions from people, ranging from the supportive to the hateful? There are multiple layers of debates going on, because really, there are at least three parts to this issue: (1) intent, (2) execution, and (3) perception.

First, intent. I literally googled “what is racism” to help me get a grasp of the main contention here. Racism means “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” The first question we must all ask is: Did Billy, Coleen, and everyone else who conceptualized this shoot intend to direct prejudice, discrimination or antagonism against Ethiopians based on the belief that they’re superior to them?

I would have to vote a ‘no’ on this one. I read someone share that Billy and Coleen held their photoshoot in Ethiopia because they wanted to showcase its beauty and culture. Showbiz talk or not, I think Billy and Coleen deserve the benefit of the doubt and I would like to believe they meant well. I mean, who in their right minds would want to hold a photoshoot to send the message that they’re considering people of another race inferior to them? That’s just sick. If they did intend for this to be the message, then we can just stop discussing right now and conclude that hell yes, there’s definitely racism here. But as it is, I don’t think that was the intended message at all.

Second, let’s talk about execution—how that intent was translated into something tangible. Here’s where it gets tricky. In the creative arena, virtually everything you produce is open to people’s interpretation. Two creatives could have exactly the same idea and intent, and yet end up with two completely different-looking outputs. And while each person in the audience is bound to interpret a creative output differently, there are certain creative styles that do steer people to certain directions as they attempt to interpret what the creative work means.

In the case of Billy and Coleen’s shoot, for example, if their intent was to showcase the vibrant culture of the people in Ethiopia, then the fact that it wasn’t the message that came across to many people could mean the execution didn’t exactly align with the intent. From a creative standpoint, the photos aren’t bad. But the vibe and mood they evoke do seem to be more regal than communal, leading some people to feel there’s a hierarchy at work—thus, the “This is racist!” or “This is wrong!” comments, because although Billy and Coleen couldn’t have actually been thinking “We’re superior to these people,” the look of the shots could have steered some people towards that impression. Consider the following commentary on a Vogue magazine spread of Keira Knightley in Africa:


Image from Media Dissection

“This ad shows Keira Knightly, a Caucasian woman, standing on top of the rocks, above all the Africans.  The type of garment she wears as well as the large skirt overpowers the ad page and this sends a message of white dominance.  As a matter of fact, most ads tend to do this.  When ads do incorporate minorities, they are depicted in stereotypical ways or similar to this case, show white superiority.” ~ Joanna Mei, Media Dissection

Some netizens suggested that a better way to go (in executing the intent to promote Ethiopian culture and beauty) would’ve been to capture how Billy and Coleen interacted with the locals and immersed in the community’s day-to-day life, rather than have them pose in glamour shots all serious-looking with the locals.

Third, let’s consider perception. Ah, here’s where it all goes haywire, really. Especially if the execution isn’t exactly on point and doesn’t appear to be representative of the intent, expect people’s perceptions of a creative output to vary widely (and not in a friendly way, either). Judging by the number of angry reactions and unhappy comments about the photos, I guess it’s safe to say a lot of people felt disturbed, and did feel that something was wrong about the photos.

I still think the photos were NOT intended to discriminate, antagonize, or show prejudice against the Ethiopians, but something about the execution of the idea behind them has obviously steered some people to perceive something’s not quite right about the photos. The big questions, then, are these: What really defines racism? Is it the intent behind the action, the action itself, or the perception of the action? Is it a combination of some or all of these?

If the creators of the photos never intended them to be racist, but the photos still end up being perceived as sending a message of superiority or discrimination, then are the photos actually racist?

Thinking about this has gotten me in circles going from one side of the argument to the other, and now I’ll leave you to reflect on it, too. Please let me know what you think! We need the perspective and input of as many people as possible on these discussions. ♦

UPDATED [ March 13, 2018 • 4:35 AM • PHT (UTC +8) ]

See the couple’s statement here:

Billy, Coleen address ‘racist’ prenup photos | ABS-CBN News

About the Author •


109 thoughts on “Are These Photos Racist?

  1. I will echo a few others’ posts here and say that when I initially looked at the photos I saw classism, not racism. Their clothing and lack of interaction with the people/culture portrays a sense of superiority. If the photos had been meant to draw attention to the wealth gaps that exist in most countries I think the photos would’ve suited perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Tracy! Yeah, it’s unfortunate the difference in clothing appears to portray that difference in social class. I really think this was just a matter of lack of foresight as to how the photos might come across to some people.


  2. I think you’ve been very fair and thoughtful here. I think there’s also a great discussion going on about how these come across as more classist, distasteful and clueless. I think these photos provoke a lot of reactions (understandably), but I don’t know that we should interpret them as racist, especially given your point about intent. I think we can criticise without assuming such abhorrent motivations as racism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, this discussion is truly bringing out a lot of opinions and insights! I love how thoughtful and open the WP community is in talking about these matters.

      I too believe that the photos weren’t motivated by racism. But an interesting blog post by a fellow blogger (Sheena) who’ve read this post raised the point that when it comes to racism, “the determining factor is impact, not intent.” So that’s another angle we can view this from. You can check out what she wrote here:

      Liked by 1 person

      • I really agree with you- I thought that was really great that people were so thoughtful and open about it on here 🙂 .

        That is an interesting perspective- I will read it- but I think that does border on dangerous territory, since if you go merely on impact, then it’s incredibly subjective and I think it would both make it easier to accuse and harder to exonerate. I think it’s possible to hear both sides out.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a really interesting and balanced article. I think the fact that the subjects are dressed in regal clothing in comparison to their environment gives off a superiority/inferiority vibe.
    I think this is why it’s good to have diversity and a range of viewpoints behind the scenes so that there is someone who picks up on whether an ad or spread will be seen as problematic. But here I don’t think their intentions were bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts! Yes, I think the reason the photos were found distasteful by some is the “superiority/inferiority vibe” they seemed to evoke. It’s still strange to me how no one in the prod team picked up on the photos being potentially seen as problematic, but I think it’s totally feasible especially if there wasn’t a range of viewpoints consulted.


  4. As you quoted: Racism means “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” It says nothing about intent or one’s belief in superiority being consciously acknowledged. I’ve heard people use the n-word and say they don’t intend anything derogatory. Ignorance is an opportunity to be informed of possible racism, so intention, words and actions can be congruent. You’ve certainly generated an important and engaging discussion. Superb!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for sharing your insights! I guess there is a possibility that unconscious beliefs and tendencies may have been at work. That observation makes this circumstance even trickier to examine… but at least, we’re forced to think harder about these issues and to define/redefine the concepts we have. As you pointed out, ignorance is an opportunity to be informed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. These photos evoke complex reactions.
    My first response was, “How can this be racist; there aren’t any white people in it.” That came up out of my preCambrian upbringing in the fifties on the edge of the American South, and I was laughing at myself as the words echoed in my head. My people didn’t consider even Italians or Spaniards as quite white enough. Sixty years later, I think Whoopi Goldberg and I are the same race — human.
    Then I saw the resemblance to the Delhi Durbar. The richest of England held a celebration in India, in which King George V received fealty from the Indian princes. There was more bling per square yard than the Oscars, and the poor people of both countries paid for the event.
    These Ethiopians may be poor, but they are all dressed up for the occasion. So, not racist but colonial?
    I think Arsenio Franklin’s, “Not racist. Distasteful.”, hit just the right tone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your ability to laugh at yourself as you noticed your initial response speaks of a high level of self-awareness and humility, qualities which I think are crucial to steering society off the wrong path. I haven’t heard of the Delhi Durbar before, but that’s an interesting comparison to consider! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Whatever the outcome I think it’s very naive to think that these pictures would be embraced. It looks like they’re the king and queen of the poor people. It has the opposite effect of what they thought was their intent.
    Either they wanted attention through negative press or they are just plain ignorant!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I appreciate your questions and thoughtful insights. I don’t know if I would call these photos racist. They are definitely disturbing. They show stark separateness, coldness, and contrast. I wonder about the beliefs of those who set up and chose these photos. You clarified my reaction with your words that the celebrity couple is more regal than communal. In the first photo their body language is completely detached from and dis-interested in the woman and child next to them. Why is she even in the photo if they are not going to look at her, stand with her, or interact with her in some way? The children in the second photo look unhappy. Now that I look again, everybody in these photos appears to be unhappy. What’s the point of that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My guess is they thought of the images as simply depicting a local scene in which the couple strikes model-y poses…I don’t understand the point of the posing as well; maybe there was no point except to have them all together in one shot, with a sort of foregrounding effect? The “separateness, coldness, and contrast” you mentioned probably summarizes the reason why some people perceived there’s something wrong or off about these images. There might not have been anything inherently wrong with them, but perception can make it so. Well, there’s a lesson to be learned for everyone here, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting post — thanks for it. I would say not racist per se, but pretty aesthetically insensitive. Maybe this fits in with #2 of your analysis factors. I can go a little over the top with this compared to some people (not that I necessarily think I am wrong). For example, I do not like the idea of buying BMWs and Mercedes, though perhaps I could afford it. Because it creates a natural barrier between people, economically, and I do not wish to broadcast such a message. In the same way, these celebrities seem distanced from the Ethiopians rather than united with them in the fotos. You can even make an argument that the images are protest art against the bourgeoisie.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, I think the artists (photographer/creative team) were looking to have the photos look stylishly glam rather than showcase community and humility, hence the distanced posing and non-smiling faces. Maybe as time goes by, the images will take on certain messages or representations they were never intended to have. As Joss Whedon said, “Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. People call nowadays everything racist. I think if somebody is looking for a reason, they will always find it. I personally do not like, or idolize, or adore celebrities. I dislike when people are like sheep following every move somebody makes, checking out every rumor there is.
    I believe we have to live our own life. I never heard of these people on photos, but the woman looks really nice. As for the local people around, I don’t know. They must have asked for permission. If they didn’t that is not acceptable.
    Well, people adore celebrities, make money for them, make them abnormally rich, and then they try to analyze these guys. Really? I am completely anti-celebrities, anti-idols, anti-superheroes, etc. It is time value is given to a good life of everybody.
    They probably paid the local people to appear on these photos, who knows? Other than that, I love colors on these pictures, I mean, the woman is looking very good because of everything around her. Man looks somewhat rough.
    If I were to photograph this, I would include only natural surroundings. It seems nature is really wonderful there.


  10. If these pictures are racist, then political correctness is bordering on the absurd. Racism is something very nasty and very deliberate. This is not the case in these pictures unless there is some very perverse intent behind them, which I cannot fathom. Are they insensitive to the plight of those included? I don’t know.But presumably they were paid or gave their consent.


  11. You can definitely DO something racist without intention. Lack of intention does not make the act less racist. I don’t know these celebrities, but these images certainly do seem to represent cultural appropriation.


  12. Had the locals been white, would there be an issue such as this? Just asking. When I saw the photos, I tried my hardest to find anything wrong about it but I found none. It is only offensive if you chose for it to be, which these people have. I think, these people who called these photos racist are the ones who are truly racist. Trying to malign people’s minds by pretending to be “concerned citizens”.


  13. Racism is not just White against everyone else. Racism exists within countries. Tribe against tribe. The photographs I think are distasteful they show the Ethiopians in a poor way, which is poor composure of scene. The Vogue advert is equally distasteful. Is that a skirt or a parashoot? They look like very little thought to detail was put in the to the composition of the photos.


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