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:

billycolleenprenup3

Image by MyMetroPhoto | Oly Ruiz

billycolleenprenup

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:

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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


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135 thoughts on “Are These Photos Racist?

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply! Yes, I believe they asked permission and probably paid the locals to appear on the photos. And yeah, the shoot would’ve probably sparked less controversy had they included only natural surroundings. I should also probably clarify that they did shoot a bunch of other photos without locals, and those really highlighted the beauty of the place instead of drawing flak.

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  5. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm.. I don’t think they were insensitive to the plight of the Ethiopians in the shot. Maybe they were just out of touch with the social climate these photos were released into. People coming from different backgrounds and life experiences are bound to have differing perspectives on these images. In the end, they did say they could’ve done better in anticipating how the photos might be translated.

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  6. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “You can definitely DO something racist without intention.” ~ Your reply really touched on the meat of the matter, right here. Can an act be racist even if it wasn’t intended to be so? What really makes racism what it is? These are all difficult to fathom. Personally, I think intention bears a lot of weight in considering matters of racism, because it’s the belief that one’s race is superior to another which leads one to act in prejudice or discriminate against others. But it’s been brought up as well that these beliefs of superiority may be so embedded in one’s psyche that it never manifests as conscious intention, but shows in terms of actions. So, I think the debate’s still up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That last part is exactly it. That’s what the concept of white privilege explains. It’s like being a fish in water. A fish doesn’t realize it’s in water, but that doesn’t mean it’s not in it or swimming. Intentions can be (as you’ve mentioned) conscious, unconscious, or subconscious. Either way, the act itself can still be racist, regardless of the intention. Thanks for allowing me to express this point here.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. 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”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love how you always bring strong statements to the fore! Honestly, when I first saw these photos, I also felt there was something off about them, but I had to ask myself why I was feeling that (hence, the birth of this post). I wondered whether in considering these photos as racist, I was the one thinking of the Ethiopians being in a lower status?

      As I read through more comments and conversations on this, I’ve figured out that maybe the difference in clothing, appearing to portray status difference, was what evoked my initial reaction. After I read Billy and Colleen’s statement mentioning how the kids being in the shoot wasn’t planned and was sort of in-the-moment thing, then I understood why. Still, could’ve used a little more foresight on the part of their production team as to how the photos might be received.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This is a very tricky subject because it all boils down to perspective. People have their own initial reactions to the subject matter and these reactions somehow influence other people’s reaction and feelings, especially, when posted on social media. Then, it became a big issue.

        But having an initial reaction and acting upon it is what matters. Gathering answers to all the ‘whys’ and setting out all sides of the story have helped others to think about it again.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Also, I think, we all should need to learn how to normalize things, people and everything in between. Especially people, we shouldn’t be defined and marginalized by our social status, color, race or ethnicity. I think if we all learn to do that, there will never be a problem seeing each of us together in the same place or in this case photo.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, I believe that’s where a lot of the criticism is directed–how the photos appeared to show a difference in class between the Ethiopians and the couple. Maybe the styling of the shots could’ve just used a little more thought and insight so as not to have evoked the negative reactions it did.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. You have certainly opened up a discusion..Do I think it is racist…No! Bad taste or naivety on the part of the models and the photography possible or just bad taste …Thank you for the follow 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • My pleasure! Thank you also for reading and joining the conversation, Sharon! I appreciate your feedback. I kinda side on naiveté about how the photos might be received. But they’ve apologized for it already, and I guess we’re all a bit wiser because of the discussion it opened up.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The ignorance levels of so many people these days is unbelievable.
    It would not be an easy thing to do, trying to convince me that those people were just following these two around to bum a sandwich.
    I would tend to believe that these two paid good money for these guides, and possibly even for protection, like maybe to let these two know ahead of time so these two wouldn’t make the mistake of trespassing on an Elders land.
    Let them come to Texas, I got a lot of Friends, and we will earn our racism cash for taking them where they have never gone before.
    keep up the great work and pics,
    Robert

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Sometimes we see life from a dark heart. What jump out to me in these two photos were two things; the elegant outfits and the beauty of makeup represents the life style or desire; as for the background, I see it as a represent of something deeper, something they both love, adore, care plus it’s important to them. Maybe, they wanted to capture what was dear to them at this time of their life.

    But, I do have the mindset of seeing life as a half filled glass.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject., plus the ponding question about racism. Being Mexican, a migrant worker with a math degree, married to an Chinese man, and taught in a High School with a high Jewish population, I’ve faced different types of racism, plus being accused of being a racist which came from people who didn’t know my heart.

    Again, thank you for you follow and enriching my mind. Have a beautiful, blessed day.

    Liked by 1 person

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