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:

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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?

    • I see. I must say that’s a brief yet meaningful comment on this issue; thanks for pointing that out! It’s interesting that I saw other people comment on the posts that the photos were “tastefully done.” I guess these are perceptions at work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I definitely think the photos would have been received better had there been proper interaction between them and the community they were visiting – for instance, they could have crouched down to communicate or play with the children. I think, as the previous comment states that these are distasteful. More thought should have been given by the photographer to where they were, although they may well have thought the reactions to them would raise their profile…

        Liked by 1 person

  1. You have analysed and discussed this so well, and I think you’ve done brilliantly breaking it down in to intent, execution and perception. I think the latter is often dependent on the person viewing it, their own preconceived ideas and beliefs and tendencies. I think Arsenio has said it well with calling it ‘distasteful’. x

    Liked by 4 people

    • “…the latter is often dependent on the person viewing it, their own preconceived ideas and beliefs and tendencies.” ~ I agree! And from what I saw in the back-and-forth arguments of netizens, this is exactly where a lot of the debate centered on. Some have pointed out that maybe those who see the pictures as racist are actually the ones who *are* racist, because they’re the ones with preconceived notions about the role/standing of the people in the photos. Made me think all the harder about the issue.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thoughtful and insightful analysis. My interpretation from looking at the photos: Not racist but truly disengaged. I suspect the photographer may have had different intentions than the wedding couple themselves and his art, there is a strong statement about the wide divide between the wealthy and the third world. It would be tempered, or have an entirely different meaning, if the couple had donated their the value of their wedding gifts to the Ethiopian community. Sadly that likely wasn’t the case. The couple is to be pitied for their lack of empathy. The photographer, on the other hand, has produced interesting art because of the commentary it has now fostered.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you for sharing your insights on this, Rhona! Yes, the way the scenes were shot did seem to show the social status divide you mentioned, even though it was probably not the intention to begin with.

      You raised an intriguing point about the photographer having produced interesting art. This got people talking about race, social inequalities, cultural sensitivity, etc.. I do think one function of art is to provoke people’s emotions and get them talking about the difficult yet relevant issues in society (although in this case, the controversy and heated arguments the photos sparked aren’t likely to have been intentional).

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  3. I don’t think we need to be hypersensitive on this one.
    While I don’t know who these people are, this seems like a wedding photo shoot or similar.
    It would never come to my mind that these pics are racist.
    But even if they are for some viewers, do these photos hurt anyone?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s been pointed out as well that some people may just be overreacting or being overly sensitive to the point of “making a fuss” out of things that should just be enjoyed for their aesthetic value. But that this has sparked outrage could also mean the photos touched on something that’s still an issue, needing continued discussion to clarify. As to whether the photos hurt anyone, hmmm…maybe it’s the Ethiopians who could rightfully answer that–was their sense of ethnic pride offended by these photos? If yes, then maybe the photos do hurt people in a way.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “Why are the Ethiopians in the background?” ~ Aha, a simple yet effective question, really. Of course, the simple (and smart-alecky) reply would be “Because it’s the couple’s photoshoot,” but this very answer highlights, as you said, poor execution of the intent.

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Rachel!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, they are racist and offensives, especially in a country that is ravaged by poverty, crime, corruption. If the artist, him and she couldn’t figure it out before shooting, It’s either the 3 of them are real idiots or they aimed to shock USING, race and poverty as a backdrop. Shame on them. This is coming from a 53 years old white male.

    Liked by 1 person

    • OR, they could’ve just lacked the foresight and sensitivity to anticipate how the photos might be perceived. I think that’s different from plain idiocy. It helps to have strong opinions such as yours bring these issues to the fore, though, so I really appreciate you voicing your take on this!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is entirely possible but I still question it.
        I have been handling many times, actually most of the times, sensitive issues in the same manner. Being provocative and “in your face” because it makes noise, and when noise takes place, usually people listen, become aware, can act and hopefully end up in a better situation.
        “It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.”
        They may have had some lack of foresight but I honestly doubt. The advertisers, agents and so on couldn’t the see any “wrongs” is this plan. They reached for the largest audience as possible. Using basically the same technic that I choose. They want to shock people in order to create a strong and controversial reaction. Then it spills over to the general public, who is at this point, so eager to see and find out. And they finish by selling their product(s) successfully.
        Let’s agree to disagree on this one. To me, they knew exactly what they were aiming at and doing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Woah, so they intentionally used race and poverty as a backdrop just to evoke more reactions and publicize the shoot more? That is ruthless… but I guess we can’t discount that as a possibility as well. And you’re right, we can agree to disagree. In issues like this, we do have our personal opinions but I think it’s more important to get every perspective out there because that’s what makes for a truly informed and well-rounded discussion. I’m glad to have solicited the perspective of someone from as far as France!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you very much. I agree with you, in order to come to the best conclusion, one must look at it from all angles. For 30 years of my life, I was on Wall Street and Wealth management and I learned and saw how humans can be ruthless. I was one of them until my burnout. Since then, I haven’t been back in it and never will. I want to dedicate the last fighting chapter of my life on breaking stigmas linked with bipolarity and other mental illness and raise our legal status, bring it to a level playing field along with the rest of society. I still possess enough strength for fighting this war. I welcome any interesting debate, therefore, feel free to solicit me anytime.
        Quick background info on myself:
        I am a 53 years old Swiss citizen living in France, for now, and I have lived in 5 different countries on 3 different continents. I suffer from bipolarity with affective disorder as well as a severe anxiety disorder.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I too am passionate about eliminating stigma against mental illness. Good to know you’ve chosen to fight that war, because really, more fighters are needed.

        And great to know you’re up for interesting, meaningful debates! I’ll count on that, Lawrence! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • You can count on it and take it to the Bank!
        As I mentioned in many articles. This is my last war and we will win it. Battles will be lost and won but winning war is the ultimate goal. I fought all my life on and of the ring. Fighting is really the only thing I know how to do. Fighting for this purposely forgotten, needed cause became my responsibility. I have a lot of things in motion from different countries and fronts. We’ll see what angle we shall take. Right now I am trying to find funds to establish a non-profit foundation which would act as an NGO in order to open door to go and meet with the many International organizations based in Geneva Switzerland. I’m sure will have plenty conversations regarding this subject. We have to be united and strong as one, nobody, but us, mentally handicap people will be able to get the job done. Peace and serenity.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Everything we produce whether art or ideas is up for artistic expression. While the couple probably didn’t have the intention of portraying dominance or superiority over the people, the photographers portrayal of their concept gave an entirely different expression. Their interpretation obviously draws uncomfortable feelings when viewed with empathy. While no one is physically hurt by the photos, the idea that some people aren’t emotionally affected is entirely incorrect. Art is there to invoked feeling and when that feeling invoked is that of dominance, superiority and prejudice, you have bad art. Unfortunately we live in a society where you can’t look at pictures like that without the negative connotations and so people should be aware of their actions and try to do better in the future, learn from their mistakes. In short, while the photos themselves may not be racist, they are only perpetuating negative stereotypes and ideologues that currently exist. The couple is already beautiful, they could have looked amazing in any other scene.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your reply is such a thoughtful and well-written commentary, thank you. Someone actually photoshopped one of the photos, removing the Ethiopians in the background, to illustrate the point of your last statement that the shoot could’ve still produced beautiful shots without having to include the Ethiopians in that way.

      Your statement, “…while the photos themselves may not be racist, they are only perpetuating negative stereotypes and ideologues that currently exist” has given me a lot to think about. Indeed, the depictions that we allow play a role in shaping current perceptions on people and issues. For me, you’ve just given a new side of the story for us all to ponder. It’s not only that one’s worldview influences what is seen. The reverse could also be at work–that what is seen could influence one’s worldview.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Rather a stellar example of cluelessness, it seems safe to say. Not exactly shocking coming from the first world’s affluent sector, but nevertheless decidedly cringe-worthy. I also wonder, though the couple might not consciously consider themselves superior to the Ethiopians in the photos, perhaps the failure to register the likelihood of appearing to use people as props, “local color,” in itself points out a subconscious sense of narcissistic self-involvement that at least suggests a lack of empathy with those outside one’s privileged sphere. A sort of segregated awareness that feels uncomfortably close to racism, because whether it be innocent and well meaning or not, there is still that massive gap between pricey photoshoot vs. the rampant poverty threatening cultures and lives throughout the world. Maybe another example of classism, the stealth puppetmaster of racism.

    & the writing professor in me cannot resist saying: excellent essay!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hmm, indeed, maybe the main issue here is classism rather than racism–I hadn’t considered that! But that does make more sense. I think the gap you’ve pointed out, between the luxury of the photoshoot and the poverty in the place, is what has triggered many of the strong negative reactions to the photos.

      Their “failure to register the likelihood of appearing to use people as props” also confused me. Maybe the couple trusted the artist’s judgment as to what would look good? As to how the artist came to the creative decision to shoot the photos the way they did, I’m out of ideas. It’s a valuable insight you’ve pointed out, about how subconscious leanings may have played a role. I’d like to believe it wasn’t out of “narcissistic self-involvement that at least suggests a lack of empathy,” but with the strange and mysterious workings of the unconscious/subconscious mind? Who knows.

      Thank you for your kind words about my writing, Nichole; it means so much more coming from a writing professor! *I blush*

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I once saw coloured photos of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife in a National Geographic magazine from the 1930s.

    The multicoloured colours and style of the outfits worn by Billy Crawford and Colleen Garcia are very much like the Imperial clothing worn by the Ethiopian Emperor and Empress.

    Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say these photos are classist and hierarchical rather than racist.

    Since Haile Selassie was overthrown back in the early 1970s and replaced by a Marxist regime which has now been replaced by a non-Marxist republic in Ethiopia 🇪🇹, most people today wouldn’t be familiar with the colourful multi-coloured clothing worn by members of Ethiopian royalty.

    It does show the love of Billy Crawford and Colleen Garcia for Ethiopian culture and history that they are wearing such clothing but dressed like Ethiopian royalty while surrounded by Ethiopians wearing non-royal clothing would definitely appear racist to 21st Century eyes.

    But it might be more appropriately labelled classist and hierarchical but I doubt that was Crawford and Garcia’s intent.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What an informative reply, thanks for sharing that! If it’s Ethiopian royal clothing they’re wearing, then the photos may indeed lend to the classist and hierarchical interpretation. Might not have been the intent, but probably lent to that perception.

      Liked by 1 person

    • If we attached the word racism to every incidence that shows the rich and the the rest of society we’d never understand anything about what racism really is. Racism is NOT depicting whether you can buy good clothes and live in a big house or take pictures with the local people. Racism is when that underclass is being hurt, abused, willfully held down, enslaved. This picture is not racism no matter how much you want it to be. You can like it or not for your own reasons, but don’t make it something it isn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You always raise tricky issues. Setting aside what you said, when looking at the photos I saw any number of interpretations:
    1. beautiful people with other beautiful people.
    2. (very superficially) all colour is beautiful
    3. the wealthy holding themselves apart from the ‘ordinary’ people’ etc, etc.

    What strikes me is that these photos mean very little at all. They could have said so much more, but are so staged that they are merely an indulgence.

    Personally, I would like to know what the Ethopians involved thought about the photos? If the people themselves do not perceive it was racist but just a bit of staged art (no matter how idiotic), perhaps their views are more important than our own.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. A photo can’t be racist. A person or people interpreting the photo may apply a racist context to it. Just in the same was as the rebel flag isn’t anything other than a flag, a piece of inanimate cloth that has no opinion. How we choose to apply our emotion to interpret symbology/media we think is more important.

    We have always said, racism only exists because we allow it to exist. We are here together, in this place and that’s all that should matter. The only things that can truly be “racist” are other people.

    Lovely blog post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I guess what you’re saying is that inanimate things (such as the photos) are essentially amoral? I guess I agree with that point. It’s through our perception of those things that they take on meaning, become symbols of a concept or ideology. The tricky thing is when our collective perceptions as a society associate certain meanings to particular things/scenes, such that they trigger gut reactions so automatic that we now question the morality of such things. As much as the things are inherently amoral, I don’t think we can expect everyone not to attach moral judgments or not to instinctively feel certain emotions when exposed to them.

      Thank you so much for contributing a thought-provoking reply to this!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Absolutely agree with you. Perception is absolutely everything. It’s just like tearing down a statue of confederate general. Some think “Great, another statue demonstrating racism is gone”. That might be but we say, “All you are doing is removing a reminder of how inhuman man can be towards one another”.

        We think the greater problem is the fundamental idea that there is a “Collective” perception of what racism is. It’s different for everyone.

        Liked by 1 person

      • “We think the greater problem is the fundamental idea that there is a ‘Collective’ perception of what racism is. It’s different for everyone.” ~ Very interesting point! So if there’s no collective perception of what racism is, then truly there might be no end to the debate on these photos, or the issues on racism in general.

        This leads me to think that maybe the point of having these discussions is not to arrive at a single ‘correct’ answer, but to raise as many answers as possible…then those answers will be the ones to shape society as we know it. All these concepts and society itself remains dynamic.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I think maybe the truely desired expression of the photos are only for the couple (and photographer) to know and enjoy. For the rest of us the decision is open as to how we will perceive and appreciate them. For them, there is a story behind each picture, but we have to imagine one. Each of us can only use our own base of knowledge, experience, and values to create that and give the picture a “meaning”. Whether good or bad it doesn’t matter, the pieces are discussed and becomes a vehicle for communication. All good art does this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well said! Our perceptions are ultimately what create the meaning of these photos. You’re absolutely right that our knowledge, experiences, and values all come into play when we perceive and try to interpret these images. Plus, I guess history and the social climate of the present time also influence our perceptions. How we then talk about and process what these photos mean to us–our perceptions of them now–will in turn influence what prevails as social norms in the future. I think this highlights just how significant the role of art is in society.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Intelligent reply. I deal with the issue of racism on daily basis and it is where much my writing is focused. There is enough true racism in the world to fight where people are being seriously hurt without focusing on things like a photograph to make it racist. Maybe there is also a bit of jealousy in the minds of some who responded who while dragging things down kinda levels things in their mind. People should check their own racist thoughts before placing blame on others.

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  11. Esthetically pleasing, but we’re uncomfortable. Most of the above comments are on target. I live in a country where racism has been slyly on the rise for years, and my understanding is that racism is based mainly on willful ignorance of the “other”, cluelessless as to other’s roots, history, culture and resulting total lack of empathy. I’d tentatively label these as unwittingly “pre-racist”.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Yes exactly, ignorance is the seed of racism and it turns nastier in different circumstances. Like in Europe, where national and existing economic problems get blamed on the masses of new immigrants from other continents…

        Liked by 1 person

    • Well as it is, some consider it a disgrace, others see nothing wrong with it, still others just don’t care. Hmm, I think the mental exercise of reversing the roles and eliciting people’s opinions about the new scenario can also lead to a thoughtful reconsideration of this. My prediction is that there would be backlash against it, from at least some of the Filipinos, if someone held a similar photoshoot here.

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  12. Yes, they are. Clearly, the photo speaks for itself. This is a show of racial superiority. I would have thought otherwise if they dressed like the villagers and participated in their activities. It’s a pity people have to do this in order to gain popularity.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I didn’t know them before now. Are they affiliated with Hollywood? Mind you the dream of movie stars all over the world is to gain worldwide recognition. Do you think they are just content with being Filipino stars?

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    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Iriowen! From what I’ve read about this so far, your points are echoed by some Filipinos who also felt uncomfortable with the photos. Maybe the photoshoot’s production team just wasn’t able to anticipate how the photos might come across.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t know about how race relation is handled in the Philippines, but here in the US ignorance (pretense or genuine) is not an excuse.
        I may be making a rash judgment, but I strongly believe the Photoshoot’s production and the artists very well knew what they were doing. These days in order to get noticed on social media (going viral) many people cross the line. It’s a pity. ♤

        Liked by 1 person

      • I just read a comment over at Facebook which also raised that point! Actually, I’m seeing that more and more people are considering that possibility, especially those who’ve worked in the media/marketing industry. Personally, I don’t subscribe to that same view, but I guess we could just agree to disagree on that.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi Carla, I’ve become a fan of the way you put across your arguments, breaking them down into clear, simpler points, so none of the angles remain undiscussed. The reader too gets the whole picture which is normally absent in articles one reads on commercial platforms.
    About the debate. I agree with your conclusion, the intent wouldn’t have been racist but they really did mess up at the perception part or perhaps execution. The shots look grim giving out an ugly imagery as if they are standing amongst a space down with poverty, income inequality (you knows things of the third world?)
    Instead of the cheer, all I got was,” whose idea was it to have a weird photoshoot?”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello, Vageesha, thank you so much! This is an important matter to discuss with a view of all possible angles, I think. Glad to know you think I was able to do it justice! More than the essay itself, though, I believe it’s the entire comments section that will create for us a more insightful, well-rounded discussion.

      Speaking of which, thank you for contributing your thoughts on this! Yes, I think the execution part led to images that might not be inherently racist, but somehow depicted a scene that lent itself to being perceived as showing racism or maybe a social divide. Ultimately, though, I think the bit that decides what the photos mean or show is our perceptions…for which we’re all responsible to keep in check and continually question.

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  14. It so easy – and expected – for some people immediately jump onto the racist issue. But had they gone into different country – a white country and were photographed with the local inhabitants no one would say they were exploiting the local people. Spending so much time trying to personally decide if they or the photograher had racist intentions ( which I sincerely doubt) doesnt allow you to see the beauty of the photograph or the talent of the photographer. You can like the photo or not but don’t insert intentions when you have clue. Those with a strong opinion of racism? What have you done to stop what really is racist? Opinions are worthless with action.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Sonni! I too seriously doubt any of those involved in this shoot had racist intentions. As you said, though, it could be expected that the issue of racism is likely to be raised, and I think especially so in shots like these.

      I just read the couple’s official statement on this issue, and what you said about not inserting intentions when you have clue is truly relevant to it. The couple narrated that it was the Ethiopian kids who wanted to join in the shot, so the couple and the photographers let them be part of it. Nonetheless, the couple apologized for “how it might have translated” and admitted they could’ve done better in being more aware about “how it [the photos] comes across and what it could represent.”

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  15. Think of the world divided into 4 types of racism. Actively racist, passively racist, passively anti-racist and actively anti-racist. I once looked at newspaper pictures in the San Francisco Bay area. I noticed that all the papers printed photos of Blacks involved in crimes, but if they wanted to print a picture of something nice, e.g. kids swimming, it was always whites. This was even true for the Oakland paper, a paper that supplied news to the predominantly black city. They were not actively racist, but passively. It may have been unconsciously racist, but it was still there. Being White, I still find these deeply buried racist things I grew up with. Being actively anti-racist, I strive to cleanse myself of them. these pictures seem to be passively racist, but you are right. They are not actively racist.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. When it comes to determining if something is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., the determining factor is impact, NOT intent. The impact of these photos is the Ethiopians look like props used to show the contrast between them and the glamour and beauty of the engaged couple. So yes, these photos are racist.

    Even if this wasn’t the couple’s intent, once the photos were taken, and before they were published, no one noticed this was the effect given how the couple and the Ethiopians are posed? Furthermore, if the couple wanted to display the beauty of Ethiopia, they could have taken photos featuring only the country’s beautiful landscape, not local citizens. The point of engagement photos is to highlight the couple, these are actually the first engagement photos I’ve ever seen that feature other people besides the couple. I’m not sure if that’s common in other countries (I’m American).

    At the end of the day, it’s important to call things what they are. That’s the only way things are going to get better.

    I hope you don’t mind if I link to this piece and my comment on my own blog. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, Sheena! As sad and disappointing as it may sound, I think no one in their creative/production team noticed or anticipated how the photos may be received by people. I just saw the couple’s official statement on this shoot; they’re saying this was not their *real* pre-nup shoot and that this was sponsored by Ethiopian Airlines to promote the beauty of the place. Maybe that’s why they thought to include locals in the shots?

      Hmm, impact is yet another element that’s important to consider, indeed! I don’t know if it could be a function of perception, or maybe the two just overlap but are essentially different. I really appreciate you writing about this as well! I read your post and it was very thought-provoking.

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  17. We must be careful about inventing perceptions, when we don’t know the truthful thinking of the people in these photographs. We don’t know the belief system of all the people in these photographs, hence any perception we have can easily be wrong.

    These images are clearly not racist, nor are they superiority attitude images. I think the posing is boring and poorly presented. It would have been better photographs if all the people in the images, were interfaced together in activity. The posing separated the different characters and did not present a team effort. The photographer needs to learn more about the art of good photographic presentation. I would not keep such photos in my collection, they lack sparkle of interactive life. And they do not display as good portraits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Allan! Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I was moved to take a closer look at the composition of the photos, and it’s interesting to note the things you said about the specific ways they appeared to be poorly presented. I agree, had the images depicted more interaction, maybe the backlash against them wouldn’t have been as severe.

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  18. Brave post to write about a topic that can spark strong reactions. I don’t think the pictures are racist, I think they are snobby. I see them standing in their glamour going “look at us & how rich we are in comparison to these people that have less”. They could have taken the pictures anywhere is the world or even with homeless people & achieved the same message. If they loved the culture, I think they should have embraced it and wore their clothes (not glamour for contrast) and got involved in their worlds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Ally! Yes, I really wanted to throw this question out to the WordPress community because I know there are a lot of people here who have knowledge and experience in critically examining these issues. The debate among Filipinos has already been quite intense, too, and many are echoing the points you just raised. The depiction could’ve really used some more forethought as to how it might be perceived.

      Thanks for coming by! Always interested in reading your feedback.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. I don’t find this racist at all. Just really weird pre-nup photos. Looks like they’re modeling the clothes, not the usual message of the couple’s love. I would understand it if they have the wedding vibes with the Euthopians and show some of their culture like they said. I appreciate the aesthetics in this but I don’t … get it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Hanna! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I just saw the couple’s official statement on this shoot; they’re saying this was not their *real* pre-nup shoot and that this was sponsored by Ethiopian Airlines to promote the beauty of the place. While they captured Ethiopia’s beautiful landscapes, sadly these photos drew more attention to questions of racism and the perceived social divide, rather than their initial intention.

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  20. 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.

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  21. 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: https://thebereaved.blog/2018/03/11/impact-vs-intent/

      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

  22. 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.

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  23. 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

  24. 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

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