Much of the world still remains highly segregated by access to opportunity in the shape of gender, race and creed. One woman has taken the bold step of putting the issue right back in our face, demonstrating just how futile first impressions really are. Angélica Dass is a Brazilian photographer who after experiencing stigmatization in her own country decided to explore and share the many colours of human beings with the wider world. Humanae is the culmination of that idea. By using Pantone codes this provocative project forces viewers to confront the uncomfortable question, how can we label any group of people by a single colour?
So it’s been a few years since you started this incredible project Humanae. How did it come about?
It started in 2012 when I was doing a Masters in photography. I had worked as a commercial photographer before but I went back to school to try and change the way that I was photographing. When you work with commissions and commercial works sometimes you don’t look at things properly.
The first thing was just looking at myself – looking at how my life is and my background and looking at how people see me. I really believe that this was the beginning of Humanae. The project seems very open and collaborative but it’s also a little bit selfish in that at the beginning it was about myself. Showing how people look at me in this different way, always as the ‘other’. Of course I was born in Brazil, the last country to abolish black slavery. Now in the 21st century we can start a discussion about it.
Every black person in Brazil knows that their families were originally slaves. This is something they carry like an invisible backpack. So I started the project in a very personal way, trying to show how I see myself and my family. I was born in a family full of colour. Even if I appear black I am also white and native Indian too.
"I was born in a family full of colour. Even if I appear black I am also white and native Indian too."
Can you give us a bit of background about slavery in Brazil?
A huge part of our history includes slavery. And it’s a very different story from a country like the United States where they really had a fight, a civil war and the civil rights movement. We never had that in Brazil. When slavery was abolished in 1888 it was very political, and it was like – ok you are free. Now what? Former slaves continued to do the same jobs in the same places. Nowadays poverty is very connected with the colour of your skin in Brazil because Black people are the ones who have less opportunity for everything.
Nowadays this is more or less the structure of Brazilian society: The native Indians were completely decimated and so they are the smallest part of our society. Then you have all the Africans that were brought to Brazil. And of course we have all the Europeans that came. When slavery finished in Brazil we continued to need people to work with coffee, with cacao, in the fields.
There was a huge migration of people to Brazil. In fact, German is now one of the biggest languages spoken in Brazil. Holambra is a city that is full of people from the Netherlands, and Sao Paulo is home to the biggest number of Japanese people outside of Japan. It’s so mixed in Brazil. For me we are all Brazilians. It doesn’t matter how you look like.
Did you wake up one day with the whole idea for Humanae fully formed in your head or was it a slow progression?
It was very slow. This was something I was always thinking – why is my colour so important? But it didn’t happen like magic, it was part of a process. The first two portraits I made were of me and my husband because these are everyday questions for me. What will be the colour of my children? And why is the colour of my children so important if for me it doesn’t matter? So I made these two portraits. I was a designer before I started photography so I know that if you talk about blue then you are telling me nothing. That’s why I use this Pantone code, for me it’s like a language. When I speak with you I have to speak in English and when I speak with my mother I have to speak in Portuguese. So if I want to talk about colour this is the one way that I can speak a universal language.
What does your husband think of the project?
Oh he’s very proud of me and the intention of the work. Both of us can see the results when we see a lot of schools working with it. I know that the world will be better for future children if their friends in school really understand that we’re all different colours and it’s not bad to be different. So he’s very happy and proud of that.
You previously worked as a photographer for magazines including Glamour, GQ and Marie Claire. The fashion media industry tend to use a lot of post-production tools in order to produce the right look for the person. Did these practices change the way you approached the work in Humanae?
Well I do no post-production in the face, I just make the background. I really love the wrinkles, the acne and whatever else people have in their face. Previously I had to fake a lot of these things. I believe that in the fashion industry we continue to create damaged stereotypes, not just talking about the face or skin, but also how the body has to be, how tall or whatever. We try to show people like clones and this is very painful for a lot of teenagers and actually for everybody, not just young people.
But this is how you used to make your money right?
Yes in the beginning and I was uncomfortable with that. That’s why I went back to school to try to find another way to continue loving photography. Now I don’t work for the fashion industry. People that really want to work with me do so because they know I will not make them look like Barbie. This is the leap that you make when you are a bit stronger in your ideals. I can now tell people that I believe in doing things this way. Maybe I closed some doors but I’ve opened many others.
How many people have you photographed so far? And in how many countries?
Well I now have more than 3,000 portraits, I’m not sure of the exact number. I’ve visited 15 countries and many more cities.
Your TED talk was very emotional. Has this been a cathartic process for you?
Yes and I’m really telling the truth in the TED talk. Every time I make a picture I connect with that person. When I started this work I never imagined I would be doing a TED talk, I just wanted to express myself. In the end what I found is that I’m not alone and that there are a lot of people that have these same feelings. And I’m not talking just about skin colour. I was in one photoshoot with a beautiful woman and she asks me, “have you taken any portraits of a transsexual?” And I say, “I don’t think so, I don’t ask this kind of thing.” And she says, “Well now you’ve taken the first one.” That happened in 2013 and a lot of transsexuals ask the same question because in the end they feel very open and find that Humanae is a place without labels.
I also have a huge amount of disabilities in my work, blind people, deaf people, kids with Down syndrome, and it’s like a place where everybody is together without labels and where everybody feels equal. So of course this is a catharsis for me, of course it’s like a therapy, because if I feel alone for one moment in my life, now I know that there are thousands of people around the world that want to find this place of connection.
In your TED talk you showed one image of a Brazilian street worker looking amazed at the work. It struck me that this project could in fact emphasise the fact that the difference in colour is there and that the Pantone codes could be seen as another way of identifying people by race.
This is a question that sometimes comes up. I really love this photo you mentioned of the cleaner in Brazil because this guy would never enter a gallery to see my work, but he was allowed and felt comfortable to view the exhibition on the street. For me this is my favourite way to show Humanae because it’s the way that everyone can see the work, the ones who agree and the ones who don’t. For me this is one of the magic things of Humanae. People don’t need to have a PhD to understand what I’m trying to say. I’m putting it in a very simple way. But it is dangerous at the same time because this kind of question that you ask me can emerge from my work. But I’m taking the risk. What I’m sure I’m doing is saying, these colours that are used to separate us, this white and black, are completely untrue.
"It was very funny in the beginning...I had a lot of pinks and just a few browns and people would write me very angry emails saying, “You are a racist! You are a Nazi! I have more diversity in my neighbourhoods than you have in your work.” And I always had to say, “Be patient, this is a work in progress.”
It’s interesting that Pantone was constructed by two white men in New York. Little did they know that many decades later it would be appropriated by a young Brazilian woman to tell the world about the diversity of different colours.
Yes and in the world of design Pantone is known as real colour. If I wanted to show you a tone of blue and don’t show you with the code then you have no idea what kind of blue I’m telling you. I’m trying to show the real colour that is not black or white.
Have you found that you have tended towards certain biases of your own in this project? Looking back at the images have you noticed that the subjects you’ve chosen say something about your own unconscious partialities?
I don’t choose my subjects. Everybody that sits in front of my camera is in the project even if I make mistakes, because of course I have some photos that I know are not perfect. All of them are in the Tumblr because even more important than having the perfect images is that this person believed in my idea and that’s why they wanted to be in this photo. So there is no selection. This is one of the things I had to learn as a photographer because generally we are very powerful and choose what our muse is. This time I couldn’t do that.
It was very funny in the beginning when I was working only in Madrid and Barcelona. I had a lot of pinks and just a few browns and people would write me very angry emails saying “you are a racist! You are a Nazi! I have more diversity in my neighbourhoods than you have in your work.” And I always had to say, “be patient, this is a work in progress.” I will not make portraits in an immigrant neighbourhood just because I need different colours.
Having said that I always want to engage with the community. I’ve just been in Sicily in a small village and it was great because I stayed for one week working with the community, participating in everyday life. The youngest person I photographed was a 7 month old baby and the oldest one was a 72 year old man. So this is the kind of thing I want to do when I make a photoshoot, really engage all the community around the idea.
You said something in an interview that I really liked. You were being asked why you choose to take photos of the face, because you could have chosen the leg, or the arm, or the stomach. You said, “Because the face changes its colour, when we’re in the sun, when we have the flu, when we’re drunk, when the seasons change and when we age.” I think this is such an interesting statement and something that most people don’t think about.
Exactly. Why do we continue discussing the colour of the ‘other’ if our own colour changes? We are not one colour and even if you call yourself by one colour you are always changing.
What have you learned from doing this project?
Firstly I’ve learned that I’m not alone. And I’ve learned a lot about people. I’ve learned about how we can communicate without using words, how people can be so generous by giving me their faces, how people defend the work and really use the message behind it to continue spreading my message. I’m very lucky because I’m talking about something that is so personal and I’ve discovered that there are other people around the world wanting to tell the same story.
"Why do we continue discussing the colour of the ‘other’ if our own colour changes? We are not one colour and even if you call yourself by one colour you are always changing."
Angélica Dass on how our own colour changes in a lifetime
It seems that racism and discrimination exists in many ways, not even necessarily based on skin colour but in all of our own unique cultures and societies with tools like body language and subconscious patterns. How do we go beyond this?
One of the questions I ask in the TED talk is exactly that. What does it mean for us to be black or white? Of course it’s more than skin colour. I really believe that it’s a cultural issue. There are a lot of scientists who are trying to literally destroy this concept of race. There is only the human race. Of course we’re born in different places and learn different things but what I really want to do with Humanae, and why I work a lot with schools, is that every portrait is unique, even if they have the same colour. The most important part of this work is the discussion I provoke with the images. In the end the images themselves are a small part of the work.
Your work has been used on the front cover of Foreign Affairs magazine, this must be a huge validation that your work is tackling a very important issue.
Yes of course. I also have a piece in the Leonardo Di Vinci museum in Milan, in the genetics section. Scientists want the same thing as I do, to show people that we are all the same race. There are things in our DNA which make us unique but in the end the things that construct us are the same. So these are two sides of the same idea. I have my way, making photos and talking about my family, and the scientists are doing it in their own way, sometimes using my work to show visually what they are proving with science.
And something else was with this French politician Nadine Morano. She said that France is a catholic and white country and of course this made people a bit crazy. How can she say that about France? So, in the news they used my work to show Morano that black and white are terms that don’t exist in reality. So I like that other disciplines use my work, in politics, in science. They use the work that I make as a tool to show visually that what we’re saying is true.
O auto da Compadecida | Ariano Suassuna
A play written in 1955. It is a mirror about the human, with great capacity to collect, at the same time, expansion and ruin its genesis. I want on my tombstone appears written the following: “served his sentence. He found the only evil irremediable, that which marks our destiny on earth, that fact without explanation, that equates everything that is alive to a flock of convicts, since everything is alive, dies”.
An Italian pastry dessert of the Sicily region. Cannoli consist of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta.
I have a great passion for collecting empty notebooks. When I travel, I always buy some notebooks and I put it in one of my shelves. I really love the empty notebook as an object. In many occasions, I’m not even able to use them.