Context matters, especially with regard to race. (I have been seen as Black-ish in my rural, American hometown, White in Japan, Black in Mississippi, and an "exotic" other in Florida. Context matters.) These portraits are of former students of Harvard College. The diversity of models is reflective of the pool that the models were drawn from and nothing more. The majority of the models are from the United States or have lived in the United States for a significant part of their lives. As a result, many of the them view race in a definitively American way: Black or White. Other models are from outside of the United States or have have had much of their worldview shaped abroad. Their understanding of race and their race is often decidedly un-American: not Black or White, but light or dark.
1. How do others define your race?
The first question seeks to understand the power of racial subscription. Skin color, eye shape, hair texture. What are you? The equations that we use to calculate race are simple, flawed things. Almond eyes + black hair = Asian. Kinky hair + dark skin = Black. Never mind that "Asian" encompasses an entire continent and "Black" is little more than a blanket term spanning one billion across the globe. These assumptions - however superficial - are powerful things. Assumptions can empower an individual to seek to understand their racial identity. Alternatively, assumptions can rob an individual of the power to control the narrative of their own identity. If the outer world says that an individual belongs to one race and that individual says that they belong to another, whose voice has more power? Whose voice has more weight? Whose voice has the final say? And, what is the impact of these assumptions on an individual? On an identity?
2. How does the government define your race?
Race is not only visual, it is political. Race is used to track, tally, bus, quota, stop-and-frisk, gerrymander, and profile. However, according to the government of the United States, there are only five races - "White," "Black, African Am., or Negro," "American Indian or Alaska Native" (with the ability to specify enrolled or principal tribe), Asian (with boxes such as "Asian Indian" and "Chinese"), Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (represented by boxes such as "Native Hawaiian" and "Samoan" - and the ethnicity of "Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" (with boxes such as Puerto Rican and Cuban and a field to denote "Other Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin") - to adequately capture all of humanity. What do these categories mean? What if you can only check one box? Does that mean elevating one part of yourself over another? Does that mean elevating one identity over another? Does it mean choosing one parent over another, one lineage over another? How do you choose the one box to check, which identity to elevate, perhaps even, which parent to choose? What if your box does not exist? What if your box puts you into a category with people who do not understand your history, your culture, your identity? The second question seeks to uncover the answers to what it means to be put into a box - one of these finite, fallible categories - in opposition to or in affirmation of one's identity.
3. How do you define yourself?
The third question seeks to understand how the models view themselves and their identity in conjunction with or, oftentimes, in opposition to the previous questions. The question is deliberately deep and definitively difficult. How do you define yourself? What are you? Who are you? Many of the models take this space to delve into their racial identity. Many, do not.
The models' answers are their own words. There is anger and bitterness and self-hatred in some of what they say. There is also love and self-love. Some answers delve into the context behind the response. Others do not. Perhaps the models' responses to these questions have changed since they were asked. Perhaps they have not. Irregardless, the models' answers are indicative of no experience other than their own and of no time other than the moment in which they answered. Some may find solace in their words. Others may be disgusted by them. Such is art. Such is life.
The 56 models who shared their stories in OTHER were photographed without obstruction or distraction. They wear no extraneous jewelry, makeup, and appear to be pictured without clothing or are modestly clothed in nude tones. Multiracial people - so often the focus of fetishization and idolatry - are placed in fully view, daring the onlooker to do just that. Without barrier or distraction between the viewed and the viewer, you stare and they stare back. You look and they look back. Their bareness, openness, is almost forcing you to ask the question: What are you? A difficult question searching for simple answers in facial structure and hair type and skin tone. And, who are you? A difficult question inviting difficult answers.
The models within their portraits are vulnerable - uncomfortable, perhaps - and brave. They put themselves out there to be questioned, wondered at, admired, and scorned. And, they put themselves out there to be heard, to be seen. And, by doing so, they are defying that impulsive prejudgement. They are creating their own narrative. They are uprooting assumptions. They are breaking biases. They are resisting. They are, simply put, being. And, that, is a beautiful thing.