Issue #1: My Identity (Is Not an Issue (to Me))
I’ve been struggling for many weeks to determine the most thoughtful and effective way to address the issue of race when it comes to my career as a professional photographer. I’ve attempted to address the issue in the form of creative writing that I started three years ago. Back then, I thought I would have had several entries for the S.T.O.M.P. series, but that never materialized. I haven’t abandoned the series, but my inability to regularly publish new chapters underscores the difficulty I have with writing about this issue. I’m certain I could write a novel or two, but for now, I’ve decided to approach this with an autobiographical prose and abandon fictional elements supplied for the sake of humor and easing tensions for readers. It’s a tense topic so let’s get tense.
To challenge myself in the vast realm of photography, I have tried different projects that eject me from my comfort zone for the past decade. However, I have never tried to challenge myself in terms of addressing my reality as a professional photographer who also happens to be a black male on a quest to offer photographic services as a primary source of income. In this case, it’s a challenge of documenting this experience through writing and not necessarily through photographic imagery. I love writing. I have been writing stories since I was a child. My fingers became associated with a typewriter when I was six or seven years of age. There’s a novel that I started to write about my tumultuous experience of living life in Washington, D.C. between 2003 and 2007. I would consider it a personal accomplishment if I can ever get that novel completed. It was such a difficult segment of my life that, perhaps, I have found it easier to bury it rather than confront it.
I think the same can be said about why I have evaded addressing the issue of race for myself as a photographer. Evasion is easier in the short-term (and long-term sometimes), but the thoughts and emotions that run through my head just recycle themselves interminably. It’s like putting clothes in a washing machine for an endless spin cycle, but never letting the clothes dry. It’s constant washing with the buried realization that you have to take those clothes out if you’re ever going to wear them again.
Well, this first article about my identity is my first attempt to start drying some drenched clothes.
Here are a few preliminary (and personal) axioms that I would like to state before I deliver my main argument.
- I don’t believe any demographic or marginalized group is a monolith of itself. If you’ve seen this term used before but have never been sure of its definition, I encourage you to be familiar with it. Please read about what a monolith is, and examples of how the term is used. I’m referencing the third definition, specifically.
- Unequivocally, I speak for myself alone when I discuss this matter. I don’t claim to speak for any other person who is Black or of any other demographic.
- When it comes to hatred and malice, I believe every ethnicity and demographic is culpable of having “bad actors”. In other words, just because you may be White or Black or Latino or Asian or Jewish or Muslim, Indigenous, veteran, gay, transgender, disabled, a man, a woman, etc., doesn’t mean there aren’t people within these groups who are horrible individuals who do horrible things. The tragedy is judging the entire demographic on the terrible actions of the horrible individuals. Personally, I think this is the single biggest challenge for every demographic on Earth to acknowledge and accept. We’re all human beings, and there is good and evil in every single demographic of the human race.
- I’ve experienced discrimination and prejudice from most of the demographics I listed in the previous point – including from Black people who look like me. While a source of disappointment and frustration, it doesn’t preclude me from fighting for the basic rights of each demographic to be treated as human beings with a basic regard for their humanity, right to exist and to live safely and peacefully within a civilized society. That’s not lip-service or virtue signaling (I really despise that term). My current cognitive dissonance about the progress and simultaneous devolution of human civility, alongside the result of being treated like sh*t from so many different types of people in my life, while still advocating for their right to be treated with a basic regard for their humanity, only underscores how important this is to me. Basically, I haven’t allowed my personal experience to dissuade me from trying to do what’s right in my mind and by my actions — but it’s hard as hell sometimes.
- Though I may frequently feel resentment, I don’t hate any demographic. My parents didn’t raise me to hate any group, but they did teach me about racism from a very young age. My mother discussed aspects of racism with me when we lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was four or five years of age. I’m eternally grateful that she didn’t wait until I was a teenager. I believe I would be an enormous hypocrite if I espoused hatred towards any demographic, both as a human being and a photographer whose mission has been to embrace as much multiculturalism of the world as I can personally muster. I do not condone nor would I ever want to collaborate with people or entities who harbor ill-will or malice against any demographic. I have no interest in the proliferation of hatred. Just bypass me.
- I have had a naivete about human nature that has profoundly affected my worldview in recent years. I have worn “rose-colored” glasses for most of my life with the belief that most people, regardless of ethnicity or group, always mean well and have benevolent intentions – including people I have called “friends” in the past. After the age of 40, I’ve gradually removed the rose-colored glasses and injected some realism into my idealism. It is for the better, I believe. It has led me to the conclusion of what I addressed in Axiom #3.
- I’m a diplomat by academic training, and I try very hard to practice kindness, but I’m not a saint. I have my own biases. I think dark thoughts. I would never act on them, of course, but given that I don’t have many vices, my range for acting like an a$$hole is limited. One really has to have left me no choice to see the “dark side” of my personality. Fortunately, I don’t allow people to get that far because they don’t deserve that kind of victory or satisfaction over my conduct.
Alright, those were the “givens”. Now the “fun” part…
A few years ago, one of my clients posed a simple query to me via email: “Hi Tosin. Are you a minority-owned business? I’m certain that you are, but I just need to confirm.”
The question didn’t bother me, but I found it peculiar nevertheless. I responded that, yes, I was a “minority-owned” business.
Given the specific client that posed the question at the time, I knew gathering this information was probably a customary procedure. I thought it was peculiar because I figured the client – who I had worked with for several years by the time the inquiry presented itself – could already see that this was obvious. Nevertheless, I could never fault a client for performing due diligence. It’s much more reassuring to be certain than to be in doubt. Better to get your confirmation in writing than to learn later that, all along, TIA International Photography actually belonged to a White couple in South Dakota posing as a Black man supposedly providing photographic services not even from Seattle, but from No Name, Colorado! (Yes, that is a real place…and fraud is a profitable industry).
I’m being facetious, slightly.
I’ve lived most of my life in the United States, and I can attest that this is a nation that has a (borderline obnoxious) proclivity to classify and categorize almost every aspect of life – most notably, people – into a particular box or shelf or compartment. Someone has to fit into a box with a label or else the individual is problematic or an aberration that must be resolved.
I’m of two minds about America’s proclivity because I find this need for categorization both a nuisance and necessary. A necessary nuisance, if you will. It’s a nuisance because most people don’t frequently wish to be categorized and contained in one box (I’m guessing). People are far too multifaceted, dynamic, and inconsistent to be classified as “this” or “that” or “the other”. Too many circumstances and stimuli can change a “this” to a “that” or a “none of the above” or “all of the above”.
However, categorization is necessary when conducting empirical research for statistics, measurements, and scientific data. If you’re going to make an argument, you need evidence supported by data – not a collection of anecdotes.
That’s why the notion of being a “minority-owned” business is fascinating. If one extracts the White populations of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, the world is essentially nonwhite. Aside from these geopolitical regions, TIA International Photography would likely just be labeled as a “business” in the rest of the world. The owner of this business is me, a Black man. Does the “minority-owned” label change anything here in the States? To whose advantage is that label? (That may need to be a topic for a different article).
To be candid, I haven’t invested a considerable amount of time wondering how to reconcile my own identity when it comes to my photography. It’s another label, I suppose, and I live in a society that lives for labels. From the top of my mind, I have always presented myself as a “professional photographer”. I never make reference to my ethnicity – and that’s part of the reason I feel a need to address this in my blog because, if you know me or have done any research about my photography and clicked on the “About TIA” link, you would know (hopefully and obviously) that yes, I am professional photographer and, yes, I am also a Black male. Full stop.
How you respond to this is about you. Full stop.
In the 13 years, three months, and two weeks since I have owned a license to provide professional photography services as a sole proprietor, I have sometimes wondered if my ethnicity has prevented TIA from being all that I imagined it could be when I decided to pursue this objective. The truth is that I don’t know because there are so many factors that one needs to consider. For example, no marketing strategy has worked any wonders to date. I’ve deleted most of my social media accounts because of so many reasons (that will get me off topic if I start discussing them here).
Personally, I don’t consider being Black a detriment or disadvantage to my career as a photographer. I feel fortunate to have this outlet in my life solely for my peace of mind. I do believe being Black may be a detraction for people (of any demographic or group) who don’t care to work with Black individuals. I can soundly state with confidence that I acknowledge this and I would prefer to never have to work with individuals who find my identity to be a problem. This is exactly the reason why I make it known, via my two official websites as well as my blog, that I look the way that I do. It’s a strategic effort to save time, prevent insults to my being and brand, and to “trim fat” immediately.
What do I mean by that?
Numerous times in previous years, during conversations with my peers who are nonwhite, I have discussed the topic of revealing my identity sooner rather than later. Some opine that they think revealing from the get-go is disadvantageous and they would prefer to retain their identity until they literally or physically can no longer do so. While I wholeheartedly respect this point of view, I practice the opposite — simply to save time. Detract me now for how I look while I’m unaware and don’t have to make an effort to care instead of me becoming fully vested and rejected at the butt end when my expectations are overflowing, believing my brown skin should be moot by that point.
Believe it or not, before social media platforms invaded our collective realities, a time existed when people could converse with others in cyberspace without them knowing your physical appearance. One could submit an application for a job position, or enrollment for a university and, unless you yourself revealed the fact deliberately (i.e. submitting your picture or willingly identifying yourself on a survey asking you to check the box next to your ethnicity), the company or university probably had little recourse in knowing what you looked like until an in-person meeting or interview occurred.
Of course, sometimes there might be clues, but these are often accompanied with stereotypes which, at times, cannot be avoided because information helps us, as human beings, to connect links when there are gaps – even if the connections are erroneous. Stereotypes are based on assumptions and can often be misleading, which can be disadvantageous for the job applicant or student with hopes to enter a particular academic program.
For example, let’s say a White hiring manager reviewed a resume for an applicant by the name of “Frederic Jamison” back in 1997. The hiring manager (who may or may not have his or her own biases, but probably does) concludes that Frederic, based on the information on his resume, is a White male who grew up in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. However, when the hiring manager meets Frederic in person, it becomes very evident, immediately, that Frederic is not White, but Asian – specifically Vietnamese. At this point, whether or not Frederic proceeds any further towards getting a job or an acceptance letter may be completely determined by how open-minded the hiring manager is and how efficiently he or she can reject his or her own self-created biases and prejudices.
Hopefully, I’m not saying anything new, but whether I am or not, thanks for not abandoning this topic and continuing to read this far.
Here is the main point.
In the pre-social media era, I am certain I didn’t get roles because I did not look like what the hiring manager or interviewer expected – and I got tired of it very quickly. You would be tired of it as well if you spent days preparing for the interview, got dressed in your best apparel, had to take a plane or train to another city, and sit down in the office only to see how taken aback the interviewers are when they see you don’t look like how they imagined. True, no one likes rejection, but costly rejections that erode your checking account are very aggravating as well when they have nothing to do with your qualifications.
(As a personal aside – and some of my White friends have noted this point too – it’s uncanny that one would expect a White male when one sees the name “Tosin Arasi” on a piece of paper. Nevertheless, if you do share both my first name and surname and you do not have West African, Middle Eastern, or East Asian ancestry, let’s talk so I can correct myself. I once worked at an international law firm in D.C. in the early 2000s during which I infrequently received emails in error because another employee, based in Tokyo, had a slight variance of my name. As a massive fan of many anime series and several facets of Japanese culture, I would take honor in being called “Arasi-san”, “Arasi-sensei”, or “Arasi-senpai”).
Historically, my voice on the phone also confuses individuals because I don’t have a voice that would suggest that I am a Black male…whatever that means. My voice is my voice. I am Black. I’m a guy. The way I speak and how I sound are endemic to me – but let me not equivocate. This comes back to stereotypes and, in my experience, my voice tends to encourage White people to believe I am also a White male. Black, Latino, and Asian friends have also joked that I sound like a “White guy” on the phone. Oh well. How many battles do I really want to fight?
(Interested to hear what I sound like? Click below and draw your own conclusions. I’m not offended.😜 )
The fact that I graduated from high school in Scandinavia, which is listed in my resume, also confuses the heck out of people of multiple demographics. I have been asked in interviews (on the phone and in person) whether my West African name is Scandinavian just because I went to school in Norway prior to university.
Getting back to the 21st century, I will forever humorously recall the day when I started work at a company in Seattle whose CEO was a Danish man. When I was introduced to him, I greeted him in crystal clear Norwegian, which is quite similar to Danish. I will never, ever forget the look of complete consternation and shock on both his face and the face of my female White supervisor. I got a kick out of it, though. They tried so hard to feign their surprise at a Black man speaking Norwegian.
This is part of the reason why we shouldn’t be so quick to categorize and place people in boxes. No demographic is a monolith of itself, as I mentioned in my preliminary axioms. I am so much more than my brown skin, but I’m beyond the point of exasperation with trying to prove my value ad infinitum to employers and coworkers for day jobs. Why should I have to do so with a business that I own?
As a result, I make it a point to feature my photograph prominently on my websites and the only remaining social media platform in which it matters, namely LinkedIn – or “LectureIn” as I sometimes call it, on account of the short novels some individuals concoct for a post and proudly tagging their selfie to it to mark the end of the lecture. Imagine this blog article as a single posting on LinkedIn. That’s not a post. That’s a lecture.
My perspective is that clients and customers should have an idea of whom they are trying to hire for a project. If you like my work but you click “About TIA” and do not like the human package who produced that work, then you save us both precious time, effort, and finances by going elsewhere — and thank you for doing so if I’m describing you.
I don’t want anything to do with you simply because my being Black negates my work product which you might have enjoyed until you knew I was Black. I want my clients to know from the start that they are about to work with a Black man so we can get that detail out of the way right away. If my physical appearance doesn’t trigger your prejudices or stereotypes or whatever “-ism”s or “-phobia”s so many people suffer from, then let’s talk and get to business.
I’ve been a professional photographer for a long time. Even though I pride myself on my diplomacy which coerces me to suffer fools virtually all of the time, I do not have the time to engage in idiocy over my identity.
I am a Black photographer and a photographer who also happens to be Black. Any which way, this should not be a hindrance to whether one would like to hire me for a project. Nevertheless, I try my damnedest to ensure any potential client cannot claim ignorance of this fact. This will always be significant (to me) despite so many pleadings that “race doesn’t matter” and “it’s not always about race” which is consistently an utterance by those who constantly say it for the sake of making a counterargument or to express their exasperation with the topic.
Saying so doesn’t make it so, in my experience.
Thanks for your time.