Issue #2: Being “The Only” (Can Be Awkward, Quizzical & Uncomfortable)
It’s taken about three weeks to encourage myself to continue this topic, so let’s get into it again.
Similar to the format of my previous article on this matter, I would like to preface this piece with the same preliminary and personal axioms:
- 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.
What does being “the only” mean?
For the purpose of this essay, it refers to being the only person of color within a group. Specifically, I’m referring to being the only Black or African-American individual in a crowd of predominantly White men and White women. To be even more explicit, I’m talking about frequently being the only Black photographer participating in photography-related activities in a major American city consisting of predominantly White photographers and rarely ever seeing another Black photographer in any scenario. Rarely ever.
Of course, there are instances when I recall seeing another Black photographer here in Seattle, but it’s not a significant number of people. I have lived in the Emerald City for 16 years and, during this period of time, I have seen less than 10 other Black photographers, regardless of gender, offering their own brand of photographic services. On occasion, I have seen one Black photographer attending the same photography conference or exposition, but I don’t recall an occasion when I’ve been walking through the city and seeing another Black photographer capturing a moment, a portrait, or a street scene, etc.
Is it peculiar? Yes. Quite frankly, it’s bizarre because I know that I cannot be and am not the only Black photographer in Seattle.
Does it bother me? No.
Why or why not? Let’s discuss.
One of my Taiwanese friends, who lives in New York City, probably posed the the question most pointedly several years ago: “Tosin, have you ever lived in a place where you weren’t the only black person or black family?” At the time the question was asked, the answer was “No.” However, since that time, I did live in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area for a little over three years. D.C.’s population is predominantly African-American. Many Americans, for whatever reason, tend to shy away from acknowledging that America’s capital is, in fact, a “Black city”. There’s nothing to be shy about, though. It’s just a point of fact, similar to how Atlanta, Memphis, Detroit, New Orleans, and Baltimore are also “Black cities” which have experienced significant “White flight” during the last century.
With very few exceptions that I can recall since childhood, I have frequently been “the only” in most places and situations. I’ve been surrounded by White people for virtually my entire existence. My very first best friend in kindergarten was White. His name was Jerry, and I’m certain our friendship coerced our respective mothers to also become friends. (Funny how friendships of children can do that to their parents).
In this article, I’ll share some personal photographs to illustrate the point of being very much accustomed to being “the only.” However, let’s get back to today, in 2023. I find myself wondering: Have these circumstances (a.k.a. my reality) had a detrimental impact on my psyche or my photography?
⬆️ The two pictures in the slideshow above are from my years as a Resident Assistant (RA) for House 5 at Frontier Hall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I was the RA for approximately 60 first-year and second-year male students. Except for two or three students, all of my residents were White, and I was the only Black RA at this residence hall. For many of these guys, I was the very first Black individual they had ever interacted with or seen in person and not on television. It was a very memorable and challenging experience with many ups and downs, to say the least. Don’t let these scanned photographs deceive you. These images are not from the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s. This was 1996. I’ve included the second picture because it was a fun candid while the first one was too “1950s-ish”.
To be completely honest, I am always happy when I see nonwhite men and women who are out and about capturing images, and that includes all ethnicities and cultures. Though Seattle is predominantly White, it has a substantial Asian demographic. As a result, I’ve seen (and I know) Asian-American photographers engaging in the same activity that I have concluded is my purpose in my life. Would it be wonderful to see more African-American photographers in Seattle? Yes, indeed. In fact, I’m sure there are a few — but so few that I do not remember crossing paths with any or having any brief conversations just to trade tips or notes about our experiences.
Yes, you could argue that “Maybe you don’t get out much”, but check out my portfolio of Seattle sometime. After 16 years, I know almost every square mile of this city and while I can clearly see Black people in Seattle, I do not see Black photographers.
I remember one female photographer who lives in Seattle and is originally from Haiti. We knew of each other via social media. Her landscape photography of the Puget Sound region was (and still is, I’m certain) quite stunning and stellar. I do not remember her Instagram account because I deleted my account back in 2020. Unfortunately, I may have inadvertently severed my ties to her when I deleted my Twitter account last year. I recall that we were mutual admirers of each other’s work, and I felt inspired by the fact that there was someone who looks like me and delivered spectacular photography. I hope she’s still exploring the Pacific Northwest and executing her photography alongside her daytime job, similar to myself.
So that’s one story I can recall, but you would think there should be dozens after living in Seattle for so long — especially stories in which “in person” interaction occurred.
⬆️ Another photograph from my first year as a Resident Assistant at Frontier Hall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. All these students — two of whom are brothers and had weddings years later for which I was a groomsman at both — were supportive of my efforts and threw me a surprise party when I was having a very difficult time. I was the only Black RA on staff (a point no one ever discussed but was so blatant) and I was supposed to be a resource for a lot of White guys who were tough to reach. I’ll leave it at that. Circa 1996.
Because Black people are not a monolith, as I mentioned in my first axiom, I do not feel a particular pressure or anxiety of being “the only” in my local community of photographers. My interests in subject matter are not going to be the same as the next Black photographer’s interests, and that’s as it should be. As I mentioned in my previous article, the most important aspect is that one likes or appreciates the work and not discriminate against the work’s creator based on the creator’s ethnicity.
There are a lot of White photographers whose work is brilliant. I can admit that without equivocation. I’m proud to have friends in my photography network who are White and love photography as much as I do, and it’s evident in their creations. I can say the same about many Latino, Asian, and Asian-American photographers. One of my favorite photographers (his name is Koji, but goes by Spiraldelight on Flickr), is based in Japan. To date, I find his work inspiring. Years ago, he continuously captured so many masterful cityscapes of Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka, that I was wholeheartedly convinced that I had to — someday — go to Japan and do a collaborative photo shoot with Koji as the guide. This has not come to pass, unfortunately. Nevertheless, I’m happy that he had the opportunity to do a photo shoot with Jörn, a mutual contact who is a photographer and creative producer based in Hamburg, Germany — also an extremely talented individual. Apparently, when he visited Tokyo, they both had to communicate via translators on their cellphones because Koji did not speak English or German and Jörn could not speak Japanese — but they made it work!
(I still really want to photograph the Japanese metropolises before I die. I don’t think I would sleep a wink, though. I would probably use several gigabytes of memory cards too…maybe even terabytes!)
When I first created this blog, I made it a priority to promote the work of other photographers whose images and talent, I believed, needed to be shared. I think I had a good start. You can check out my interviews of these individuals in my “Feature Photographers” section. Maybe, at some point, I should resume the interviews.
The bottom line is that I wish I could say there were more Black photographers to brag about and share their names and work, but I am deficient in this arena. It’s disappointing, but I believe it’s a result of the culture and history endemic to life in the United States. However, I can say with certainty that it’s refreshing to see the increase in diversity of photographers over time. I see a lot more female photographers today than I can recall 10 or 20 years ago.
It will be even more refreshing when we no longer have to write about experiences of being “the only” or “the first”. We’re still a long way off from this, but I’m encouraged to see many nonwhite people discuss their experiences. This article is my own contribution, and I wouldn’t trade my personal experience being “the only”. I’m not ashamed that I grew up around White people. I would not be able to function well in my life otherwise. Despite America’s abhorrent past and extremely malignant present with racism parallel to its perilous fixation on “us vs. them” hatred, I can’t find it in my heart to be this hateful without suffering the shame of being a hypocrite and going against how my parents raised me. That doesn’t mean that I do not feel sentiments of resentment, because I do quite often. I just don’t know who benefits if I act on my resentment or become encumbered by bitterness. I wrestle with this aspect of my reality routinely. The temptation to be angry, bitter, and hateful…is so easy. The fact that I’ve been “the only” around White people for so long has, with experience, provided immunity against sinking into bitterness or consternation.
Ironically, it was my life in D.C. and the perpetual negative experiences I had with most people there, including Black people, that eventually led me to evacuate from the nation’s capital — mainly to preserve my own mental health. I never want to repeat that experience again. In the last 16 years, since I relocated to Seattle, I have visited most of the cities that were my previous domiciles in America, but not D.C. The one city where I wasn’t “the only” had me in and out in three years.
⬆️ This was my second year as a Resident Assistant at Frontier Hall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. This time, I had a mix of male and female first-year students. I had one year of experience under my wing at this point. Still, the demographics are evident. I had two nonwhite residents. Everyone else was White – a number of them getting used to seeing Black people outside of a television set for the first time. I got to test my film photography skills with this group during the 1996/1997 academic year and published a yearbook for each of them to document their first year at the University of Minnesota — one of my proudest accomplishments during my years there. Photography was in my blood back in the 90s!
The fact that I’m out and about in Seattle capturing the personality of the city thrills me. I have no idea if I’m the first Black photographer who some local Seattleites have seen. If that’s the case, then excellent. There’s enlightenment in the knowledge that we exist and we love the art and science of photography like any other photographer regardless of ethnicity. I say this because I have experienced bewilderment from White individuals in Seattle who seem confounded that I carry around two cameras, two tripods, and a backpack of camera equipment routinely. I don’t dwell on any of this because I’m so accustomed to it. (“It”, in that last sentence, stands for ignorance, by the way). I think this might be the principal difference between how I handle this issue in contrast to someone else who might be unaccustomed to this or loathes each occurrence, which is plausible and understandable.
We can be professional or amateur photographers and not White men simultaneously. The law of probability underscores this fact. The same law supports that we may be very small in number and “the only” within a subset, nevertheless. This is the reality for many nonwhite individuals as well as women of any ethnicity.
As I type this entry, the lesson that I have learned is one that so many have stated repeatedly, from family, friends, customers, and strangers: the theme and mindset of tenacity. Never giving up. Always showing up (when you have the capacity and the means). It’s daunting because, I suppose, I do feel like TIA is a failure sometimes. It feels like the competition is asphyxiating and most of my competition doesn’t look like me, which also feels like a professional disadvantage for my business. As a result, because my photography is an extension of myself, I also feel like a failure even when I know — after 13 years of maintaining my small business — that this isn’t true. Being “the only”, I am constantly reminding myself that I cannot stop what I’ve started, even if it doesn’t yield the results I anticipate.
I need to not give up on TIA because I will regret it otherwise, especially in the long-term.
I also need to not give up on TIA because that is synonymous with giving up on myself.
(Again, this is all coming to light as I type this article).
I need to show up *for myself* because I believe photography is my purpose in this life. It’s why I’ve remained in Seattle for 16 years instead of continuing my previous, nomadic wanderings from city to city every two to three years.
It’s not so much about being “the only” in my mind — even though it can frequently be very awkward, quizzical, and uncomfortable, especially when the tension feels palpable and you would prefer to be anywhere else but that place at that moment. I know this emotion well.
I cannot let my own race, physical appearance, or other people’s racism impede on the time I have left to do something marvelous and/or meaningful with TIA International Photography. I could be any other ethnicity, I believe, and still reach the same conclusion.
Thanks, once again, for taking the time to learn about my perspective.