Photography Tips for Black Professionals, and a Lengthy Digression on the Nature of Friendship

I had lunch yesterday with one of my African-American friends. Yes, that’s a plural. I really do have more than one African-American friend, depending on how you define friend.

Important Digression: I mean, really, the line between friend and acquaintance gets kind of blurry, and the term “friend” depends on context. If a given person gets indicted or says something controversial, s/he is more likely to be an acquaintance than a friend. “Yeah, I know him/her,” I’ll say, with a roll of my eyes to make certain that the person knows that my disapproval of the person started long before the current brouhaha.

I realize that makes me sound disloyal. In my defense, I should point out that I am also a pathetic “basker in reflected fame”. I went to high school with a guy a couple years behind me I still consider to be my friend on the PGA tour, though we only talked a few times over 30 years ago, and never since. But, still, Jay Delsing is my “friend on the Tour”.

Similarly, I consider a lot of politicos to be friends, which may be misguided. City Councilpeople wave at me and smile, and, even though I couldn’t come up with the names of their spouses or children if you offered me a thousand dollars to guess. There’s one politician who refuses to allow me to be her facebook friend after I wrote something nice about the candidate she beat by a 60 point margin, so I suppose I rank somewhere below the 880 closer friends she has on Facebook. But we have 99 mutual friends, so I still consider her to be in my friendship circle. Politicians usually try to be everybody’s friend, but it’s unwise to read too much into it.

It’s all very confusing. I’ve seen a definition somewhere that a friend is someone who will bail you out of jail, while a great friend is the person sitting next to you saying, “That was awesome.” I like to think I have a reasonable number of people who would bail me out of jail, but most of them have better judgment than to wind up there with me. When I think of sitting in jail, I tend to think of Henry Rizzo and James Tindall sitting next to me, talking about COMBAT funding . . .

I tend to run with a broad definition of “friend”. Someone toward whom I have friendly feelings, and whom I am happy to see when I run into them. By that standard, almost everyone is my friend, including the guy I had lunch with. And a bunch of other minority people, too, so there!

Anyhow, one of the things we wound up discussing was the frequency with which black professionals get photographed. He reported that he appears on virtually every promotional piece put out by his large company. Similarly, he participates in virtually every client acquisition meeting, often held at exclusive clubs his parents would not have been allowed into.

The urge to put the black guy forward is not limited to the world of commerce. The teabaggers are now pushing a movie about themselves, and the trailer is a classic example of making certain that the black guy gets photographed to make the rest of the people seem more diverse. Like Ralph Ellison’s Liberty Paint Factory, the white looks a little better when a touch of black is mixed in. So one black guy makes it into 5 shots.

It occurs to me that it can’t be easy to serve in the role of “Photographic Symbol Showing that the Rest of Us are Cool with Diversity” (hereinafter, PSSRUCD). Not only can the flash of cameras disorient a person, but s/he is needs to make the most of his/her opportunity to diversify the shot.

For instance, given the number of flashes the PSSRUCD is exposed to, it may be tempting to don a pair of sunglasses, to ease the eyestrain. Bad idea. Sunglasses make you look cool and detached, but we need the appearance of friendly engagement. Ixnay on the shades.

A more subtle point is that you need to avoid being in the center of any group photo. This may seem a little counterintuitive, because, after all, you are the reason the photo is being taken, but having you centered in the photo makes the photo seem posed. So be careful to pose it differently.

Most importantly, always look at the camera! Looking off camera makes us think you might be casing the joint (remember, we wouldn’t have even let you in a lot of these places if it weren’t for all that deseg nastiness). Worse, you could be gazing at a white woman. Play it safe, look at the camera, and be the best PSSRUCD you can be.

You may notice that a lot of white guys, when approached by a photographer while drinking, will ease their drink-holding glass behind their back. Don’t try this. When we do it, it looks like we’re hiding a drink. When you do it, it looks like you might be reaching for a weapon. The fear on everyone else’s face will ruin the shot, and, if you do it quickly, there’s a chance everyone will hit the floor. PSSRUCDs should simply set their drinks down on a table, and return to the photo. Trust me, people will wait for you.

Finally, a word on the expression. Sometimes it can be challenging to maintain the friendly smile of a top-notch PSSRUCD when the rest of us try out best to engage you in conversation. It may get old to be asked whether you played sports in college, or to be asked what you think about Bill Cosby, or to be congratulated on Obama’s victory, but those are the best ice-breakers most of us white professionals can come up with. But too many photos are ruined by a shadow of contempt or an eye-roll passing over your face as you are posing with some pasty white old guy who happens to control the business we are after. So much depends on the friendly smile of the PSSRUCD. Please make it happen.

2 Responses to “Photography Tips for Black Professionals, and a Lengthy Digression on the Nature of Friendship”

  1. Anonymous says:

    What does it mean when someone says "good friend" as opposed to "friend"?

  2. Dave says:

    Fun fact: My sister-in-law (in her 20's) and her *entire family* still say "colored people".

    Anyway, when I read the title of your post, the first thing I thought about was how when individuals of color are photographed, they're often photo-shopped to reflect (pardon the pun) the "proper shade" for the circumstances. An example of this is Benjamin Jealous. Here are some random pictures of him:

    Here's the naacp photograph, where he appears darker:

    I've noticed a few times where models on the cover of magazines are often adjusted one way or another. I honestly never really paid attention until I saw Benjamin Jealous on Bill Maher. The lighting was such that Jealous looked white, and Maher looked like a vampire.

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