Documentation: I Am Black
Documentation: I Am Black is an exhibition and book project about what is meant when we say “ I am Black”. We say it to ourselves and we say it to others, but when it comes time to define what it means, we have to pause and really think about it. This is because It means something different to almost everyone who has ever referred to himself/herself as such.
Some think that it’s a state of mind, others, owing to the notion of Essentialism, think that it’s just an empty phrase, devoid of any true meaning. So, I am asking you, regardless of your social, cultural or economic background, to please join me in the exploration and documentation of one of the most controversial topics in the United States, and perhaps the world: the notion of what it means when we say “We Are Black”.
Your participation in this project is to sit for a portrait and submit your own definition of what is meant when you say “I am Black.”
self portrait. h eugene foster. 2004
h. eugene foster
Cultural Worker, Artist
Born: 1946, Brooklyn, NY
When I say, “I am Black” it means that I recognize and accept being a descendent of indigenous African people. It also means that I recognize as family others who recognize and accept themselves as being descendents of indigenous African people. This is not because there might be a blood connection but because I believe that all Black people share, at least since the invasion of Africa by Europe, the common experience of racism and disenfranchisement. It is this common experience that allows people, who are raised under every psychosocial cultural configuration possible, and who may otherwise share no experiences, to come together as “Black People”.
H Eugene Foster
Cultural worker, artist photographer; work widely exhibited; faculty menber and digital media lab manager and program coordinator at the International Center of Photography in NYC.
Interview with H. Eugene Foster (March 11th, 2009)
CHP: Could you tell me something about your documentation project?
HEF: This project is about what is meant when we say "I am black". We say it to ourselves and we say it to others, but when it comes time to define what it means we find that we have to pause and really think about it.
Everyone has a different answer. We grow up as black people, we grow up learning that that's who we are. We grow up learning to say “I am black", but no one ever puts a definition on it. We kind of take it for granted, because many of us were raised under the notion that there were only four racial types, Mongoloid, Negroid, Caucasoid, and Australoid and we accepted that we were Negroid. We don't stop and think that what it is for us is a far cry different for someone else. I mean the subject does come up, but we don't make a big deal out of it, we just pass it off as that's the way you were raised. No one contests anyone else, as far as their definition goes. Even in my own family we run the entire gamut of what it means to be black. I could do this project with just my own family, and have quite a controversy going! It is very interesting and that is why I am enjoying doing it.
CHP: This subject has come to the forefront in the media, especially in the recent presidential election. There was much discussion about Barack Obama's "blackness". And recently Attorney General Eric Holder suggested we are a nation of cowards because we are afraid to discuss race. Is your project a reaction to these current discussions?
HEF: No, my project has nothing to do with Barack Obama, or any recent events. I had thought of this project before I even knew who Barack Obama was. Race is a topic that I use consistently in my work, and I'm always trying to find ways to talk about it. I do think it is pertinent, and that it is one of those "right time at the right place" things. People are beginning to talk about race. It is coming to the forefront, the issue of race, and people are now willing to talk about it more. This project was conceived about six years ago, in 2004.
CHP: In your project statement you welcome anyone, regardless of social, cultural or economic background to be a part of the project. So this is open to people who we would not ordinarily think of as black?
HEF: Oh yes, definitely. My mother was half white, and could pass for white, and in fact got angry when people thought she was. So yes, I definitely want people who we wouldn't normally think of as black simply because they don't fit the physical description.
CHP: Are these traditional studio portraits?
HEF: These are all environmental portraits. I want the subjects to be shot in an environment that they themselves have created or helped create. Just to get a broader sense about them, more than just what they look like or who they think they are, how people define themselves within their own environment. How they relate to the furnishings and objects they place in their homes.
CHP: And you ask the subjects to provide an essay of their own definition of what it means to them to be black?
HEF: Yes, I would want them to write up an essay, which I will discuss with them, but I would leave it up to them to write a statement. This has been the most difficult thing about the project. It is hard to get people to write the statement.
Another part of the statement is name, place they were born, year they were born, and where they live now. And I think that is very pertinent information. Age is especially important, because at one time it wasn't even acceptable for black people to be called black, and that is an older age group. I am expecting to get much different answers depending on the subject's age.
CHP: Do you have any completed portraits?
HEF: Yes, I have several portraits with text, completed.
CHP: What type of equipment do you use in your work?
HEF: I am using a Mamiya 6 X 6, medium format film camera. And using a single flash with an umbrella, trying to get even light.
CHP: Is there any historical or comparative work that has influenced this project?
HEF: There is an artist, Adrian Piper, whose work is centered on a racial nature, and she is also a black woman who could pass for white, and she has based a body of work around that. Her work inspired me in this project. She did a video project that asked a question "what would you do if you discovered you had black ancestry?" That video inspired me, and I started thinking of more ways I could address the question of race.
CHP: Are there any photographers whose work you admire or have been influenced by?
HEF: In addition to Adrian Piper, my work has mostly been influenced by three photographers who all happen to be women and who all happen to be Black. They are Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Clarissa Sligh. I like the way they incorporate text and pictures as well as the fact that their work deals with race, gender and sex. Others are Garry Winogrand, Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Larry Fink, and Nicholas Nixon. I could, of course, keep going.
CHP: Will this project be limited to a particular geographic area?
HEF: I would love this to be a worldwide project. Starting out regionally, and spread out as far as it will take me. I really do not see an end to it. I don't expect that the question will ever be answered, at least not in a way that would allow for some sort of statistical analysis or consensus.
CHP: How have you gone about finding people to participate in the project?
HEF: I have used several methods with varying degrees of success. I have tried to find people through Craig's List. I got some responses from people who were too far away to travel to. I am now handing out leaflets on a street corner in New York City where I live. Just talking to people and trying to get an immediate response right there on the street. It took some emotional challenge on my part to be able to do that, because I didn't know what kind of reaction I would get. And I have gotten both anger as well as joy from people. Some people I have found do not appreciate me doing it. I do not think that has been the best way to find subjects, and I have not found any willing subjects that way. On Craig's List I found several willing participants, but they were difficult to work with, we were always having conflicting schedules, and they didn't want to be photographed in their own environments. That is a big issue for me. If they are going to be honest and straight forward, it is essential to be photographed in their own environment.
CHP: Is there anything else you would like to say about this project?
HEF: I hope that this project goes beyond being just another aesthetic exercise in photography but will carry within it a little therapeutic value as well.
h eugene foster's website
Documentation: I am Black
If you or someone else you know would like to participate in this project, please contact H.Eugene Foster at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org