This article was originally published in issue #7869 of British Journal of Photography: Female Gaze. As a free gift to our community during the coronavirus lockdown, we are offering the issue as a digital edition, available here.
“At Yale University, I found myself in a place of ‘double consciousness’,” recalls Endia Beal, citing the writer, sociologist and activist WEB Du Bois. Beal was the only black person in the 2013 cohort for the fine arts MA in photography, and also in her workplace – an IT department. “I grew up in one culture and now inhabited another, becoming a mediator between these two worlds,” she says.
Upon learning that her hair, a red Afro, fascinated her colleagues, she turned the tables on them, allowing them to feel it but recording their impressions. “It felt like I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing but wanted to do,” admits one of them, while others spoke of the moment being “uncomfortable”, “voyeuristic” or “awkward”, highlighting the inappropriateness of the question, “Can I touch your hair?”
Beal’s work since has continued to question and provoke, often challenging the uniformity of corporate culture. In an amusing but no less incisive series, she styled seven white women in their forties with ‘black’ hairdos, then took head shots of them in corporate garb and pose. Their coifs stand out not merely because they look incongruous on the sitters, but because they contrast with the otherwise indistinguishable white shirts and dark jackets they are wearing.
Evidently there’s little room for expressions of individuality within the corporate sphere – so much so that as soon as someone is different, it is immediately noticeable and therefore must be tamed. “These women had their own stories about being stuck in situations where they were made to feel uncomfortable for who they were,” said the photographer, in BJP’s Female Gaze issue, which is now available to read as a free digital edition here.
“For instance, one of them is called Ann but her real name is Desiree. When she started working, she was asked to change it because Desiree is too exotic for the office,” says the photographer. “It’s not just a minority thing. It’s a woman thing,” she told The Huffington Post. “All women can relate to that experience in some way. So I really learnt something through this project as well.”
Now an associate professor of art at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black institution in North Carolina, Beal still hears about her students being asked inappropriate questions when looking for work – about their hair, about whether they have children or not, and about where their ‘interesting’ name comes from. Reflecting on the moment when young women of colour prepare to enter the workforce, she began a project titled Am I What You’re Looking For?
Asking her subjects to dress as they would for a job interview, she poses them in their childhood home in front of a backdrop depicting the Yale office space she once worked in, juxtaposing the point at which their public and private meet. The edges of the frame show family pictures, trophies, musical instruments, heirlooms and other decorations that hint at how they grew up.
The subjects, presenting themselves as job candidates, then present the more anonymous front expected when seeking work, putting the viewers in the position of the interviewers. As such, the viewers are confronted with their own biases and presumptions – what is our conclusion and what is it based on?
Do we focus on what the applicant is wearing or the environment that surrounds her? Would we hire the one wearing patterned shoes and a bold dress or the one with a demure outfit and genteel haircut? What do our decisions say about us?
“No matter what I did – straighten my hair, put on less make-up, wear blue, black or grey, don pearls and earrings – I was still ‘othered’,” remembers Beal. “People would make comments that made me feel uncomfortable and like I didn’t belong. And the more I tried, the more I was losing myself.”
Ultimately she found herself questioning why she was trying to alter herself to fit a space clearly never designer for her, but rather than throw in the towel decided to try to transform the corporate culture.
She hopes to initiate a conversation around hiring practices, and allows her photographs to serve as the basis for talks on diversity and inclusion. She’s spoken to career counsellors across the United States as well as company managers, and is creating a book destined to be a teaching tool that combines her images with first-person testimonies.
“My job as an artist is to add to the existing narratives,” she says. “Although there are movies such as Working Girl and 9 To 5 that speak of women’s experiences in corporate spaces, there aren’t any about women of colour. It’s the same thing in fine arts. So I thought, ‘I’m a woman, I’m black and I’m going to do this right now’.”