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The Caribbean nation of Barbados is nearly 90% black, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at its ads. A local photographer aims to change that with an ambitious project to reflect black communities in stock photography. He explains his plan to writer Darshana Mahtani.
Text: Darshana Mahtani
Country: Barbados

n the Caribbean, specifically in Barbados, there’s a problem when it comes to media representation. In a country where close to 90% of all Barbadians (also known colloquially as “Bajan”) are of Afro-Caribbean descent, the media industry outsources its images from the United States. This means that, on average, whether a Barbadian is looking to buy insurance, a car, a house, a new purse or open a bank account, the ads that target them feature people that look nothing like them.

Even in 2018, where there are now many black role models in business and entertainment, representation of the everyday black person is still limited.

One local photographer has had enough of this distorted reality. Amery Butcher has an ambitious plan to travel the world collecting photographs of black people to create his own portfolio of readily avail stock photos that do justice to black communities. He’s already begun in the Caribbean with Barbados, Dominica and St. Lucia. He told TeaTime-Mag more about the project and why he’s doing it.

When did your love for taking photographs start?

I honestly don’t know; my uncle ran a photo studio in the ’80s. I grew up working with him in the studio so my interest was piqued from early, but I think I didn’t start taking it seriously until I got into Barbados Community College and started doing my Mass Communications degree. I was doing a Print degree and I started to see the importance of photography in terms of telling a story.

When did you decide you wanted to become a photographer?

It just seemed like the most natural thing. Initially, I was doing an internship at the Nation Newspaper (a local newspaper in Barbados). I was there as a writer, and my editor, I think because of my background, asked me if I could take photos for my own articles because at the time there was a shortage of freelance photographers. Then over the span of my internship, I was assigned more as a photographer than a writer. I was taking more photos than I was writing stories. Then the Nation started publishing Attitude Magazine, a youthfocused magazine, and I became part of the original team.

What does your work as a photographer mostly consist of?

It’s tricky. I’m a jack of all trades. I started off in the newsroom doing hard news; then I moved over to magazines within the same publishing house. I started doing human-interest stories, fashion, architecture, events, anything anyone asked me to do. I became a sort of photo mercenary for hire. Eventually I started working with a few other photographers in Barbados, many of whom are senior to me, so it was like this apprenticeship. Rise Chadderton became a prominent role model in my life, so a lot of her focuses became my focuses such as fashion, wedding and beauty photography. Rise and I had a sort of weekly column in the newspaper called Girl Next Door, which is one of the things I’m most proud of in my career until today.

What we’d do is we’d find a random girl and give her the same treatment models receive including makeup, a photo shoot, etc., and we’d organize interviews with said girl to help her build a profile for her and present her in her best light. We started doing this because there’s this unhealthy obsession with beauty in our society and in the industry, particularly among girls in the millennial generation, and it leads to an inferiority complex in some cases. Girls would open a magazine and see all these “perfect” people and feel like that’s the standard they need to live up to. So Rise and I, we spent enough time in the industry to know that perfection is in itself unattainable. The amount of work that goes into a photograph before it’s presented to the public is asinine, it’s crazy. So when I look at a photo in a Cosmo or GQ magazine, I see a whole industry involved in producing that photo instead of an individual, and we felt that for anyone who didn’t have an understanding of that, it’d be really important for them to see that they weren’t that different from those “perfect” people that they admired.

What’s the inspiration behind your new project?

My interest behind my work has always been primarily making sure that people are presented with a certain level of honesty. So if it’s fashion, for example, then I want to create a situation where people can look at the photo and then look at themselves and say ‘OK, this is attainable’. So as far as my shooting style is concerned I don’t try to smooth people’s ‘imperfections’. I feel those all play a role in shaping how we see the world, and if we start removing people’s idiosyncrasies, then you’re slowly moving that needle over to a world of fiction.

Even when I do events, I don’t like posed photos. I emphasize candid shots rather than anything posed, staged or inorganic. Even if I’m doing corporate work, I tend to use an 85 mm lens because (it gives) more of a portraiture feel rather than a wide lens that tries to capture everything. I feel photography is something that should be intimate; it should be warm and accessible. And in terms of my project, well, I’m in a position in my career where I want to focus on stock imagery, specifically of Caribbean people, black and Afro-Caribbean people. Because when you look at these larger stock image sites such as Getty, Bigstock, iStock, etc., and you type ‘black man/people/family’ you see the same four faces constantly. And I feel that it’s not good enough. As of late, local companies are realizing it too. They’re being forced to use images that don’t represent their clientele.

Why do you think the black community is so underrepresented in the [stock image industry]?

We’d have to go back to the history of photography to answer that or the history of Nikon and Canon. Honestly, from a large-scale perspective, the film photography industry has never been really focused on darker skin. There’s this untrue belief, particularly in the larger North American markets, that black and brown people are a minority, especially as it pertains to economic power, and catering to them doesn’t make sense. The belief is that they don’t spend money, so focusing your energy on them is a waste of time. And here’s why I think it’s a problem: If you use a photo of a white person, a black person will still look at it and think ‘OK, what is this trying to say about me?’ and relate to it in some way. I don’t see why the opposite can’t be true too. I don’t think white people went into the ‘Black Panther’ movie saying, ‘Mmm… it’s a bunch of Africans so I don’t know if I will be entertained by this movie’. In Barbados and the Caribbean, we are largely of African descent. To get even more technical, in Barbados a lot of Caucasians have ‘other’ ancestry, so they’d be referred to as Euro-Caribbean as opposed to white. That’s to say there’s no reason a company in Barbados should be pulling an image of a family of five white people from Columbus, Ohio, to sell insurance to a family of four black people in Barbados. I think it’s ridiculous, so my focus personally is basically to correct what I see as an imbalance. Again, it’s a correction of representation of honesty and portraying what really is.

Why do you think having more representation of black communities will be beneficial to the world?

I feel like when you have a more diverse representation of these groups, it can’t do any damage. The importance here is representation. Typically speaking, minorities around the world do have a form of representation already but it’s almost entirely negative and it has to do with the stereotypes that are perpetuated by North American media and media in general. I think the only way to counteract the damage that is being done, to counteract this narrative that all black people are loud or violent or play basketball, for example, is to offer a counter narrative. How? Something as simple as offering different images. Even if you isolate it to just a representation of African Americans, it’s still inaccurate. For example, if my only experience in terms of seeing black families is seeing images of people living in the projects in New York, I’m naturally going to assume that’s the standard. It’s inaccurate to say that a single representation of any culture is a representation of the entire culture. There’s no such thing as a monolithic group.

What would be your ideal outcome of this project?

To be honest, in the long run I hope that it helps us (in the Caribbean) to start dealing with the issues of colorism. The only place I’ve traveled in the Caribbean where I wasn’t presented with ‘white-washed’ media was funny enough in Haiti. In Haiti, you look at billboards and magazines, newspapers, etc., and you are seeing black people looking the same way they would as if they were walking on the street. When I saw that I felt very disillusioned in Barbados, jaded with my whole existence. I felt robbed of an experience. I think when you have an accurate representation of a society, it automatically improves the morale of society as a whole.

Info Box:

In Barbados alone, the 2016 national census conducted by the Barbados Statistical Service reported a resident population of 284,996, 89% (253,771) of whom are black.

Blacks may be scoring more substantial parts in film and television nowadays, but many continue to play roles that fuel stereotypes, such as thugs and maids. The prevalence of these parts reveals the importance of #OscarsSoWhite and how African Americans continue to struggle for quality roles on both he small and big screens, despite having won Academy Awards in acting, screenwriting, music production and other categories.




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Adding more truth in Barbados


In the Caribbean, specifically in Barbados, there is a problem with media representation. 90% of all Barbadians are of Afro-Caribbean descent, but the media industry outsources its images from the United States. So most of the models in ads are white or the same African-Americans who do not represent the Caribbean population. One local photographer, Amery Butcher is trying to change that.

His ambitious plan is to travel the world collecting photographs of black people to create his own portfolio of readily available stock photos that do justice to black communities. He's already begun in the Caribbean with Barbados, Dominica and St. Lucia.

His interest in photography began at a young age in his uncle's photo studio in the '80s. In college, as he was doing a Print degree, he saw the importance of photography to tell a story. But it was as an intern at the Nation Newspaper (a local newspaper in Barbados) that his career as a photographer really took off.

Rise Chadderton, a prominent Barbadian photographer, was Amery's role model. They had a weekly column in the newspaper called Girl Next Door. They would find a random girl and give her the same treatment models receive including makeup, a photo shoot, etc. Then they would organize interviews with said girl to help build a profile for her and present her in her best light. They did this so the girls could see that they aren't that different from the "perfect" girls they admire in the magazines.

Amery believes there is a misperception in the larger North American market that black and brown people are a minority and that they don't spend money. But if black people can see a white person in an ad and relate to it, the opposite should also be true.

He hopes that his project will help people in the Caribbean deal with the issues of colorism He thinks that "when you have an accurate representation of a society, it automatically improves the morale of society as a whole."

 

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