Identity and photography: Afro-American photographer talks about racism 

Colette Veasey-Cullors had to face racism in her growing years.

Published: 15th September 2019 11:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th September 2019 06:43 PM   |  A+A-

Céleste, daughter of Colette Veasey-Cullors(inset), was one of the subjects in Colette’s 2013 series, Adultification of Girls

Colette Veasey-Cullors had to face racism in her growing years. The Baltimore-based Afro-American photographer stopped taking the school bus because of the taunts from other students.

“It was a trying time for me. I had to think of ways to confront the racism when it was blatant,” she recalls. 

Today, Veasey-Cullors is the Associate Dean for Design and Media at Maryland Institute College of Art.
Here, she has created an environment where students who want to speak to her on any discrimination they face can approach without hesistation.

The artist, who recently gave a workshop and talk at Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communications (SACAC), Delhi, speaks with The Sunday Standard.

What was the focus of your workshop and talk at SACAC?

In the three days at the institute, I interacted with students on the idea of documentary photography. At the workshop, I further introduced them on how to bring in the social aspects in this photography genre.

The attempt was to also talk about historical components of documentary photography while encouraging them to develop an individual voice. I ended the session by focusing on overarching ethics in photography along with presenting my own work. 

You have completed around 20 projects on issues of socio-economics, race, class, education and identity. What made you take up these themes?

Even when I was studying, from a personal standpoint, I felt a need to give voice to under-represented communities. These themes became a natural extension to my photographic practice. I live in a neighbourhood, which is always up and coming, and has potential but never truly enjoys it. I wanted to depict plight of less fortunate in this city.

Were you artistically-inclined as a child?

Always. I had notebooks where I drew. But it was only in the college where I studied art. I took classes in drawing, ceramics, painting... It was during the class on photography when everything just made sense. I felt I was able to express what was inside me through this medium. It was like a natural fit for me. 

Tell us about your project, Adultification of Girls that comments on the beauty standards laid by the society on young girls. I have three daughters and a brother. I never grew up around girls and when I had daughters, I turned the camera on them since they were babies.

I photograph them to represent young Afro-American girls. More often than not, the clothing they wanted to me to purchase for them was always in negotiation. In departmental stores I found the clothes for young girls look like those of adults. The dresses have become shorter and tighter.

I very much made a conscious decision to try and not to dress my daughters in that way. I also used a ruler to measure how long or short their dresses were when they were younger.  

Eventually, I started reading books on psychology on the adultification of young children. It was in 2013 that one day I told my kids to get dressed up fancy. They were free to choose their own makeup and dresses. I have to say I was taken aback when my older daughter, who was 13 at that time, chose the high makeup for herself.

What is your take on this trend?

My husband and I decided never to purchase Barbie dolls. I remember it was the third birthday of my older one, and gifts were laid on the table. She went on to the pile and the first gift she opened was a blonde Barbie doll. She loved it and didn’t care about the other gifts!

I constantly have conversations with my daughters that they need to find their own style, rather than follow beauty standards. My older one now puts on an African style of attire, the younger one features a sporty look and middle one ascribes to the beauty standards. But I have realised that people have individual choices.

Do you recommend any literature around photography to students?
I tell them if there is one book you have to have, it’s On Photography by Susan Sontag. It doesn’t matter if you are a photographer or not, because it is about images in a societal framework.


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