“As of 2016, it’s been 128 years since slavery was legally abolished across the world, and 53 years since Martin Luther King Jr gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But we still live in a world where the colour of our skin forms the basis of not only the first impression, but also a long-lasting one,” said Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass (37), in her TED talk at Vancouver, Canada, in February this year.
For the last four years, Dass has been on a mission: to catalogue a spectrum of skin tones independent of ethnicity, gender and country of origin. The photo series, titled Humanae, features passport photo-like images. They depict bare-shouldered individuals, classified only as a Pantone code (a system for classifying colours, used for specifying printing inks). Dass started the project in 2012, and has so far collected 4,000 images, from 25 cities, across 16 countries.
This weekend, Dass will speak at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, as part of TEDXGateway, 2016. She will talk about Humanae, and her vision to replace the concept of colours associated with race – yellow for South East Asians, white for Caucasians, black for Africans, and brown for Hispanics, sub-continental Asians, and the Middle Eastern population.
Dass says she belongs to a ‘colourful’ family: “My father’s skin is deep chocolate, my adopted grandmother is porcelain-skinned, and my grandfather, somewhere between vanilla and strawberry. My mother is cinnamon and sisters are toasted peanut.” Growing up, colour was never an issue in her family – everybody was comfortable in their own skin.
In the world outside, however, her skin colour posed a problem. “I was made of flesh, which is usually depicted in the colour pink. But I was brown, and people said I was black. I was seven years old with a mess of colours in my head,” she says.
Dass’s colourful upbringing has inspired her photo project as well. She photographs each subject against a white background and extracts a 11x11 pixel section from the image. She then runs the sample through the Pantone database, and uses the closest matching colour code for background. As a result, each of her images has a slightly different background to the subject’s skin tone (see image).
“When you see my photographs, the first thing you notice is the skin colour. But, my argument is that the things that constitute our identity - nationality, sexual orientation and political ideologies - are not visually quantifiable,” says Dass.
Through the images, Dass doesn’t share any information on her subjects: we don’t know their name, country of origin or ethnicity. So, while the project categorises individuals by colour, the core message is that colour can’t be the basis of judgment – we are just a number on the Pantone colour scale.
Four years since she started the project, Dass continues to term Humanae as ‘ongoing’: “Racial and colour-based discrimination is still a global issue. I will continue my work till I am able to put a dent in it. Logistically speaking, Humanae will end only if I manage to catalogue each individual on the face of this earth,” she says.
Catch TEDxGateway 2016 live from 10 am onward. Visit tedxgateway.com/live