We all perform different versions of ourselves in our day to day lives, but some are asked to perform, or rather conform, more than others. When photographer Endia Beal was teaching at Winston-Salem State University, one of the historically black colleges and universities, her students regularly talked to her about what they were experiencing in job interviews. Her students, young women of color, were asked whether they’d consider changing their hairstyles, or the way they dressed – or their names. In other words, to become someone else. These conversations led to a collaborative series of portraits, Am I What You’re Looking For? Like most of Beal’s photography and video work, the series examines issues of race and diversity in the workplace. It’s one of several bodies of work included in her upcoming book Performance Review (scheduled to be published this fall by Minor Matters Books).
Beal set the portraits in the family homes of her students in North Carolina, but she positioned them in front of a backdrop – a life-sized photograph of a sterile office hallway. In conceptualizing the series, she was influenced by EJ Bellocq’s Storyville Portraits (ca. 1912). Bellocq set up backdrops in an alleyway for some of his portraits of prostitutes in New Orleans, but the alleyway itself was visible in the frame as well, providing layers of information. In a similar way, Beal allows the viewer to glimpse her students’ homes, with artworks, family photographs, furniture, awards, and other markers of a middle-class existence visible around the corporate backdrop, filling in information about her subjects and their identities. “I wanted to photograph my students in a place where they could be their authentic selves,” says Beal.
Beal’s work draws on other portrait photographers as well, from James Van Der Zee’s studio portraits of Harlem’s middle class in the 1920s and ‘30s to Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits from the mid-1990s. “They were photographs of transition,” says Beal of Dijkstra’s photographs, “and I was thinking of my students and their transition from school to the corporate world.” Beal has some experience in that world herself, having worked in an IT department at Yale while she was a graduate student there (the backdrop she used in Am I What You’re Looking For? was a photograph of that office). While she was there, a (white) colleague told her that another co-worker (a white man) had been talking about her hair (a cinnamon afro at the time) and how he wanted to touch it. That comment sparked several projects, including Can I Touch It?, a series of portraits of middle-aged white women wearing “black” hairstyles that went viral after it appeared on Slate’s blog Behold in 2013, and a video, Office Scene. In the video, Beal invited 17 white men, all coworkers, to touch her hair, then interviewed them. The result – the goal, in fact – was discomfort, a flipping of the script that may or may not have produced a more nuanced understanding of the cultural dynamics at play. “I wanted them to feel a level of discomfort,” says Beal. “I felt uncomfortable every day working in that space.”