this photographer is using the pantone system to change how we think about race

Angélica Dass is archiving every shade in existence.

by André-Naquian Wheeler
29 May 2017, 1:10pm

The colors used to describe skin tones are not only broad but also frustratingly inaccurate. Restorting to "white," "black," and "yellow" to categorize a rainbow of identities and experiences is constraining and antiquated — especially in an increasingly multicultural world. Not only are black people not black, but the varieties of heritages and racial identities born out of the African diaspora are much more nuanced than that blanket term allows to be acknowledged and celebrated.

Angélica Dass, a photographer based in Spain, is attempting to stretch the public's comprehension of race with her photo project Humanae. Shot over ten years — and still in progress — the ambitious project is Dass's mission to capture every skin tone in existence and describe them with precision, using the Pantone Matching System (a standardized color index, heavily employed by the design world, composed of over 1,876 shades).

"None of the colors [I've shot] are black, white, yellow, or red," Dass says, illustrating the need for more accurate and inclusive language to describe racial identities.

The minimalist portraits make the subjects' skin color the focus, bringing out the beauty of each unique shade. Staring at the camera face on, each subject's skin tone matches the backdrop. The photos suggest how prominent the color of our skin can be at first glance. How, sometimes, it can tinge everything people see about us.

Sharing her favorite photos from the past ten years, Dass talks to i-D about how colorism has personally affected her and why Humanae is a never-ending project. 

How did this project begin?
The inspiration for this project comes from my family roots: I am the granddaughter of a "black" and "native" Brazilian and the daughter of a "black" father adopted by a "white" family. So, I am a mixture of diverse pigments. Humanae is a pursuit to highlight our true color rather than the untrue established colors of red, yellow, black, and white. For me, it's kind of a game for subverting our racial codes.

Why did you chose the Pantone system as a reference?
What I want is to destroy the concepts of colors associated with race and, also, destroy the concept of race itself and all the codes, prejudices, and cliches established with it. Therefore, it would not be logical to use a color scale that works with percentages of these colors — that's why I don't use CMYK or RGB. From my experience, the Pantone system was a neutral scale, where no color has any more importance than another. It is industrial — closely associated with something practical, equitable, and repetitive. A very identifiable scale for those in the design world, but also easily understood by anyone.

What's your Pantone shade?
A self-portrait was the first photo of this project. When I took the photograph, I was Pantone® 7522-C. But the truth is that my skin color, as all of ours do, changes during the year.

How did colorism (defined by the writer Alice Walker as "prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color") influence Humanae?
The initial point of this project is based on how people perceived my skin color and how this perception was full of stereotypes. Although skin color is the tool I use in this series, my intention is to talk about discrimination in a general way. The most important information in my photographs is those things we can't see: nationality, sexuality, religion, economic status, etc. In the end, I am presupposing a gaze without pre-established concepts.

What has it been like to work on a project over such a long period of time? What do you see it evolving into?
Humanae is a learning process where each portrait is unique and each conversation is special. Even if I have the feeling that I am doing the same routine, each experience is totally new. It is a process of self-learning. That is why in my TED talk I say that the project is therapeutic.

What do you hope viewers gain from the series?
I want to propose a reflection of how we see ourselves and how we see each other. I want to generate empathy with the figure of the "other." I want to use this reflection and this material as an educational tool to embrace the different as equal.


Text André-Naquian Wheeler
Photography Angélica Dass 

Angélica Dass