St. Thomas photographer Emmanuel Phillips’ goal for his Black History Month photo series was simple: take historically stereotyped elements and turn them into beautiful images of black people.
“What I wanted to do was take things that are normally used to stereotype minorities in a negative way, but show how they’re beautiful,” he said.
But along the way, Phillips found himself grappling with his own prejudices in the production of “Beautifully Stereotyped,” a collection of the 28 images featuring elements either historically used to stereotype African Americans, or point to darker aspects of black history.
After moving to New York a year ago, Phillips returned to St. Thomas in February to visit and was struck with inspiration, he said, to do something for Black History Month. He got his family involved in identifying various stereotypes and ways to portray them differently on camera.
Shifting away from bold colors, Phillips also began building on the idea of neutral-toned palette.
“It makes sense, “ he said. “You can have literally just about every shade within the range of minorities.”
What resulted was a collection of images that garnered social media fame for their evocative themes, vivid brown and gold hues, and strikingly simple setup.
Phillips’ first piece was about the Afro, and his first subject was his brother, Tu’Shouney, who is also model.
“Afros resonate with the black community, always,” Phillips said.
“When you think about an Afro, you automatically think about certain things, you know? For some people, it can go to a very negative place,” he added, evoking images of activism and the Black Panthers.
But Phillips and his siblings grew up thinking an Afro was simply a hairstyle. Tu’Shouney used to refrain from wearing his hair out, but only because he used to like his brother’s Afro more than his own. Even though the brothers have experienced being treated differently in New York when they wore their hair out, they expressed no fear of stereotypes, which he called “really foolish things to have such huge connotations.”
Phillips also engaged his subjects, which were mostly his own family, during the photo shoot, asking them questions and eliciting raw, insightful responses. During Tu’Shouney shoot, Phillips asked him if he was ever ashamed of his hair texture or his complexion. Tu’Shouney, who grew up in a household of 12 people with varying shades of skin color and different hair textures, said no.
“This is me. This my personalization. This is what makes me stand out,” Tu’Shouney said. “So I never was like, ‘I wish my hair was like his or hers,’ or my skin complexion. I never wished I was lighter or darker.”
“Except for when I went to New York. It stole all my color,” he quipped.
The final image from Tu’Shouney’s shoot resulted in the young model’s locks, carefully combed and fluffed by his father, in an eight-inch high Afro that drew a lot of praise on social media. The image also evoked images of old kings and Greek gods, which may have been deliberate on Phillips’ part.
“To me, that’s really the space I do want to be in, taking something that could have been demeaning and putting it on the highest pedestal,” he said.
Phillips also tackled chains because of its “direct link to the negative aspects of black history.” For the photo, he had his brother Adream kneel on the ground and slung heavy, rusty chains on his chest, arms and wrists, with nothing but a piece of brown cloth to cover his body. Phillips asked him questions during the shoot, helping him process the experience.
“In the photo, my brother is still looking up even though the chains are still seeming to hold him down,” Phillips said. “And it shows the kind for spirit and the strength and the hopefulness for a better tomorrow even though the chains are weighing him down.”
One theme that struck a nerve with Phillips was “cotton.” When he came home in early February, he noticed a cotton tree growing across the street, and his two-year-old nephew grabbing cotton from it. Phillips said he knew the boy had no knowledge of cotton’s historical ties to plantations or slavery, even trying to eat the cotton at first, but seeing that unfold elicited a gut reaction.
“Being older and knowing what I know, it hit me in such a different way, and at that moment, I honestly felt a little bit ashamed,” he said. “Because what they were doing was from such a pure place, that it’s only what history taught us and kind of keeps alive that would make something that’s so beautiful look anything less.”
In a video that accompanied the image, two-year-old Noah could be seen playing with a stalk of cotton, putting it in his mouth and tearing off white pieces with an expression of utmost concentration. The shoot resulted in a striking photo of the little boy cradling pieces of cotton, one of the most popular images yet of the collection.
Phillips’ “studio” is itself an unusual set-up: a box-like structure with black fabric for a roof and two walls, installed outside his family’s St. Thomas home. The only colored fabric is the sheet behind the models. Emmanuel uses no artificial lighting; all light in the images comes in from the single open end of the structure, while holes in the roof let through errant beams that create striking contrasts on his subjects faces. As the sun moves across the sky, the lighting changes.
“We want to be as natural as possible because the whole idea is a promotion of being yourself, shooting like how it is,” Phillips explained. “The sun is kind of coming through the holes in the scrim. It creates these very subtle things that make the image more special.”
Other photos in the series are also drawing attention, featuring elements such as sugar canes, the perm and a “baby mama” image that Phillips said was reported to Facebook for violating community standards. The image itself does not show nudity, and the nature of the violation of Facebook’s “community standards” is unclear.
Phillips aims to release more images featuring a wider variety of stereotyped or negatively perceived elements, including watermelons, diamonds to represent blood diamonds, and the skin condition vitiligo. At the end of the month, he hopes to complete the collection and set up a public exhibit.
“If anyone can take anything from this, it’s just self-love,” Phillips said. “This acceptance and this understanding that we’re all humans and we’re all the same inside … it’s OK to be stereotyped as long as you understand it’s a beautiful thing.”