Using Photography to Tell Stories About Race

I stood in the lunchroom doorway with my friend Kevin, bewildered. It was our first week at the High School Music and Art, a West Harlem public school, and we had become instant friends. Still, I did not know where I belonged in a room that had casually self-segregated into racial camps where “minority” teens gravitated to one side, whites to the other.

Apparently, in 1971, the choice was simple for most of our classmates. But less so for me. I knew I wanted to sit with Kevin. But while we both lived in low-income housing projects, we differed in one significant way: Kevin was black and I white. After a white student told us we did not belong on her side, my mind was made up: we headed to the “Black Side,” as we called it, where we ate until the lunchroom gradually integrated during our freshman year.

This story comes to mind whenever I’m asked why I write about race and photography. I return to it, because where I sat in that divided lunchroom says a lot about my relationship to race and my lifelong fascination with it. My sister and I were among the few white kids in our predominantly black and Puerto Rican housing project on the Lower East Side. Except for a harrowing stint at a Jewish day school, where I was tormented for being poor, my classmates, as well as my young neighbors and friends, were all people of color. They allowed me into their lives, and I learned a lot from them.

But it was the prejudice they experienced, and I observed, that provided my most eye-opening lesson.

As a Jew, I have known anti-Semitism. As a gay man, I have known homophobia. But neither has seemed as relentless as the racism I witnessed growing up — a steady drumbeat of slights, thinly-veiled hostility, and condescension perpetrated by even the most liberal and well-meaning people. It was painful to watch. And, as my friends let me know, considerably more painful to endure.

Continually observing this reality shaped how I understood racism: when someone told me they experienced prejudice, I believed them. I had rejected the liberal tendency to defensively dismiss the victim in order to protect the accused.

My childhood also exposed me to cultures and histories that most white people were oblivious to despite living in an international city. I learned about these things from my friends, classmates, teachers, and my socially-conscious father. As my activism and passion grew, so did my solidarity with the Lower East Side. But my enthusiasm was dampened at Music and Art, where my poverty again alienated me from some of my teachers and classmates.

Out of embarrassment, I hid my background and interest in race.

My freshman advisor at Hunter College, certain that the study of race was inconsistent with my “cultivated mind,” as she put it, persuaded me to focus on art history. My studies in college, and later in graduate school, completed my transformation from Project Boy to Cultured White Man. I was conditioned by my art history professors to believe that only the work of white people mattered. I engaged a mainstream art world — museums, galleries, collectors, and publishers — that viewed artists of color as sentimental or irrelevant at best, but more often as inept and dull. I eventually accepted these racist myths, even as I continued to live in the projects.

But I also experienced another awakening: I learned how to see.

My mentors in art history were rigorous and demanding, teaching me to visually analyze paintings and photographs, both to appreciate their aesthetics and to grasp their underlying cultural meaning. I was trained to “deconstruct” images, to evaluate the ways they advanced an agenda or manipulated or inspired viewers. But my teachers were oblivious to artists and photographers of color and work about race, a deficiency I inherited from them.

Yet my roots tugged at me as I started to miss the ardor and conviction of my youth. The art world that once seemed glamorous and exciting now was insufferable in its casual and deeply-ingrained bigotry, elitism, and allegiance to wealth. I picked up books by intellectuals ignored by my professors — brilliant race writers, like W. E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Frantz Fanon, who were deconstructing the world years before the scholars I had been assigned to read in school. I engaged new colleagues and researched new artists. And I began doing projects about race, relearning how to see and comprehend it through pictures.

In the summer of 2012, after a quarter century of publishing articles and books and curating exhibitions that reconciled the insights of my formal education with those of my life, I started writing Race Stories. I think of it as a learning experience — for me and the reader — fostering the racial and visual literacy denied me by my teachers.

My relationship with the art world remains tenuous. While some things have changed — art history has become more inclusive, for example, and a few artists of color have become superstars — the problem of racism persists. Recently, I attended a dinner in an expensive restaurant celebrating a friend’s New York museum retrospective, and the scene was typical and dispiriting: A sea of affluent white people dressed in black.

These days, I rarely go to events like this. In their segregation, they bring me back to the contentious lunchroom where, as a bewildered teenager, I pushed beyond the imposed limitations of my race. But in situations like this dinner, there is no “black side” to which I can retreat, no haven that even remotely resembles the life I lived or the one I live now.

This essay was first published as Maurice Berger, "Race Stories: Using Photography to Tell Stories About Race," Lens Section, New York Times, 6 December 2017.

Watch this short film about Maurice Berger's work on photography and race, produced by MediaStorm for the 2018 ICP Infinity Awards.

For a 1999 New York Times profile of Maurice Berger, written by Felicia Lee, click here.