Photographer Endia Beal wanted to find a way to open up a dialogue on race, gender and expression, so she pulled out her camera and enlisted the help of various white women from Upstate New York. What resulted was Beal’s series called, “Can I Touch It?” The women used in the series were given “black” hairstyles and photographed in corporate portraits.
Beal decided not to give the women an option of choosing a style. “I said, ‘I am going to give you a black hairstyle,’ and they were like, ‘You’re going to give me cornrows?’ ” Beal recalled of her conversations with her subjects. “And I said, ‘No, we’re going to do finger waves.’ ‘Finger waves? What’s that? You mean from the ’20s?’ And I said, ‘These are a little bit different type of finger waves!’
The rules were simple: After getting their new styles, the women had to agree to be photographed in a traditional corporate portrait, even if they weren’t happy with the result.
Beal specifically chose women who were at least in their 40s, but she tried mostly for baby boomers. “I wanted people that had a certain idea of what you’re supposed to look like in the workspace, because it would be a challenge for them to understand what I experienced in that space,” she said. “And to a degree, many young white women have shared that experience, but for older white women it’s an experience they haven’t necessarily had.”
Although the project has a quirky sense of humor, Beal is an artist looking to open a dialogue among people of different gender, race, and generations about the ways in which we express ourselves, specifically in a corporate environment.
Some of these ideas first came to Beal while she was interning in the IT department at Yale while she was there getting her M.F.A. in photography. Beal is tall and black, and at the time she was sporting a large red afro that stood out among her colleagues, who were mostly shorter white males. One colleague told her about a rumor circulating around the office that many of the men were curious about her hair and wanted to touch it.
On one hand, I get it. I’m sure every black woman has their stories of “Can I touch your hair?”, but in my experience it’s more so black women with natural hair. This photography set comes off a bit forced and contrived. All nuance is lost when attempting to be provocative. But that’s just my opinion. Thembi Ford, writer and cultural critic, expressed her sentiments about it via her Facebook page:
But in reality black women don’t endure corporate hair blacklash because of “hairstyles.” The problems come from hair texture. We know the only people who can switch up their hairstyles are black women. It looks crazy on everyone else and is basically socially unacceptable…when white women (or men of any ethnicity for that matter) change their hair it is almost always a hairCUT. So yes, this project demonstrates that fact just fine but that is really not a PROBLEM per se. Women going around putting fingerwaves in their straight hair is not what makes officefolks act like petting zoo patrons. This “can I touch it” crap comes from the hair texture, which is ethnicity — the group you belong to whether you choose to participate or not — and of course entitlement and fascination with the “other”, something that certain nonblack folks really need to get a grip on.
But how did the participants feel about their new hairstyles? They loved them of course, because it was so out of their normal hairdos. They were able to brag about the photos on Facebook, and got to experience “something new”. “Some of them wanted to wear [their hairstyles] out, and some wanted to go home,” Beal said. “Many of them said, ‘I can’t wait to get home and show my husband!’
Yeah, I can only imagine the shock on their husbands faces.
To view the complete set of photos, visit http://cargocollective.com/endiabeal/Can-I-touch-it