A Black Photographer Changes Her Race in These Portraits to Challenge Ideas About Identity

Bonnie, 35yrs. and Twins Lara & Maisie, 9yrs. (2011).

Stacey Tyrell

Stacey Tyrell believes that a good start when talking about race relations would be to acknowledge that whichever race we are, we are all human beings entitled to basic human rights. “Then we can discuss issues that need to be dealt with, regardless of how messy or ugly they might be,” she wrote via email.

Unfortunately, the ways in which we deal with and define race is often simply by looking at people and placing them into specific boxes.

Five years ago, Tyrell began working on a series that sought to challenge our ideas of race through a performative photography project titled “Backra Bluid.” Although Tyrell identifies as black, her background also includes English, Irish, and Scottish heritages. As a child growing up in a predominately white neighborhood, Tyrell felt alienated when her classmates would acknowledge a heritage in which she shared but was never included. It created a sense of confusion, both for her and for her classmates, a trend that she says has continued into adulthood.

“The weariness and discomfort that I perceive from a lot of people has a few parts to it,” she wrote. “I think part of it stems from not really having the basic vocabulary in which to speak on racial issues. When I say this I specifically mean if someone has never been on the receiving end of negative racial bias or stereotypes and therefore has no life experience with which to speak from, there is only so much they can perceive things as being problematic.”

Left: Ruth, 25yrs. and Lillian, 3mos (2013). Right: Fiona, 27yrs. and Maggie, 50yrs. (2013)

Stacey Tyrell

Siobahn, 15yrs. (2012).

Stacey Tyrell

Tyrell feels that simply by changing her skin color in the images and by making subtle tweaks to her face, she is able to show the simplistic baseline from which we make assumptions about race. The words in the title originate from West Indian and Scottish languages: Backra is Caribbean slang meaning “white master” or “white person,” while Bluid is a Scottish word meaning “the blood of men and animals, as well as kin.”

The photographs in the series are self-portraits that reference portraiture from the 17th through 20th centuries, specifically the gestures and gazes of women in Western high society and the European gentry.

“The gaze that I often use in my own images is meant to feel like that of a painting, where regardless of the angle it is viewed at, you always feel the subject staring directly at you,” she wrote. “The characters in my images are a way of trying to subvert and maybe even coopt the white mainstream gaze that I feel that myself and every other nonwhite person is constantly under.”

Left: Agnola, 62yrs (2013). Right: Boadicea, 54yrs. (2013)

Stacey Tyrell

The characters she portrays are her interpretations of her white relatives and a way for her to experiment with what it means to be white and placed within a specific class.

“The process of creating the photograph is very immersive for me,” she wrote. “While I’m applying the makeup, there are constantly these moments toward the end of the process where I am confronted with a white stranger staring back at me. This stranger is completely separate from myself, even though I know that I am looking at myself.”

Tyrell said most of the press about the series over the past two years has been positive, and negative comments often center on the misconceived idea that she is trying to deny her blackness. She feels it is urgent for us to acknowledge how interconnected we are rather than continue to define ourselves on outdated, incorrect definitions of race.

“It’s a fallacy to believe that we live in a postracial society where one’s race and appearance are inconsequential and have no bearing on their daily reality,” she wrote. “I think we can continue to comfortably function as a society with these terms provided that we recognize the fact that they are a bit simplistic and should not be used to limit and control.”

Cait, 12yrs. and Alyson, 12yrs. (2011).

Stacey Tyrell

Left: Rowena, 34yrs. (2012). Right: Ertha, 44yrs. (2013).

Stacey Tyrell