The essence of who we are, the substance, the unique identity that each and every one of us possesses. Then there is the shape. The one that can be seen immediately, the aspect that envelops the whole and that inseparably reflects what we have inside, what we are. A form that varies continuously from person to person, which never repeats itself identical and which at the same time is so similar, so familiar, so attributable to being part of a single large family. Differences, however, are precisely the engine that animates new awareness that shakes consciences and brings the focus back to what really matters: growing together thanks, through, starting from mutual differences. Angélica Dass’s work, Humanae, fascinated me for this very reason. For the powerful impact it exerts on those who observe it. Many faces, many colors, physiognomies, cultures, lineages, a mosaic of faces that together form an extraordinary work of art. A diversity that appears evident, disarming because it is alive, real, inevitable, as a mirror of our world so full of contradictions but also so immensely wonderful. Angélica tries to document the true colors of humanity that cannot be caged in simple black, white, red, yellow but which have infinite shades, infinite beauties and peculiarities.
Humanae is a constantly evolving project. The background of each portrait is colored with a color tone identical to an 11×11 pixel sample taken from the subject’s nose and combined with the Pantone® industrial pallet, which, in its neutrality, challenges the contradictions and stereotypes related to the problem of race. Through open calls, Angélica has collected the support of 4,000 volunteers, creating portraits to date in 20 different countries and in 36 cities around the world thanks to the support of cultural institutions, politicians, governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations. Dialogue is the heart of everything, a dialogue that Angélica has also brought to schools where she carries out workshops to raise awareness of even the youngest ones on these issues. A dialogue that knows no barriers and that embraces every type of identity, belief, physical condition. Because every single person, without exception, is an integral part of the Humanae project.
Why did you decide to become a photographer?
I studied Fine Arts and later I specialized in Scenography and Costume. Becoming a photographer was never in my plans but photography has always been by my side all my life. My father loved taking pictures. When I came out of my mom’s belly he was there with the camera. I therefore had the opportunity to have always known this tool and to use it since I was very young. When I moved to Spain I looked for a job that could match what I always had in Brazil as a costume designer and set designer but it was not possible so I started working in a clothing store. It was at that time that I thought about what I had been able to do well since I was a child and so I thought about photography. Also my first degree was in Fashion Design so I combined the two. I wrote to some magazines in Brazil and only one answered me, Creative. So I started working for them and they asked me to go to Paris to photograph street style, exhibitions, what was happening around. It was the same publisher of the edition of Marie Claire in Brazil so I started doing some works for them too. Then I also worked for Marie Claire Spain and other Condé Nast magazines. In 2011 everything changed. I was sad and frustrated mostly because the photos I took were fed with stereotypes. I never saw myself represented in the photos I took, no one looked like me. So I decided to go back to school, to do a Masters in photography and to focus on what I really wanted to tell through my images. On what I wanted to share with people. That was when I started working on Humanae which is now world famous.
How have you developed this project over the years?
The first two photos I took were one of mine and one of my husband because I am brown and he is pink. I was curious as to how people would ask about the color of my children. As you know I was born and raised in Brazil in a very colorful family, and obviously this diversity in my house was something natural, but outside it was completely different. I started researching my family but what I learned and tried to explain to my friends and other people is that this job is not about me and my family, it is about us in general. I made some open calls to participate in the project and I posted them on Facebook. Surprisingly many people started coming to my studio. This was the first level of multiculturalism of this project because they were people who came from Madrid while the others have a completely different background. Another interesting aspect of the beginning of this project was when I made the first portraits in outdoor locations and not associated with the gallery. We were in Paris, with many different people, languages, and nationalities, and I shot in two distinct places: one near the UNESCO headquarters, therefore a place linked to culture and well-being. Another where people live on the street without hope and trying to understand what they are doing on this planet. When it comes to diversity it’s not just about color, it’s about who we really are as human beings. It therefore also means social economic status, sexual orientation, nationality, where you were born and where you live, all those things become part of this job. Different places, institutions, many museums around the world began to take an interest in Humanae and to call me. And when they just want to exhibit, I always say no because it’s not just an exhibition but a conversation. It is about talking about what we can really do to create the future we want.
At the center of your work there is the exchange, the connection between people. How has this project affected their life?
Many people say there is a before and after seeing my photos. With Humane it’s like creating a mirror where you can see faces that don’t look like yours. The moment I feel this before and this after is when I work with children in schools. I always think that working with them is the way to materialize all the wishes I have. I have a letter in which the teachers say that there was a before and an after for the children too when they saw my photos. Nobody jokes about the nationality difference anymore because they know how painful it can be. I really hope that the next generation will have the ability to change this narrative. I recently published a book dedicated to children, to readers after the age of 5. I just got some feedback and one of them is funny. “If you’ve ever wondered why race is a social construction, this book is for you, your children, your friends, their children, your children’s friends… Every family needs to read this book together.” This is the great mission of Humanae. The photos, the book, the conversation. How can we really make the whole society talk by recognizing that we are all human beings, we are all the same and at the same time we are completely different? Because this diversity means being human. Recognizing that we are the same species and that each of us is unique. I am so happy because my work has created a lot of conversations around the world.
What role does education play for you?
It’s very important. I always wonder what the kids can do and what they can give. We push them to be responsible for change but how can we give them the tools to make this change? I have another story I’d like to share with you that shows how powerful it is to work with children. When I am around for conferences I always try to visit, as a volunteer, the schools that are in the area. A short time ago I was in Barcelona. It was great because a child’s mother wrote me a message. “Congratulations. My son left school proud to have known you and explained to us with his 7 years that his color is a familiar brown. The whole family supports the project you are carrying out. I am also a teacher and I want to talk about Humanae in my class. My son became my teacher because of you. Thank you”. It’s amazing. This is why I think education is so important and the connection with children is so powerful. They are able to explain complex problems to their parents. You have to go back to your childhood to really understand. Education is the big point and this generation is really capable of making the change if we are able to give them the tools.
Could you tell me about other significant moments that occurred during your research?
Since Humanae is a path, it changes every time I meet someone new around this job. Every time I made open calls and I had no idea who I was going to photograph. But really every photo is special to me. People come into my studio and put themselves in this vulnerable position to tell me what connects them to this job, what connects them to my story. They all told me about their personal history around this project or about the dehumanization they are perceiving in the world. I remember exactly the day when a woman came to my office in high heels and she asked me, “Do you have any transgender people in your job?”. It was the moment, for example, when I realized that I had created a space where people can naturally be themselves. Conversation with them really makes me learn and grow. Before Humanae, I thought of my identity as a tree with different roots. The roots of the African descent, the indigenous roots, the European roots. But I realized that this rooted tree is not quite who I am. Through this work I realized that I am more like a kind of mountain with a base created by my identity, the place where I was born that created the layers that I carry and the place where I live and the places I have visited during my travels that they are helping me to grow every day by bringing some sand from every person I have met. This is the way I can grow. Every time I talk to someone I learn something about others and about myself at the same time. The significant experience of Humanae is precisely to discover it. There was not a great highlight but I discover that the project is growing and I am constantly growing with it. And it’s not just about me. We are all these mountains. Like a mountain range. We are so. Sand from other mountains can reach mine and vice versa as can tree seeds. This is the gift that Humanae has given me, the greatest experience.
How do you think art can help people to understand which is the right path to pursue to improve our society full of divisions and conflicts?
When it comes to society, we are all part of the game. I always ask myself: what is my responsibility with respect to all the hatred around us? People are afraid of losing themselves in all this diversity. What I really think is that when verbal language is no longer able to bring people together, when we speak and no one listens or we don’t listen, I really have to believe in the power of art to create this connection. One person emailed me and told me he grew up in a family belonging to the Ku Klux Klan. He told me that my photos show how absurd these beliefs are. It’s not just about photography but Humanae’s mission. Art has always had the power to be an educational tool to tell people how they can do good. It is also, however, above all exhibited in a confined space. I am in favor of art in the public space because if you really want to connect it with our society and generate a dialogue you have to exhibit it where people can see it. And not having to access a special place. Making art is part of our society. We need this. I think the big institutions really need to help this process. With Humanae we can really create something constructive together and show how much art is an essential part of society.
What future plans do you have now?
Right now I’m focusing on teenagers. I am working in several schools in Spain which are classified as low performing, so they are schools full of migrants. I’m portraying teenagers to try to understand what it means to be Spanish and European when you have so many backgrounds, so many stories behind you. It’s not just about race and color, but how their identity is changing in this world. I am really fascinated by teenagers. Now they are becoming more and more precocious, it’s all very different from when we were. So my plans for the future are to continue exploring my identity by trying to explore the identity of others. I start from a personal question of mine and try to give an answer through working with others.
When we met in Bologna you shared with me a thought on which I reflected a lot. “White is associated with good things, black with bad things”. Why did this happen?
If you think of the whole American continent, the enslaved people and the indigenous people had darker skin. So as a native indigenous you were considered to be descendants of slaves. If we think of Europe instead, all the colonies are in Africa. In Asia, China, Japan and Korea if a person has a darker skin tone it is associated with someone who works in the fields. So you are considered to be in the lower class. The same happens in India. If you think about caste, the light one is considered a better caste than the dark one. If we then move to the African continent, we notice that there are some products there that we do not have in Europe and that help to lighten the skin. There was a moment in history when the term barbarian indicated a person who was not civilized without associating the term with the color of the skin but precisely with behavior. Then there was the period of Isabella Cattolica who wanted to “humanize” the indigenous people through the Christian faith and their conversion. And then there was a moment, of which we have references in painting, in which we produced a narrative where it was stated that they, the indigenous, the dark-skinned people are less human, they are people without a soul. And that is why they can be enslaved. By creating this narrative we spread around the world in different ways. The narrative of being white is more closely connected with the history of colonization that took place on this planet. And this story raises an unreal kind of view.
Cover photo by Bret Hartman