Photo Credit Gustavo LacerdaBorn in 1970 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Gustavo Lacerda is a photographer who turns his lens towards those who society has pushed into the background. With his "Albino" series, Lacerda has created a new standard of beauty that has nothing to do with the surface and everything to do with the quiet and resolute strength from within.
Just in case you don't know, albinism is the lack of pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes, which is caused by a group of genetic conditions that are passed on by both parents. There are many myths surrounding albinism, like the rumor that by definition those who have it will have red eyes. Actually, there are many different types and the pigment in the eye varies greatly from person to person; most actually have striking blue eyes, while others will have hazel or brown eyes. Throughout history albinos have been seen in very specific ways, but they've never been allowed to be "normal" in the eyes of society.
Many cultures have found pale skin and hair to be a sign of wealth and high social status, which still permeates to this day. Why else do you think all those old men in the American colonial era wore white wigs? It was to show their power and affluence. Even with people idolizing pale skin, they wanted it on their own terms and albinism was often seen as a "freak" trait that was worthy of circus shows. Albinos in many Native American and South Pacific tribes were thought to be sent from divine spirits, believed to hold mystical traits. Some would see them as good while others would see them as message of wrongdoing. In 2009, NBC News reported that in East Africa thousands of albinos were mutilated for their body parts (which would make sellers up to $75,000) because people believed them to be housing magical powers. Even today in Western culture, those with albinism are set apart, though some areas are making strides, like the fashion industry embracing models Shaun Ross and Diandra Forrest.
Lacerda's "Albino" series puts those with albinism in the forefront, capturing their agency and power in the face of societal expectations and stereotypes.
Mila Pantovich: How old were you when you found yourself first drawn to photography?
Gustavo Lacerda: I was 20 when I did a course in black and white lab and decided to be a photographer but my first contacts with photography came when I was a child, maybe 7, 8 years old... my mother always took me and my brothers to an old studio in downtown to update the photos to our documents. I loved being there, watching the old umbrellas and all the rustic equipment.
MP: What first drew you to the idea of photographing albinos?
GL: The singular beauty of albinos always fascinated me. Whenever I saw an albino in the street, I was by far, watching...I was interested in the way these people were shy and "isolated".
In 2009 I began researching albinism, trying to understand a little more about these people. The next step was to try to bring them to the front of the camera.
MP: This seems like a passion project; do you have any personal or emotional ties to the albino community?
GL: When I started the project I did not know any albinos, but I was slowly creating bonds of complicity with the people portrayed. When you work with people who are used to being rejected and discriminated socially, it is necessary to first build trust before they agree to pose for photos.
Some of these people have become friends, but it all happened in a very natural [way]. I'm not militant in any association defending the albinos, the goal of my work was never this; I just wanted to portray them, after all there are so many different forms of beauty in the world.
MP: How long did the project take from start to finish?
GL: I started the project in 2009 and intend to finish now, in late 2012. I want to publish a book and make a big exhibition.
MP: Why did you choose to shoot them in portrait style, as opposed to something more environmental?
GL: I chose the posing portrait in studio, upgrading the production process (costumes, hair/makeup and backgrounds), for the albinos to feel appreciated and valued. The idea was to put them clearly in the forefront, a new situation for those who have always been an outsider. This focus has caused them discomfort in the beginning, a certain strangeness to most of those portrayed but, at the same time, [they felt] pride too. The great challenge there - the essence of the work - is to be able to register this mixture of feelings with fidelity.
MP: How many people in total did you photograph and how did you find them?
I've photographed 44 people. I found many of them on social networks, some of them on the street…and some have written or called me because [they] wanted to participate in the project.
MP: Your photos illicit a very peaceful feeling, with the subjects showing a range of emotions through their eyes, from childlike innocence and longing to despair and anger; was it difficult to convince them to willingly place themselves in the forefront when society prefers to push them in the background?
GL: That was the hardest part of the project, especially at the beginning, before some [of the] recognition. But at the same time, this is exactly what these pictures [say]. The pictures do not hide this feeling of "strangeness" when put in the scene in a prominent position, a person who always felt the sidelines.
MP: Many of the subjects are young children; were you initially met with resistance from any of their parents?
GL: No, parents are very proud of their children and many albino children that I portrayed were brought by [their] own parents, who approached me because they wanted to see them photographed in the project.
MP: The tone of the photos are very deliberate and play with saturation, featuring subdued pigment in the background and clothing, causing the subjects to fit into a world they feel alienated from; what were the reactions like when they saw themselves portrayed this way?
GL: At first many of them would like to be photographed wearing very colorful [clothes] but they were slowly realizing that what I wanted was to give prominence to the soft tones of their skin and emphasize this delicate and understated beauty, something unique.
MP: Each sitter has a really distinct tone in their photograph; did you direct the clothing worn to match the overall vision?
GL:Yes, all clothes and also the fabrics used in the background, were [matched] to the skin tone of each person.
MP: Your photos idealize a standard of beauty that is otherwise ignored or rejected by most cultures; how do you view beauty standards in general?
GL: I think any standard always simplifies, lowers chances. Specifically, the standards of beauty are very cruel, because they directly affect the self-esteem and the value of the people in society, which is absurd but it happens.
MP: These photos have become incredibly popular recently; what do you think it is that people are responding to so intensely in this series?
GL: Increasingly, I think people feel uncomfortable in a world that overvalues the perfect beauty. Even advertising and the fashion industry have discovered that.
MP: You've said that Diane Arbus is a big influence of yours. She once stated that she photographed 'freaks' because, unlike most people who go through life fearing trauma, these people were born with a trauma and were thus aristocratic. Would you agree with that statement?
GL: I think that this Diane Arbus phrase was poetic and not realistic in practice. [I think it] only happens in cases where the person "outside the box" is lucky to be born in a house of parents [who are] very mature and well resolved with the issue of trauma, [which] is very rare. However, I think she said it in a much more philosophical context, and in a season when people were starting to listen to issues of psychoanalysis, for example.
MP: Do you feel a responsibility to your sitters to represent them a certain way?
GL: Not in any way. Despite the discrimination, albinos are people capable like any others. My goal is not to raise flags, but to just make art.
MP: Do you hope that this project will change or alter the way people view albinos and use the term, which seems to have an inherent negative connotation?
GL: If this happens it would be positive, but it's not something I seek directly. The most important is the chance for people to see other forms of beauty, which are not always shown.
MP: You've mentioned continuing on with this project and photographing albinos on a remote island North of Brazil; how has that been going? Has it been more difficult approaching people in their home than it was to bring people into a studio?
GL: It was a bit harder to photograph them there, because when people come to my studio they already chose to be photographed and there, no. I was an outsider in a place that was not mine and the process of gaining confidence was a little longer. But, in the end it was great.
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