/ 18 February 2022

The Portfolio: Ravi Naidoo on starting a conversation about colourism

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Coming out: The portraits in Brown on Brown: The Colourism Project make it appear as if the subjects are boldly emerging from their darkness. Ravi Naidoo, who took this photograph of herself, says ‘colourism affects how every Indian person thinks about themselves and their sense of worth’

It is a surreal experience to walk into a stranger’s home, for the first time, and be told their most painful memories. It is something to which I still have not become immune while gathering stories for my photographic series on colourism in the local Durban Indian community, titled Brown on Brown: The Colourism Project

The project consists of a series of portraits, with each person depicted as strong, bold and almost confrontational as they emerge from the darkness that surrounds them. Each portrait is accompanied by an account of their experiences and feelings on colourism. The interesting aspect is that the participants range from very light-skinned to dark-skinned — and everyone has a story and a perspective that is unique. Colourism is not an issue that pertains only to dark-skinned people.

Indian culture teaches us to be tolerant and polite; to accept any slight to keep up appearances, particularly when it is an issue, such as colourism, that is almost exclusively experienced within the family or community. Colourism is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same racial group. It is the preference for light skin over dark. 

The most insidious aspect of colourism is that the ideology is so entrenched in our collective consciousness that most people do not even question its validity. It is seen as a fact that light skin is more beautiful and darkness is less worthy; thus, the preference for light skin is simply taken to be normal. I want this series to start a conversation; to create a platform for people to be heard and seen. I want this to be an avenue to challenge a way of thinking that has persisted for far too long.

With each story of bullying, degradation and isolation I hear, I am moved by the courage it takes to come forward and speak about an issue that has been experienced and joked about, but largely not spoken about in earnest. I find people fascinating. The way we think, talk, act, believe and exist all serve as ongoing inspiration when I look through a camera lens. 

I do not have the detachment of a journalist and this project has changed me. Normally, I am content to be the observer, but with more introspection I have realised that colourism affects how every Indian person thinks about themselves and their sense of worth. Light-skinned or dark, the values we attach to complexion strongly influence how we interact with our own identity. It was time to turn the camera on myself and so I did.

Brown on Brown: The Colourism Project can be viewed here