Angélica Dass is an Award-Winning Photographer whose art combines photography with sociological research and public participation in the defence of human rights globally. She is the creator of the internationally acclaimed Humanæ Project—a collection of portraits that reveal the diverse beauty of human colours. The initiative has travelled to more than 80 cities across six continents — from National Geographic to The World Economic Forum— to promote conversations that challenge how we think about skin colour and ethnic identity.
Dass was born in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil and came from an ethnically diverse background as a Brazilian and European. Dass explained, “My father is the son of a maid from whom he inherited an intense dark chocolate tone. He was adopted by those who I know as my grandparents. The matriarch, my grandma, has porcelain skin and cotton-like hair. My grandpa was somewhere between a vanilla and strawberry yogurt tone, like my uncle and my cousin. My mother is a cinnamon-skin daughter of a native Brazilian, with a pinch of hazel and honey, and a man [who is] a mix of coffee with milk, but with a lot of coffee.”
She first encountered the dilemma of skin colour when she was merely a child. When she was six, her teacher told her to use the ‘skin tone’ crayon: “I looked at that pink and thought, ” How can I tell her this is not my skin color?”” That night, she prayed to wake up white so she would fit in.
After encountering such instances, she wondered why skin colour caused a barrier in society. She said, “Growing up in a family with all of these flavours and colours, I never understood why we have this small classification of people as black, white, red or yellow that are the colours associated with race.”
After receiving her degree, she followed her passion and started working as a photographer. She said, “As a photographer working in the world of fashion, I never see myself represented in the photos that I’m producing. The world of fashion is responsible for creating huge stereotypes. Magazines and movie stars all send out the same message of only a certain kind of beauty.”
Discouraged by these unattainable beauty standards, Dass decided to go back to get a Masters Degree in Photography in 2011 and change the narrative. She recalled, “I asked myself, what are the things bothering me? And what can I do with my photography? So I started the Humanae in 2012 after marrying my husband.”
What triggered the project was people’s constant speculation of the colour of their future babies considering Brazilian Dass sported light brown hues while her Spanish husband had pinkish hues. For clues, Dass looked at her family, whose European and African skin tones ranged from “pancakes to peanuts to chocolate.”
In 2012 she photographed herself, her then-husband, and their families to display the beauty of this medley. She matched a strip of pixels from their noses to a colour card from Pantone, the longtime authority on colour standards. This exercise became the start of the ‘Humanae,’ project.
Humanae is a reflection on skin color, an attempt to document humanity’s true colors, rather than the untrue labels ‘white,’ ‘red,’ ‘black,’ and ‘yellow’ that are historically associated with race. In its neutral handling of skin tone, Humanae has questioned the contradictions and stereotypes of race.
She recalled, “It was hilarious in the beginning, I had many pinks and just a few browns, and people would write me outraged emails saying, ‘You are a racist! You are a Nazi! I have more diversity in my neighbourhoods than you have in your work.’ And I always had to say, ‘Be patient, this is a work in progress.'”
In the past five years, she has taken portraits of about 4,000 people in 17 countries and 27 cities around the world. Her oldest volunteer has been a 101-year-old while her youngest has been a 3-month-old. She has inspired entire families to become a part of the project- from the grandfather to the youngest child. Especially in countries like Spain, where adoption is a common practice, families have been enthusiastic about creating portraits that showcase all their beautiful colours encouraging their kids to grow up into confident adults not defined by their skin tones.
Dass knew that the entire world had skin colour stereotypes; however, when she arrived in India to expand her studio, she recognized how serious these issues were. She had children come up to her saying, “My mother told me not to play in the sun,” “I kept using Fair and Lovely when I was young,” and “I once cried in the shower”. She continued, “I had company. It looks like everybody is naked in my photos. But really, I am the only one that is naked. It is a kind of therapy for me.”
Dass added, “colour is just the beginning of the conversation. But the end goal is to start the conversation on so many different topics. The most important things in Humanae are exactly the things that you can’t see in the photographs. You can’t see the person’s nationality, sexual orientation, or financial status. Because you can’t see, you can’t judge. The portraits act as mirrors. They are an excuse for the conversations they generate.”
She has been featured on TEDx and her talk and has had more than 2 million views. She also recently captured the faces of Londoners for the Migration Museum’s No Turning Back exhibition.
Through her work, she has also helped inclusivity in various segments; she recalled an incident. “I was in one photo shoot with a beautiful woman, and she asked me, ‘have you taken any portraits of a transsexual?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so, I don’t ask this kind of thing.’ And she said, ‘Well, now you’ve taken the first one.’ That took place in 2013, and ever since, she has photographed dozens. Dass has also created stunning portraits with differently-abled adults and kids with the primary intention of creating a space where everyone can exist without the burden of labels while feeling completely equal and empowered.
In conclusion, she says, “I want to show people the most important point that unites us: we are human. All the other nuances make us special as individuals, but we should think of what unites us as a collective.”