Angélica Dass has been around cameras since birth. (Her father, an amateur photographer, captured a series of shots of her delivery in an operating room in Rio de Janeiro.) From 2009 to 2011, she worked as a photographer for a variety of magazines, including Glamour, GQ, ¡Hola!, and Marie Claire. Bored of commercial work, she returned to school in 2011, earning a master’s in photography from EFTI in Madrid. For her capstone project, an ongoing photo series titled Humanae, she juxtaposed portraits of individual subjects with a backdrop of the Pantone color matching their skin tone. So far, she has photographed 2,500 people in 11 cities spanning five continents. The project was adapted for the cover image of the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. Dass spoke to Foreign Affairs assistant editor Nikita Lalwani in February.
You've described Humanae as a project born of your own experience. What inspired the work?
My inspiration is my family. My father is a black man adopted by a white family. My mother has an adopted white sister. I'm married to a Spanish man with Belgian heritage, and people always ask me what color my kids will be when I have kids.
I started taking portraits of my family to break away from the colors we learn to associate with people: red, yellow, black, white. These are not our true colors. There is no black, no yellow, no white in my work. These colors make us see each other as different, even though we are equal.
What should we, as viewers, take away from the portraits? Do you have a specific goal in mind for the project?
I want viewers to reflect on equality, and not just the equality of color. Sometimes mothers write to me saying, "I showed your work to my kids, and I'm impressed to hear their thoughts about color, gender, age.” That’s what I want. Through my portraits, I want people to think about humanity.
Humanae is an ongoing project. I know that it’s impossible, but I would really love to do portraits of all of the seven billion people in the world. In the meantime, I will travel and visit different continents and discuss the project in as many spaces as possible.
How do you find your subjects? Do you seek them out or do they come to you?
Every time I do an exhibition of my work, I make open calls on social media for people to come have their photos taken. People come because they know the project from the Internet or have heard about it from friends or because they have seen my art and want to be a part of it.
What happens next? After you've taken their portrait, how do you figure out which Pantone color to pair them with?
The process is very simple. I take all my photos using a white background. Then, using Photoshop, I select a square of 11 pixels from the nose and place them in the background of the photo. I use Photoshop to identify the Pantone color from those pixels.
Why the nose?
I use the nose because it's the part of the body whose color changes the most: it changes when we take in too much sun, when we get the flu, when we’ve had too much to drink. I want to focus on color that changes. If I took your portrait, everything else equal, in the summer versus in the winter, your Pantone color would be different. There is no intrinsic color. The color itself has no importance.
So far you’ve done portraits in 11 cities, including Addis Ababa, Barcelona, Chicago, and São Paolo. Were there any that held special significance for you?
My experience in Ethiopia was awesome. My exhibit was in the National Museum of Ethiopia, which is the same museum that houses Lucy, the Australopithecus that is one of the best-known early humans. For me, that was very symbolic: being near Lucy, being in Africa, meeting people from different countries in Africa that really wanted to be a part of the project.
And of course my experience in Brazil was special because it’s my country, and it’s a country that needs to talk a lot about equality, about race, about what it means to be black. I’m always happy to do portraits there.
Are there other cities on your wish list?
Yes. I would really love to go to New York. I’ve never been, but I’m very connected to New Yorkers over the Internet. I would really love to go to Israel and to Palestine. I would really love to go to South Africa and Mexico. These are places where race is very important and where I want to discuss what I’m discussing through Humanae. I don’t know if I can make it to all of those places, but I hope to. I want to go anywhere that race is an issue.
Humanae has gone viral on the Internet. What has the reception been like?
People have a special relationship with artwork on the Internet. People want to be a part of it. They write to me telling me their histories, or saying that they are teaching Humanae in their classrooms or showing it to their kids.
Do they write to you about race?
Yes. Some people say, “I have kids with problems at school, and I showed them your work so that they understand that everyone is equal no matter their color.” In Spain, we don’t have many black people, so I’ve heard that many schools use the images to talk to kids about race and equality. Sometimes people just write to say, “Your work helped me see the world in another way.”
You grew up in Brazil, a country that has been praised as a “racial democracy,” where support for racial mixing supposedly created a society free from racism. Only recently, with the introduction of affirmative action legislation, has race really become a subject of public debate. Growing up, what was your experience of race?
In Brazil, like in the United States, blackness is associated with poverty, with a lack of opportunity, with lots of things that are bad. As a black person in Brazil, you start your life knowing that you’re a descendent of slaves, that that’s why we have black people in Brazil. We feel like slavery was a long time ago, but it wasn’t. The slaves of the nineteenth century were the servants of the twentieth century.
I have a cousin who is white who studied in a French school in Brazil. Every time I went to that school with my cousin, people would ask me if I was the nanny or servant. We have this mindset in Brazilian society that I don’t belong at an expensive French school, that it’s not my place.
Now things are changing. And luckily I’m part of the generation that is making things change. I believe that we’ll have to work a lot to change Brazil.
You’ve lived in Spain since 2007. What has your experience of race been there?
In Spain I experience something closer to xenophobia than racism. I’m a curiosity, something that people don’t completely understand. People are always asking to touch my hair, for example, because I have kinky, curly hair. People ask, “Can I touch it?” “Is it natural?” “Can you comb that?” People also ask me if I get darker in the sun. Of course I do. These sorts of questions are normal.
But I have to say that, in general, my personal experience here in Spain has been good. People just have a lack of knowledge about race.
You’ve spoken a lot about your goals for your artwork, for Humanae. Is all of your art similarly political? Should all art be political?
Well, people can have different goals. Of course, I appreciate art that is done just for the sake of beauty, and I can go to museums to see that. But I want to make art that is connected with real people, not just with the world of art. If I have the opportunity, though my work, to make things change or to encourage people to talk about things that are uncomfortable in society, then I’m happy to do that. I can’t tell you that this is the correct way to do art, but this is my way.
Do you have other projects in the works that also address race?
Yes, I’m working on a few things now that have to do with black hair. My mother started to straighten my hair when I was just six years old. I learned, as a child, that I have very bad hair, that it’s ugly, that it’s not good, so I straightened it all my life. I didn’t know what my real hair looked like until I was 30. In a way, I didn’t know who I was until then.
I have two projects in the works now that address this issue. I have a video, called Desenredo, or Disentanglement, in which I’m combing my hair while taking a bath. And I am taking photographs of hair salons in Brazil, in Spain, in France, where people like me go to get their hair done. In the end, it will be a documentation of daily life in black women’s salons.