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Why erasing ethnicity is never the answer: a response to 'Painted Faces, The Colors of My Skin'


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In the series of photographs Painted Faces, The Colors of my Skin, Christophe D. Petyt questions what the world would be like if there were no visible distinctions between races. He has asked “what if skin colored [sic] had never been one color but multiple colors? What would we fight over?’’

Painted Faces is presented by Celebrity Photo Studios. In the images, Petyt covers his subjects in colourful paint. With the occasional help of a friend, Petyt applies paint to the faces and bodies of his models with paint strokes and splatters.

Recalling his initial idea for the series, Petyt has said “as we were painting the faces of the models, we realized that once completed the model’s ethnicity disappeared.” This, he argues, leads to the images’ central focus on the themes of “Love and Peace”.

Petyt’s work can open an important discussion about race as his ideas lead to questions regarding the fundamental causes of racism.

Utilising the power of images to influence others, Petyt is attempting to use his work to spread a positive message and make a difference. Unfortunately, despite his good intentions, there are aspects of his work that are potentially counter-productive in the progression towards a racism-free society.

Painted Faces, The Colors of my Skin

Screenshot of Celebrity Photo Studios' website

On Celebrity Photo Studios’ website, the Painted Faces images are introduced with a claim that “whatever ethnicity the models are in this project they all end up beautiful and all the same !” The wording of this phrase is very disconcerting as it implicitly suggests that a person’s ethnicity would affect their beauty. The series is failing to recognise that the models all start beautiful, and having their skin covered in paint does not improve their looks by making them “all the same”.

Painted Faces also seems to reflect a very narrow understanding of racism, considering it to be a wholly superficial issue. This is particularly noticeable by Petyt’s apparent belief that “Love and Peace” is promoted in his images where “the model’s ethnicity disappeared”. His description of the series shows a distinct lack of awareness of the meaning and importance of ethnicity, as well as the much deeper, underlying causes of racial conflict.

As the central idea of Painted Faces appears to be that hiding a model’s ethnicity achieves peace, Petyt is showing a worrying naivety. Painted Faces is misinformed and misinforming. Ethnicity is not solely related to skin colour; it relates to cultural groups of people from an individual’s personal, ancestral and national heritage. Firstly, this of course does not disappear when skin is covered, and secondly, it is not something that Petyt should be attempting to make disappear.

Another consideration of the work is that Petyt’s intentions to cover his models with paint to make them “multiple colours” is not always reflected in the series of photographs. Often in the images, models are only partially covered in paint with areas of their skin on show, which confuses the photographer’s claims. Painted Faces lacks consistency, making it challenging for the audience to form clear and coherent responses to the photographs’ intended messages.

Whether he is aware of the implications of his photographs' meanings or not, Petyt is ultimately arguing that there would be less conflict if there was less ethnic diversity and I do not believe that this is a message we should be encouraging. To end racism, we should be celebrating ethnic, racial and cultural difference as valuable and enriching parts of the world.

Through the powerful and public nature of art and photography, Painted Faces is presenting audiences with misjudged concepts that reflect a lacking depth of knowledge and understanding of the issues it is attempting to address. Instead of spreading the positive message Petyt hopes for, the series of images appears to be spreading one with unhelpful and unhealthy connotations to global audiences.

Painted Faces presents ideas that seem to require further development and research to achieve its intended result of helping to end racism.

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