Won’t it be wonderful…
I am so proud to be part of a shift I am seeing in the Photography Industry. A shift that has brought the inclusion of African Americans into Underwater Portrait Photography.
Won’t it be wonderful when black history and native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book. Just U.S. historyMaya Angelou
Black History Month
February is Black History Month, as we all know. As someone who strives to be an ally to all, I welcome the celebrations that this month brings with open arms.
I am also sometimes a bit timid about how I participate in those celebrations. It has 1001% zero to do with not wanting to support my brown skinned friends, clients, and colleagues. It has everything to do with wanting to “do no harm.”
I grew up sheltered in many ways, thrown to the wolves in others… my life is a long story with many chapters. We will save that book for another day.
The short version is this.
I know what it is like to have people assume they understand what it is like to live your life, to try to help by assuming they can walk in your shoes. And I know what it is like to have someone walk beside you in support. Those, my friends, are two very different paths.
As an upper middle class caucasian married straight mother of white three boys…
I will not assume I understand the path of my African American friends and colleagues.
But what I will do is offer to walk beside them. To support their small businesses. To cheer them on. I will read books, watch movies, and listen to podcasts and lectures on subjects so that I am well educated. I will strive to be a good friend and colleague.
And I will make it clear that my photography studio is open to ALL.
No qualifiers. Just ALL.
African Americans Underwater
Traditionally, we have not seen many people of color represented in Underwater Portraiture. I am not saying there is no representation of African Americans in Underwater Photography. I am saying that there has traditionally been a much smaller representation of people of color in the Underwater Photography world than that of Caucausion models.
Of course I understand that there are many cultural and accessibility factors that have contributed to this. Access to swimming lessons for all age groups and access to swimming facilities going back generations has led to some very real safety issues in the African American community. So of course safety and swimming ability is also factor in the lack of Underwater Photography in that same community.
But it has thrilled my heart to watch the wave of change that has been begun to sweep through the entire swim industry, and in particular the niche of Underwater Portrait Photography. The Niche Industry that I love with such passion.
As I reflected on my 2019 season I saw a distinct increase in inquiries and bookings from brown skinned clients. Both with African American Underwater Maternity Sessions and in African American Underwater Styled Model Sessions.
And let me tell you. I had some Kings and Queens that SLAYED their sessions.
I also love that among my African American clients I have had the most extensive range of shapes and sizes enter my pool!
From my tiniest adult model, to my tallest, to my curviest! And every single one of them brought some serious Black Magic to the water.
Style, creativity, beauty.
Style, creativity, beauty. You name it, we had it.
Why were these African American Styled Sessions Unique?
So, what made these sessions unique to all of my other Underwater Styled Sessions? Why does it stand out that these clients were African American?
Because two of the five had no swimming skills. Two more had to conquer real fears in the water to be there.
I have not had one single Caucasian adult show up for an underwater photography session without moderate to strong swimming skills. Not one.
Do African Americans Swim?
One of the hesitations I see for many African Americans with Underwater Photography is in fact, a lack of swimming skills or a fear of water. Now, do I think that that means people of color can’t swim? Absolutely not! That would be an absolutely ridiculous statement.
Are any African Americans Strong Swimmers?
Oh yes my friends!!! In fact, my Safety Manager is an Aquatics Director, a lifeguard, a swim instructor, a swimmer, and is an amazing African American woman. She is also the mother to seven beautiful children who she is raising in and around pools and on competitive swim teams!
She is proud to be a black woman who swims – and swims strong.
And there are many like her. People who are out there, encouraging others in their community to get in the water, to learn about water safety, to sign up for swimming lessons, to teach their children to swim.
Inspiring Swimmers in the African American Community
There are swimmers like Jamal Hill.
Uphill, as he is so fondly referred, is teaching, inspiring, and competing – despite any obstacles life might present.
Both of these amazing women are actively promoting Diversity in Aquatics, promoting swimming lessons for People of Color at all ages, and working to break the stigmas that surround African Americans and swimming in America.
“Oh girl, I just straightened my Hair!!”
I invited a friend over to swim for fun and that was her response. She went on to say that while the sun and fun looked SO tempting, it just wasn’t quite tempting enough to be worth giving up the straightened hair she had just spent so much time to achieve.
But that I should call again next month when she would be wearing it natural.
I truly believe that the rise in popularity of natural hairstyles is another reason we are seeing an increase in African American swimmers in general.
Swim Products made for Brown Skin and Natural Hair
The rise in swim products that accommodate that gorgeous natural hair is also making a huge impact!
Products like the Swimma Cap created in South Africa eleven years ago. The caps are actually large enough to hold natural hairstyles like afros, dreadlocks or braids. The larger cap is also designed to keep much of the chemical filled pool water from drenching and weighing down those gorgeous delicate locks.
And Yoland Flournah has founded Swimmie Caps in Florida, the first swim cap to feature images of black and brown children on the caps.
These products are making it easier on African American children and adults to get in the water on a more regular basis. Increased comfort and confidence in the water will naturally lead to a greater increased interest in Underwater Photography among the African American population.
When I look around at colleagues around the country who specialize in Underwater Photography, I see growing diversity.
I was amazed when I chatted with one African American Underwater Photographer in Texas about her story. After years of being a photographer she had a client reach out to her about doing an Underwater Maternity Session. At that point, she didn’t even know how to swim!
But she took on the challenge. She started swimming lessons and traveled to Europe to train with an Underwater Photographer.
Four years later she specializes in Underwater Portraiture and continues with refresher swim lessons every year to continue to strengthen her water skills! Her story blows me away!!
Always a Safety Girl
Listen to the feedback I received from one beautiful Queen who absolutely slayed her Underwater Maternity Session:
I had the most AMAZING experience EVER!!! She was so professional and accommodating. There was a lifeguard present (who was amazing) and an assistant (also amazing)! I’m comfortable in the water but by no means a professional swimmer..I felt safe and special!
Having a Safety Plan and Team in place made her feel comfortable enough to get in the water and do an Underwater Maternity Session. And in the end, she was thrilled that she did!
Of course, working with varying swim abilities comes with even more responsibility. And those of you who know me, know that safety is of the highest priority to me.
I chat with every client before our session. I do not swim alone in the water with a client. And if there is even a hint that my client isn’t a strong swimmer, I make sure I have both an in water safety swimmer/assistant as well as an on deck safety monitor/lifeguard present for the entire session.
For anyone who is a non-swimmer or hesitant swimmer, I work with my Safety Manager to create a plan to accommodate that person’s skill and comfort level in the water.
And let’s just side-step for a moment, I am not talking about children here. We are discussing adults. For ANY child, regardless of swimming ability, I require a parent to be IN the water at all times.
How can we do better?
Of course there are always ways that we can do better.
In chatting with other Underwater Photographers around the country, I learned that many simply don’t get a high volume of inquiries from People of Color. And some have felt that they have had to turn away more African American clients interested in Underwater Photography than Caucasian clients.
Why? Because they maintain a strict policy of only working with strong swimmers and unfortunately, the African American clients who have inquired about Underwater Photography with them just were not strong swimmers.
I definitely understand this position from a safety perspective. Particularly for Underwater Photographers who choose not to work with a lifeguard present.
But I also understand that if we, as Underwater Photographers, want to open ourselves to a more diverse population of clients and models, then we may also need to be more open to working with models of varying swim abilities. *
As always, offered in love,
*Renee Stengel Photography is not a safety expert and is not giving safety advice. Please consult with your own attorney and insurance coverage when creating your guidelines as a water professional.