On Sept. 13, a group of beautiful Black models, wearing black undergarments, posed together for photographers at Riverside Park in Hartford. The photographs that came out of that shoot show a stunning array of skin tones, from light to dark like a rainbow of brown skin.
The photographs – which can be seen on Instagram – are part of The Melanin Project. The Hartford-based initiative unites Connecticut Black photographers, videographers, art directors, stylists and models to showcase the beauty of Black women and the visual artistry of their Black collaborators.
Kareem Clark, a Hartford photographer who founded The Melanin Project, remembers fashion magazines his mother read when he was young. He still has a few of them tucked away in his home.
“I look at them today. What stands out more than anything else is the Caucasian models. If there was a shoot of four women or four people, there’s only one African American model and the rest are Caucasian,” Clark said. “It’s the same thing over and over again. It’s very repetitive.”
Racial representation in modeling has improved in recent years, Clark acknowledged, but he founded the project to focus exclusively on what he considers to be underappreciated beauty, of dark skin as well as natural hair and a wide variety of body types.
“All models are tall. No one is ever 5-8 or 5-5,” he said. “A lot of times models miss opportunities in the industry because everyone tells them their height doesn’t match what they are looking for.”
He also wants people to know these artists live and work in Connecticut. “People outside Connecticut think of us as a sleepy state. But there’s a lot going on here people don’t know about,” Clark said.
In the Riverside Park images, photographed by James Roundtree, women as slender, young and tall as traditional models pose alongside women who defy traditional model body types. They are shorter, heavier, older. Each has her own unique beauty, some with tattoos and piercings, cornrows, dreadlocks or Afros, one with bright orange hair.
Travis Bivans, a Windsor native who runs the LJE modeling agency in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a founding member of The Melanin Project. He art-directed the shoot at Riverside Park. Models were told not to wear makeup, so their natural allure shines through.
Bivans said the historical preference for white faces gave rise to a generation of photographers who don’t know how to deal with Blackness, or who try to make Black faces look more like white faces.
“Photographers who made a career of photographing Caucasian faces don’t know how to edit Black faces,” Bivans said. “You’ll also see things like if a nose is too broad they give us a new nose. If hair is too thick, they straighten the strands out. These are the intricacies of racial intolerance in artistic creation.”
Clark said this extends to filmmakers also. “When it comes to the lighting, whenever a person of color is in the scene, it doesn’t complement us very