SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY IS a vintage black-and-white image of a black slave woman. The image was photographed outside. The slave woman’s eyes are downcast, as though in silent protest to having her picture taken without her consent. She is sitting outside in a rocking chair. Dignified. Her head is wrapped in white cloth. She cradles two babies, one at each breast. One black, the other white. Both suckling. In my series, “My Radical Camera,” I plan to depict this image.
In a letter to a friend, Van Gogh complained, “I myself am suffering under an absolute lack of models.”
I know exactly how he feels.
Initially, I thought I would continue the theme of race-reversal as I did for the image, The Help, which was featured at NOIR: Tulsa Performing Arts. In the image, I photographed myself, an African-American woman, with a white maid. Role reversal. A white woman would breastfeed both a black baby and a white baby.
I had no idea what a task it would be to find models for the shoot. Finding a white woman to breastfeed the black baby wasn't the problem. The problem was finding the black mama that was going to let you even give the remote appearance that her baby was breastfeeding from a white woman. They were down with the concept, just not their baby. The sisters were not having it.
When Your Free Spirit Fails You
I recalled that I had spoken to a recent photography client of mine who had twin girls who would be perfect for the shoot. They were dark-skinned and both had heads full of dark hair. A free spirit, I had photographed her during her pregnancy and then her newborn twins. It would be great if I could get both of the beautiful black babies onto white breasts at the same time, but the other benefit was that if one baby was fussy, the other could sit in. My client quickly called me back after I messaged her on Facebook.
“I am recreating an image called Southern Hospitality. In the image, a black slave woman is breastfeeding a white baby. But I want to reverse it. Make it a white woman with a black baby,” I said in a rush, talking way too fast. “Did you get all that?” I asked.
“No, I heard you,” she said. “Hmmmm, yeah. Let me check with their dad and I will get back with you. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
I have to be honest with you, she did not come across as the type that had to get permission for the children to participate in the shoot, but I respected the fact that she checked with the twins’ father. I had met the twins’ dad at the maternity shoot, and it had been clear that he was very comfortable in his skin. New Age, even. He was a rapper and had written books. I kept my fingers crossed that he would be okay with the twins modeling for the shoot.
The message I received read, “We are going to respectfully decline this time but keep us posted when you have other shoots.”
The dads were always ix-naying the idea.
I determined that I might seek a single mother who had sole decision-making power. I recalled that I had photographed a young single mother of two young boys who was pregnant with twins. I watched to see if and when she delivered the twins. I explained the concept and offered a family shoot in exchange for the babies’ participation. She agreed. Since she lived in another city, I elected to do a model call for my white wet nurse in the city in which she lived.
My wet nurse lives in a trailer on a large piece of land, which she rents to photographers for shoots. She makes me promise that I will not photograph her negatively. By “negatively,” I mean that she had some unnatural fear that a hair on her breast would show in the picture. She had a friend who had posed for a photographer and they had shown that friend’s breast hair.
“I would never do that,” I said into the cell phone.
“Are you sure?” she begged.
“Absolutely,” I said, “that would take away interest from what I am trying to convey in art.”
She then agreed to be the white wet nurse in the shoot.
When Your White Wet Nurse Arrives On Set Dressed Like a Smurf
Things seem to be falling together, right? Well, you are wrong.
When I arrived at the home of the white wet nurse, the first thing I noticed was that she looked nothing like the young, brown-headed professional photograph that appeared on her social media profile. In fact, she was considerably smaller than me and she had waist-length blue hair. She had on red cowboy boots and was wearing a sparkly outfit just because she felt like it. You know, like a Smurf. The mother for the shoot was on the way with the twins, so I quickly encouraged my white wet nurse with blue hair to put on her housecoat and wrap her head in cloth. Okay, good. She is in character and the only person who knows she has blue hair is me.
Just then, I see an SUV rapidly approaching the shoot location. Squinting my eyes, I notice a man is driving the SUV bearing down on me. “Dear God,” I pray, “Don't let this be the babies’ daddy.” The mother of the twins is sitting in the passenger side of the van. Whatever the relationship, she never said anything. Nobody says a word as they all get out the car. She drops the twins, still in car seats, next to my feet. I review the consents with them and the twins’ mother signs it.
Just then my white wet nurse comes out of her trailer.
“The reason I want to do this is because my grandmother was a racist. I know she would be ashamed of this, and so I know it is the right thing to do, and I am doing it to get back at her,” she says.
Oh, please, no. Not the classic “My grandparent was a racist, therefore I love black people” monologue. Not now. Dear God, no, I think. Please. Stop.
Both black parents of the twins look at me.
I look around the group, nodding, smiling. “Things are going great. Okay, let's go ahead and go to the back and get this shoot started.”
“Who is he?” I side-whisper to the mother.
“He ain’t nobody,” she responds back with a side-smile.
Dear God, please don't let Jerry Springer show up on this set, I think as I begin to wonder what have I walked into.
The twins’ mother quickly gathers them, and I scoot them all to the area I had set up for the shoot. I inform the gentleman that, due to the nature of the shoot, I thought it best that he remain on the other side of set.
He still says nothing.
I indicate to the white wet nurse that I need her to show her tatas and assume the football position twin hold.
Mom hands me one baby. My white wet nurse puts the other baby close to her breast, then does a double-take and screams, “There is a hair on my boob!”
Quickly moving back, I look through my viewfinder. Seeing the babies at her breast in camera, I think, “Dammit, these babies are damn near white.” Just then, I get them in focus and press the shutter.
“OH MY GOD! They are actually trying to latch on!” she yells, loud enough for the babies’ daddy to hear.
Mom quickly assists me with removing the second twin from the scene.
“Two years old.”
“She should be dark enough,” he said.
“She most definitely is. She has pigtails and everything. She will be perfect and she is still breastfeeding,” I tell him.
“You know, this is very different than the original image and your concept for this shoot,” he said.
“I know. I know. I just have to see what I get.”
“Okay, just make sure you don't get arrested.”
Bug arrived with a cherry lollipop that had chewing gum in the middle. I explained the shoot to her, along with her mother. It would only look like she was breastfeeding. This was not a problem since she was still breastfeeding and knew what to do. She agreed to participate. Her mother signed consents, and I gave the wet nurse and Bug some time to get to know one another. Watching the two bond was beautiful. They played ring around the rosy and, as is my style, I shot documentary fashion.
The set established. Southern genteel with flowers. Burgundy tufted couch. It would be an outside shoot. The shoot went smoothly, and then Bug put on her Dora the Explorer boots and grabbed her bag of candy from me and went home with her mother.
After the shoot, my mentor texted me and asked how things went.
“There is no way this child is two years old. She is tall especially, when compared to your petite, pregnant model. People might assume that something kinky was going on. I think it takes away from the story because in present time people are appalled to see children her age breastfeeding. I am not judging it, but it gets lost in translation and as artists we must always be cognizant of that. Show several people, whose eyes you trust, the image and see what they have to say. Sit with it.”
Back to the drawing board.
What were the elements that made the first image I photographed for this series acclaimed as edgy art?
What am I trying to convey?
I am still in pursuit of Southern Hospitality.
GAY PASLEY is a graduate student at the Oklahoma City University Red Earth MFA Program. Her photography and writing seek to capture the under-reported experiences and challenges of what it is to be a working-class woman of color.