Removing the Whitewash: People of Color in FSI Illustrations

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by Jay O’Connell

 

square-columnist-jayI’ve been illustrating Fantastic Stories of the Imagination for about a year or so now. It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of work. It’s also been an education on whitewashing and representation in genre illustration as I’ve struggled with two opposing realities; SF and fantasy is increasingly diverse in terms of its readers, writers, and characters… but stock photo source libraries are horribly weak in POC.

I could avoid faces and work with landscapes and still lives and silhouetted forms, which could read as any ethnicity; I could use white people wherever a text was ambiguous; or, I could struggle to find POC in stock photo libraries where they are not only often in short supply, but also frequently costumed (or un-costumed) in perniciously stereotypical ways.

I poured through the stories looking for clues as to ethnicity, and finally, recently, came to the conclusion that I needed to simply speak to the authors about this and discuss the options. Also, I simply got the ethnicity wrong on several occasions, missing obvious cues, whitewashing a story accidentally; sometimes I caught myself; other times the editorial process caught my oversight.

As I sift though the hundreds of thousands of images, I am looking for matches in age, gender, ethnicity, attitude-facial expression, pose, prop, lighting and attire. Backgrounds can be changed, and in fact, almost always have to be. The process is strangely exhausting; you have the image you’d like to make (if you had an unlimited budget), and then the images that spring to mind as you look for stuff by keyword that matches your initial vision. You search for the most bang for the buck.

I include here a few of my whitewash mistakes, and the fixes, so you can see this process in action.

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This was my original, accidentally whitewashed illustration. the model reminds me a bit of the author, who I knew from a workshop. I was thinking of her, instead of the character, whose name gives us a better sense of a look for her.

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After showing the illustration to the author, and realizing, duh, the name, I came up with this; the story is about a Latina Michael Jackson impersonator, and this really worked for the story so much better than the image above.

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