Residence: “Same as before. Harlem. Same apartment. Same everything.”
Occupation: Photography editor for the New York Times Opinion Section and Book Review. Co-owner (with wife, Meg Henson Scales) of the Harlem-based photo archive, HSP Archive, and the multimedia company, Henson Scales Productions.
What strikes you when you reread these passages from 20 years ago?
How long-winded I was. And how much I was reflecting on where I came from. Since that was over 20 years ago, a lot of things have changed and others haven’t changed. I’m not very much engaged in the freelance business anymore, so I don’t have those issues. Working for a corporation, there are a whole slew of other issues that are sort of similar. I see the freelance marketplace from the other side, and what strikes me is that a lot of the same issues present themselves, although I’m more in photojournalism now than in entertainment.
What sort of issues?
I don’t see that many black photographers around. Over the years it’s become so difficult to cross over from being a black artist into the white marketplace; maybe fewer are people trying. Also, since that time, the record industry pretty much collapsed. There are more black magazines, but I’m a little out of touch because I’m not moving around in that world so much. I have a photography column at the paper called Exposures, which shows portfolios of people’s work. I’m always looking for work by African American artists and I don’t come across that many in my travels, particularly in the documentary tradition.
When I was talking to you back then, there were certain projects I was working on that have come to pass. I had a national traveling exhibition for five years, including that series, “White People.” It got a fair amount of attention. There were some people in reviews who thought it was racist but a lot of people just sort of dug it. So that issue did get raised and discussed ad nauseam at the time, which was in the early to mid-90s.
People are less racially defined by how they speak. There are more black people who grew up middle class and more black and mixed race people who grew up in different countries. That may just be the world I’m in. That being, New York based journalism, film, music, and fashion.
And how does your personal identity line up with where you were then?
I think I’ve shifted to a more mixed race identity after living in Harlem almost 30 years. Living in a primarily black community has pushed me more to see my sensibilities aren’t necessarily the same as the people around me. This is similar to the way it was when I was primarily around whites except that it isn’t as negative in terms of the racial exclusion I found in white communities.
So my race has become less definable as one or the other. Also, over time, there’s come to be more acceptance of the mixed-race identity. There’s been the huge rise of mixed-race identity in media in the last 20 years. That’s shifted tremendously.
Where do you see this rise?
Let’s call it the Halle Berry effect. Even in advertising, you see mixed-race couples. Before, that was verboten. Then again, you never know — with regionally targeted advertising, I can’t say if the rest of the world is seeing what I’m seeing. Then there is also a mixed race president now, so actually I’d venture that it’s not just regional. Also lets not forget the newly elected de Lightful de Blasios of New York.
But it’s become a bigger group of people, certainly, and you have people like the actresses Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones, or Paula Patton, who, from what I can tell, will play either a black person or a white person. They’ll identify with either black or white in a role and there doesn’t seem to be any problems with that, which is fine. I think that’s an option that you’re entitled to, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have the liberty to make certain choices as in acting roles. But I think all those things, that flexibility and mixing up of stuff, I like that. It’s much better than it was years ago.
A funny story, I was at the doctor’s office with my wife Meg at a hospital. She is mixed race from Portland, Oregon, and a researcher came down to visit while she was waiting in the exam room and said, that while approaching her was not always policy for the researchers who look at the various samples collected during whatever tests they do, he wanted to meet her. He went on to say, it was because according to her blood genetics she had virtually every major (and some not so major) race represented, and he just wanted to at least have a look at her.
Didn’t they have a thing were they were going to put into the census some years ago where you could check more than one race?
Yes. Starting in 2000, you got to “check all that apply.”
How was it to participate in the book project and interview process? What did it mean for you to be a part of this book?
It was fun. I thought it was interesting. It was reflective and interesting.
For further reading, seeing, and listening:
Jeffrey Henson Scales’ website
To watch a talk Jeffrey gave in 2012 about his life and work, click here
To sample the current musical project of Henson Scales Productions, click here
And here, an essay by Jeffrey’s wife, Meg Henson Scales, “Coming Right Back,” that considers the healing power of photography in their lives.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Henson Scales, November 15, 2013 New York. Photo by Meg Henson Scales