Germantown photographer examines encounters with racism in new exhibit

 A photo from 'Private Pain, Silent Struggle.' (Courtesy of Tieshka Smith)

A photo from 'Private Pain, Silent Struggle.' (Courtesy of Tieshka Smith)

Germantown photographer Tieshka Smith originally launched her latest project under the title “Racism Makes Us Sick,” but said it has since evolved into a broader effort with a more appropriate name: “Racism is a Sickness.

The idea behind “Racism Makes Us Sick,” was conceived as a look at how racism operates in the healthcare system. That approach eventually made Smith uncomfortable. 

“It lets some people off the hook in my opinion,” she said. “I think ‘Racism is a Sickness’ implies that anybody could catch or be affected by the values that are put forward by racism.”

This applies to people of all colors, whether you suffer from racism or perpetuate it, she said. 

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Not affected by racism? Impossible.

It’s a whole system that “pulls us all in and makes us all actors in this performance of racism,” Smith said. “This idea that ‘I’m not into [racism]’ is hogwash. It’s really something that affects all of us.”

“Racism is a Sickness,” will ultimately include a photo exhibition, interviews with about 20 subjects and associated programming.

The continued duality of black identity

Smith is just wrapping up a year-long residency at the Painted Bride Art Center where she embarked on a photo project which captured people of color using the activities or objects that help them stay grounded in the face of racism. She called it “Private Pain, Silent Struggle.”

Each portrait and interview focused on a single question: How do you cope with 21st century racism?

“This is the racism that doesn’t look like what our parents and grandparents endured,” Smith said.

“What are you?”

Her subjects included a special education teacher, a blogger, a drummer, a spoken word artist/musician, and a young Buddhist, among others.

“All these people had stories to tell about how they use their art, their writing, their religious faith or their meditative practice,” she said.

One biracial subject spoke about constantly being confronted by people trying to categorize her hair or skin color, always asking questions like, “what are you?”

“The idea was not for me to direct the shoots, but to really empower my subjects to create what type of energy they wanted to present to the world,” Smith said — a process she wants to bring to her current project as well.

“Nobody cares that you’re stressed out that you’re dealing with a real estate agent who’s not as sensitive to your needs as a black person, or with a loan officer…[who is] scrutinizing you a little more deeply than they may a white person,” she said.

Beyond “Private Pain”

Smith’s goal for “Racism is a Sickness” is to take it beyond “Private Pain” by hosting a wide range of talkbacks and programming related to themes that emerge in her interviews. She’s launching the process of finding, photographing and interviewing her subjects now, and hopes to locate a Germantown-based exhibition space for a show in mid to late fall.

Her budget for the whole project is just over $13,500. She’s hoping she can raise $5,000 of that through crowdfunding. Additional dollars and needs will be met through a combination of her own income, in-kind contributions, and grants she’s pursuing.

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