During her time as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, photographer Nicole Buchanan began to feel isolated by what she perceived as the institution’s lack of diversity. Driven by a desire to give a voice to those students who felt similarly and who identify as African, African American or from the African Diaspora, she began work on a photo project that would tackle some of their anxieties.
Titled The Skin I’m In, Buchanan’s work directly addresses the experiences of underrepresentation that occur in classrooms and on campuses and asks the viewer to consider the dignity of its subjects. Featuring the faces of her fellow students emerging from a black background, the images challenge the ‘thug’ and ‘over sexualized woman’ stereotypes by perpetuating them. “I wanted to challenge the idea that black men and women are viewed similarly, with stereotyping and racial profiling,” she told The Boston Globe.
Particularly intrigued with the aspect of ‘performance’ – a tool she believes many from the African diaspora adopt as a method of survival – Buchanan played around with the idea of lifting that veil. Using soft directional lighting, she depicted her subjects’ naked head and shoulders, making sure to take enough photos so that she could select specific facial expressions that allow viewers to “look into the eyes [of each individual] and see what they want to see.”
Symbolically stepping out of the darkness, the subjects that make up The Skin I’m In flaunt a range of skin tones and hairstyles; but it’s the uniformity of the images that drive home the series’ visually compelling argument for our collective humanity.
In 2017, Buchanan was invited to return to her alma mater, where the RISD Museum has recently acquired 10 of the 50 portraits from The Skin I’m In and where she was invited to take part in an informal Q&A session with the their curator.