Black and White vs. Color

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography, Stories


There are a lot of good photos which would work equally well in color or black and white. The same can be true for leaders of nations, ice cream flavors, and just about anything that is good at the surface as well as underneath. The problem comes along when people want to artificially change colors that wouldn’t normally be there.

Case in point. Today I received a phone call from someone putting together a brochure. She asked me if I had any photos of babies in an ICU or Infant Special Care Unit receiving care. The above photo came to mind. When I told her of my selection of images of parents and nurses feeding a set of very small premature babies, the first question the woman asked me was, “What color are the babies?”

I took a step back wondering what answer she was expecting. When I mentioned that the babies were Caucasian, she was disappointed. “I wish they were more…you know.” I knew. She was referring to what has unfortunately become the norm at my place of business; the color-minded brochure. No longer are pamphlets targeted toward patients who need help. They are now targeted toward some mystery consumer that only cares about seeing a certain perfect balance of minorities and white people. Again and again, I am asked to leave out nice shots of white people because clients are only looking for “multicultural people” which means black.

Now, I’m not ignorant of advertising and presenting an honest cross section of your business. The problem is, our patients possess a cross section that is mainly affluent and white. And while most of the doctors we have are from many diverse cultures and nationalities spanning the globe, almost none of those physicians are black. So that’s an added problem when the client requests a black doctor to be in the shot. I want to tell them, “Hire someone, and I’ll photograph them.”

Also, there has to be a perfect balance. At one point, while working on multiple publications at once, clients from group A thought their brochure had too many minorities in it, while clients from group B wanted more minorities. The tipping point for me came when, after scrambling to get shots for an expensive and high profile publication, we had to throw out all of the great shots that we spent weeks planning and making because they were mostly of white people. Unfortunately, the publication was covering new research projects run by those people. Makes sense that we would photograph them. In the end, all of the people in charge of those projects were reduced to thumbnails or bumped altogether, replaced by shots of minorities who had no involvement with the project or who were unpaid models.

So back to my phone call. Today I received this call and after explaining that the two babies and their parents were all white, the client asked if I could use Photoshop to fake different races in the subjects of the photos. Basically it was my choice. Could I make them look Latin or black? I paused before considering my answer. After a moment, the only thing I could tell her was, “While Photoshop is capable of altering photos in almost any way, this request is…how should I say it…over the line. Though our photo subjects have signed a consent form, they still have the right to know if we will elementally change the content of the photos such as changing their race.”

Of course, I’m paraphrasing as in reality I stumbled through a similar answer. But my worldview of what people were capable of requesting has just been lowered to a new low.

What do you think?