The original story behind Brown Passport
It 2004, I was fairly new to living/working in New York City, but quickly building a good reputation as a Digital Tech in the advertising and fashion photography world, all while shooting my own work both for clients and to build my photo portfolio. Dec 1st (2004) I flew down to Jamaica with fellow image maker Julien Capmeil and the art director for this advertising shoot. My role as a digital tech on this job explains why the photos on this blog post are all of me taking a grey card reading. Remember, this trip was about 12 & 1/2 years before Brown Passport was conceived, yet one that time did come it was this memory that was truly behind it's (B.P.'s) inception.
..."How you got this job?"..."Who are You?"...
Since we were shooting advertising for the resort, they hooked us up in our own 3 bedroom villa with our own private pool and kitchen staff (definitely luxury to me). Every morning I would smile with the kitchen staff as they would raise their eyebrows when asking "Ackee and saltfish?..." and I would happily say.. "YES".
...'did they just wait until I (the only brown person on the crew) was left alone at the table so they could ask me without any 'white people' around???'...
One evening I was left at the dinner table as the other (2) crew members went to their rooms for the night. It was then, one of the kitchen staff peered her head out and looked around the room (as if checking to see that the 'coast was clear'). She then waved to the other staff in the kitchen to come out. They all came out and stared at me (while i was finishing up my dinner). Of course I stopped eating and stared back. One of them (I can't not recall which of them) asked... "How you got this job?"..."Where you from?..." "Who are you?" and a whole host of other somewhat related questions.
..."we can hardly afford the bus to work..."...."They don't want you to see how we live".......
Needless to say, I was STUNNED. I felt put on the spot but at the same time wondered if I were at that moment supposed to be some kind of 'inspiration', or a sign of 'hope' because of my role (job). I couldn't help but think, 'is this really happeneing?', did they just wait until I (the only brown person on the crew) was left alone at the table so they could ask me without any 'white people' around???
....'All that is left to show are these silly grey card photos, but the impact of this experience....'
We proceeded to chat about my role in this job, how I came into photography and how I 'made it' to the point of being hired for this job and others. They proceeded to share with me the harsh reality of 'making it' in Jamaica as a (black) Jamaican. They said they get paid much less than those who come from elsewhere even though they are working at a top resort near Montego Bay, they said to me "we can hardly afford to take the bus to work..it's so expensive...".
I felt privileged to be sharing this line of dialog with them considering we (the crew) had already been there the better part of a week seeing these same folks (kitchen staff) at least twice a day without any prior sign of conversation beyond things like "Ackee & Saltfish?...". It may have been the first time I recognized differential treatment on that level due to the color of my skin. I mean they waited until I was left alone to feel comfortable enough, trusting enough to speak on these topics and share all of this information with me.
A couple of days later on our way to the airport Julien pleaded with the driver to take us another route. You see, the main road to the airport was at a standstill, most likely due to an accident or perhaps just massive traffic. The driver refused stating there was no other road to get there. Julien just knew that couldn't be true, as there were several neighborhoods between the resort and the airport, why could we not just cut through the neighborhoods? He kept pleading, begging the driver to take the back way since our flight was the ONLY flight that day back to New York, and both he and I had other freelance jobs the next day in New York. Finally, the driver broke out and said, "I could lose my job for telling you this....please...listen they won't allow me to go any other way, because they don't want you to see how we live..". The car became silent, then Julien carefully let the driver know that will never happen because none of us will ever say anything.
We eventually did cut through the neighborhoods with a very nervous driver as we past through what looked like a series of cinder block boxes one after the other connected by a spiderweb of questionable electrical wiring. Happy to report we did make our flight, and to my knowledge that drive kept his job.
To this day, almost 13 years later as I write this, all that is left to show are these silly grey card photos, but the impact of this experience is beyond words.
"...Es Americano, or Booga booga?"
As previously mentioned what I experienced on this trip to Jamaica has left a lifelong impact. Many industries require travel for work, but the photo/film industry I believe has a special relationship to travel (and the travel industry). In the interview below, African American photographer Brad Starks shares his first profound travel story through the eyes of a 'brown traveler. He shares how he reacted to a rather of putting comment by the first person he encountered when moving to Spain.