Gray Area: How Black & White Photography Became A Complicated Symbol Of Female Empowerment

Photo: via @Khloekardashian.
Have you been “challenged” yet? If you’re a woman with an Instagram account in the year of our lord 2020, then there’s a good chance you have been — or soon will be. The basic premise of the “challenge” is this: a woman sends you a message telling you that you’re beautiful and amazing. And like, thanks, you know. But, there’s more: They also ask you to post a black and white photo of yourself, all as part of a larger effort to support women. Should you choose to do so, you then post a photo, write some variation of the phrase “challenge accepted” underneath it, and then send a version of the same message to more women. You have thus completed your participation in The Challenge, which goes by various names including #WomenSupportingWomen and #ChallengeAccepted. 
While the precise origin of this trend and its ensuing popularity is a gray area — some say it’s a response to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s viral speech against sexist remarks leveled at her by Rep. Ted Yoho, others, like travel reporter Tariro Mzezewa, have linked it to women in Turkey speaking out against domestic violence — one aspect of the challenge is very black-and-white: the images themselves. In a world with so much ambiguity, it’s worth asking why this stark, vintage-inspired aesthetic has been embraced as a means of spreading modern empowerment.
The current use of black and white photography goes beyond The Challenge — indeed, some have noticed a connection between its look and the aesthetics of Taylor Swift’s much-talked-about new album, folklore. But, the history of black and white photography obviously goes much further back. For as long as there’s been color photography, making the choice to use black and white instead has communicated an introspective seriousness, a kind of clarity of moral and artistic intent — it recalls Ansel Adams’ majestic landscapes, Robert Mapplethorpe’s boundary-breaking portraits, and Dorothea Lange’s humanizing images of American poverty. “There’s this idea that there’s something kind of truer about black and white,” says David Campany, managing director of programs at the International Center of Photography in New York. “On a technical level, it’s actually less true, because it’s less realistic, it’s got less information about the world. But on top of that, we have all sorts of metaphors about black and white: If you ask someone to give you the unvarnished truth, you'll say, ‘give it to me in black and white.’ So we have this idea that facts are black and white and color is some kind of wild, luxurious distraction. Which I don’t think is true at all.”
That Taylor Swift, a pop star clearly attempting to gain some indie cred with folklore, which even has a cameo by Bon Iver, employed black and white photography to accompany it, makes sense. The images taken by photographer Beth Garrabrant are a departure from Swift’s sweet, ultra-manicured past, especially her last release, 2019’s Lover, the cover of which featured pink glitter lettering and an image of her standing in front of a cotton candy-colored sky. (2017’s Reputation also had a black and white cover, made liberal use of lowercase lettering, and was, like folklore, widely considered to be heavier in tone than some of her previous releases.)
But the notion that simply making an image black and white can imbue it with an inherent sense of import has also become something of a cliche, especially when used by amateur Instagram shutterbugs. It’s kind of the equivalent of saying your favorite movie is Breakfast at Tiffany’s or that you want to live in Paris one day — maybe those things are true, but it’s just as likely they’re said because someone thinks they should be true, making them feel faux-sophisticated, and ultimately meaning something different than what they’re intended to mean. Kind of like The Challenge itself. And also, kind of like social media, in general — particularly Instagram.
Instagram has fundamentally changed the way we document our lives, and especially the way we document ourselves, with selfies being, arguably, the platform’s foremost contribution to society. Once upon a time, personal photography was, well, personal, and almost definitely wasn’t intended to be shared with a potentially infinite number of strangers. Now, every self-portrait taken is meant for public consumption, and selfies are the most common photo posted. So, a scroll through most people’s feeds features mostly images of them, alone, usually trying to look vaguely sexy without seeming like they’re trying too hard. 
The ubiquity of these selfies, though, took a hit recently when, after a couple months of posting images of quarantine-inspired sourdough loaves and banana bread, people started using their feeds to promote social justice causes. It would have been easy to think that this would mean the death of the selfie, but the medium has turned out to be much more resilient. So now, thanks to the rise in deploying Instagram to architect and maintain crucial social justice movements, it makes sense that selfies would evolve and adopt a new aesthetic; now they’re in grayscale, and aligned with a message — however tenuous the connection to that message really is. This evolution reveals the way that many of us suddenly need to feel like everything we do is a contribution to a larger discourse — or at least appears to be. The reality, of course, is more complicated, and definitely shouldn’t ignore the fact that what some people really want is the rush of endorphins that come from watching likes and comments roll in. 
It’s worth noting that historically, black and white photography has allowed images of bodies that might otherwise be sexualized to be viewed in a more artistic context — like Mapplethorpe’s documentation of the gay BDSM community, or Helmut Newton’s images of naked fashion models. “I think people, particularly those shooting bodies, are very aware of the fact that in a very hyper-sexualized culture, black and white removes the image from the sort of obvious commodification of the body and the commodification of sexuality,” says Campany. There’s no explicit acknowledgment that this was part of the thinking behind the many black and white images now flooding our Instagram feeds, but on a subliminal level, it makes sense that some women might feel more “empowered” by black and white pictures of themselves than those in color. 
While The Challenge is probably pretty much harmless — and complaining about it too much feels kind of elitist — the larger concern here is that if everything posted on social media has to be a movement, then nothing is really a movement, and that threatens to upend the legitimacy of things that really do need to be addressed. It’s also not the first time a black and white color palette has been used to place a veil of seriousness atop a platform that’s historically been anything but. As Taylor Lorenz notes in a New York Times story about The Challenge, in 2016, there was a black and white #ChallengeAccepted moment around cancer awareness. This kind of vague hashtag activism also recalls the great black square debacle of a few months ago, in which a bunch of people posted black squares alongside #blacklivesmatter in supposed solidarity with the movement, only to drown out important information about nationwide protests by flooding feeds and relevant hashtags with, basically, nothing. The black square then became something of a symbol for performative wokeness, and now is mostly a punch line leveled against white people who do too much without really doing anything at all. 
Similarly, in a few days, it’s likely we’ll all move on from these selfies and the oddly phrased, spam mail-adjacent DMs that accompanied them. Or perhaps the whole thing will soon be co-opted by brands, thus robbing it of any meaning it ever could have had. On the plus side, what could linger is a newfound appreciation for black and white, a color palette that feels almost too on-the-nose perfect for a moment in time when so many of our society’s flaws have been thrown into stark relief, even if all that’s been revealed is how much of our world still remains a gray area.

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