We want to be our authentic selves wherever we go, right? But most of us have probably struggled with how to do that and function in the workplace. At the office, where everyone is working in the same space, towards some of the same goals, it can be easy to forget that the individual people who make up a larger organization are not one-size-fits-all. And the truth is that the assumed mold usually defaults to the largest demographic, so imagine (or if this has happened to you, remember) what it feels like to be the only person in the office from a specific demographic, be it gender, race, religion, age, or sexual orientation, and then think about how that might increase feelings of misunderstanding or isolation in the already difficult to navigate workplace.
Artist Endia Beal uses photography and video to bring the conversation about workplace diversity into the mainstream. After completing a project where she created corporate-style portraits of white women wearing black hairstyles, Beal received such a strong response that she knew she needed to find a way to use the stories people had begun sharing with her. I asked Beal a few questions about the resulting project, the video “9 to 5.”
BECKY HARLAN: Tell me a little bit about “9 to 5.” How did it begin? Who are the women in the video?
ENDIA BEAL: My mother used to tell me stories about her job all the time. Back then I thought, “Oh my generation is different. It’s crazy that this is happening to you, but that wouldn’t happen to me in the corporate space.” Then I started working in corporate, and now those same things are happening to me. So after showing my project “Can I Touch It?” women from all over were sending me their testimonies about feeling like they had to perform in corporate America. I thought about the experiences my mother (the first woman featured in “9 to 5”), my cousins, and my family members had shared with me—stories that were so dynamic but so hidden. I decided to have family and other women in the community tell me the stories they had told me before but this time on camera. I asked each woman to tell me a five-minute story about when they had experienced prejudice in the workplace because they were a woman or a minority.
BECKY: What was it like to hear all of those stories?
ENDIA: When I interviewed some of the women they were like, “Man I’ve been waiting to have someone to talk to about this.” Some of the women who were referred to me, when they finished telling me their story we hugged, and it was like we connected in some way. These were intimate stories about times when they felt vulnerable. It was great.
BECKY: How did you decide on the narrative?
ENDIA: It happened pretty organically. Every woman worked in different fields—banking, nursing, business. I interviewed about 20 women overall, and I listened to each woman’s story over and over. There were such similarities in the way that they spoke about things that it felt like the women were literally finishing each other’s sentences. So I thought, “I want to create a narrative based on all these women’s stories so it can become a communal experience. So that as these women are finishing each others sentences, they are literally becoming one voice.”
I started working on the video during my residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. Being at Woodstock gave me the time to process my angle and what I wanted to say through the video before having to actually cut the women’s stories to create that narrative,
BECKY: One of the women in the video talks about how she has to keep herself from getting upset. Can you explain why she might feel this way?
ENDIA: As a minority woman you’re conscious of the fact that you can fall into stereotypes. It’s heightened when you’re in a professional work environment because you’re the only one, and as you advance in your career, the number of minority people in those positions declines, so then you feel like the representative. If you’re in a meeting and someone says something about women or minorities, you don’t want to react and become that “angry black woman.” You have to think “How can I address this without falling into the stereotype?”
BECKY: In the video, your mother talks about how she was dressed. Why does she bring that up?
ENDIA: I would say, and I can only speak to my own experiences and how I was raised, the idea of presentation was really important. How you look determines how you are going to be treated. My mother talks about how she looks in the video because she wants you to know that she looked professional, she dressed the part, but that didn’t matter. You can do all you can to fit the mold, but at the end of the day her voice still wasn’t heard.
BECKY: What reactions have you gotten from this project?
ENDIA: It premiered at Look Between this past June. A lot of women and men came up to me afterwards. This one woman said, “I’m white, but I relate to this 100 percent.” Even men came up to me and said “I’ve been in meetings and I’ve been afraid to say something or was ignored.” People have all had that experience of being in a situation where you feel like your voice isn’t heard.
BECKY: Who inspires you?
ENDIA: Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Deborah Willis. The history of minority women within photography is still being written. And the contemporary stories of minority women are still being formed. Deborah Willis is one of the authors of minority photographers. She’s literally laying the foundation for minority photographers to have a discussion about the work that’s being made and to get those stories told. If I can just add a few stories or put a few pictures in that gallery, then I feel like I achieved something.