• PhotoGenie

What even is “Race”?

This week’s Photogenie theme is titled "Colour Code".

Through visual stories, our curators concern themselves with topics such as race and skin colour.


We as humans share almost all of our genes. There are only a few genes that differ from person to person. One has genes that account for blue eyes, the other for curly hair and the third could have a specific gene pattern that makes them allergic to cats. For a long time, specific genes developed in certain parts of the world, as a part of evolution. For example; some people needed genes that could account for the breaking down of lactose (because a lot of cows lived in the area) whereas on other continents this wasn’t the case. This way, territorial specific genetic contexts were created.


However, people have been traveling this planet from the moment they could, and from that moment DNA started mixing. In the past centuries, human traffic around the world increased tremendously and so did the spread of territorial specific genetics. We often tend to categorise the people we meet by social labels, such as culture, race, religion, nationality and other groups to which we “belong”. Although many people seem to think that certain facial features correspond with nationality or race, the opposite is often true. Our identities shift and overlap. If we all share most of our genes, and even the kind of genes that appear more often in a certain local context start spreading, the question arises: ‘What even is “race”?’





Photographer Tomoko Sawada demonstrated the flexibility of nationality and race by transforming herself to look like over 300 different Asian women. In her artist statement for her solo exhibition in the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California in 2015, she states: “I was told at various times that I looked Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Mongolian, et cetera (and only occasionally Japanese). This made me consider the intuitive process by which people achieve cognition of true or false archetypes”.




By portraying herself multiple times, Sawada explores in what ways she “could” or “could not” fit certain socially constructed labels. She found that, by changing her facial features, her facial signature could match all kinds of Asian identities, showing how facial features are not necessarily an indicator for identity, and how identity can be a fluid, dynamic concept in itself.






Nobody is 100% a certain race. You would be surprised how much you have in common with someone from the other side of the world! Momondo, the global comparison site for flights, made a video about the subject of fluid identity and the social construct of race. They asked 67 people to do a DNA-test to see what country-specific genes they had. Many turned out to have a lot more in common with their perceived ‘others’ than they initially thought. It changes their perspective completely! In the end of the video, after finding out the variety of country-specific genes she had, one lady states: ‘There would be no such thing as extremism in the world if people knew their heritage like that, I mean, who would be stupid enough to think in terms of “a pure race”?’. Of course, regardless of our genetic similarities, people differentiate between groups of people on the basis of trivial things such as appearance.





What do you think terms of race, nationality, and culture are all about? Do you believe “pure race” exists in a globalised world like the one we live in today? Do people ever group you with certain nationalities and areas of the world without any knowledge of your actual life and heritage? Tell us in the comments!


About the artist: Tomoko Sawada (1977) is a Japanese photographer, born in Kobe. She specialises in contemporary feminist photography and performance art, with a great body of work on identity and gender roles (in Japanese culture). Among others awards, she won the New York International Centre of Photography’s Infinity Award for Young Photographers in 2004 and The Kyoto Perfect Culture Prize in 2007. Her artwork is part of the permanent collection of a significant amount of museums around the world.


Let us know what you think in the comments!

Our weekly themes always include three photo series by different photographers.

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Written by Myrthe Peek

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