I was flipping through my wife's issue of People magazine when I ran into an article about a Mexican-born executive who grew up in an orphanage and, now that she is successful, created an organization that raises funds to help orphanages in Mexico similar to the one she grew up in. It is an inspiring story of a Hispanic woman who is paying it forward by helping to provide a better life for so many kids in need.
However, the photo is what really grabbed my attention as you can't help but notice the three children in the picture are wearing zarapes over their shoulders. If you analyze the picture, you can tell they have probably never wore a zarape and are actually uncomfortable with it on as their shoulders are slanted down and their necks are tilted as they try and keep the zarapes from falling.
Does the fact they are Mexican automatically imply they should be wearing zarapes? Does it add a certain level of Hispanic authenticity that would somehow be missing from the story? After all, take out the zarapes and these kids are dressed like any other kid you would see in the U.S. Would that have affected the reader's response?
Maybe the visual editor doesn't know that while they are dressed like any other kid in the U.S., they are also dressed like any other kid in Mexico or other countries in Latin America. Or could it be I am bringing my own sensitivities to the picture and, in fact, these kids brought the zarapes with them to the shoot?
Curious about it, I decided to visit the foundation's website to look at pictures and/or videos and see if maybe I overreacted or if the children in the orphanage are donning them. And guess what? In all the pictures and video that are posted the children are dressed with regular, everyday clothes. As for the presence of a zarape, there was not one to be found.
So why are these three great looking kids wearing them? Well, having witnessed similar conversations in the past, I think the conversations among the staff may have gone a bit like this:
Editor: "We are doing a story and need you to take a picture."OK. It's an overly exaggerated, assumed rendition, and we all know what happens when you assume, but chances are most of you in the industry know the potential for a version of that conversation to have taken place is very real.
Photographer: "What's the story about?"
Editor: "An inspiring story about a Mexican woman who grew up in an orphanage in Mexico and after being successful created an organization to help other orphan kids."
Photographer: "Great. You said she is Mexican, right? When I went to Cancun I saw a lot of those colorful blankets in a mercado. I think it would look so cute to have the kids wearing them in the picture."
Editor: "Oh yeah, they would look super cute! And best of all, this comes out right before Cinco de Mayo so very timely."
Photographer: "Oh yeah, Cinco de Mayo. FIESTA!"
How is it that in this day and age we continue to see pictures like these? Are we as an industry somewhat at fault for fighting against stereotypes with clients, but then embracing them in our own Cinco de Mayo or Halloween celebrations? Are we speaking out of both sides of our mouths or is there a time and place for everything, and maybe we just need to get a sense of humor? Or have we, the advertisers, built this over-generalization into the minds of those that see our work?