Nathan Smith is used to being profiled. A Jamaican-Canadian photographer from Victoria, British Columbia, he figured he’d harness the racism he’s experienced as a person of colour in Canada and put it on full display. So began his latest creative work, Profiling Black Excellence, a photo project exploring the experiences of racial profiling felt by people of colour in Victoria and Vancouver.
“I’ve had one gentleman refer to me as a ‘thing’ to somebody else right in front of me, as if I wasn’t standing there. I’ve had people touching my hair without asking, people saying the n-word around me,” says the 27-year-old. “In a lot of cases, whenever you have folks sharing these experiences — people of colour sharing these experiences — very frequently, they’re met with, ‘Well, I’m sure that this was just an isolated incident; it was a one-time thing,’ or ‘Are you really sure that it was about race?’ But as a person of colour, when it is about race, you can tell.”
For Smith, the idea for the photo project came from an incident in late December of 2017, when he was walking home from a night out with friends.
“I’ve had one gentleman refer to me as a ‘thing’ to somebody else right in front of me, as if I wasn’t standing there. I’ve had people touching my hair without asking, people saying the n-word around me.” – Nathan Smith
“There was a couple in front of me, and they had actually stepped off from the side road and went into my pathway,” he says. “For the entire time that I was behind them, they would continuously turn around and look at me, and then walk faster — to the point where they ended up jaywalking across two main streets in downtown Victoria.”
Unnerved by the incident, he went home and set up his camera for a series of self-portraits — “to kinda just show myself that I’m not a scary person; I’m not anyone to be afraid of,” he says. Smith planned to share the photos on Instagram, but paused for a moment when a thought came: “I wonder how many other people that has happened to.”
Smith made a habit of asking other people of colour when he ran into them on the street: had they experienced the same things before? It didn’t take long for an answer. The first time, it was when a fellow young man named Parker stopped to pet his dogs outside.
“His response was, ‘My man, of course.’ And that’s kind of how it started,” says Smith.
A landscape photographer by nature, he began taking portraits of the people he met, selecting quotes from their conversations to share online.
“The main thing I was trying to do was just relay that the people in the project are real people, and they’re regular people,” he says. “They have feelings, they have emotions, and they just want to live.”
For Smith, the portraits provided the perfect medium: a way to tap into his subjects’ humanity and put their stories into the spotlight.
“The main thing I was trying to do was just relay that the people in the project are real people, and they’re regular people. They have feelings, they have emotions, and they just want to live.” – Nathan Smith
“It’s very hard to distance yourself from it when you’re looking at them,” he says.
Eventually, Smith started approaching galleries in Victoria about putting together an exhibition. The first few didn’t respond, but before long, he met Alison Trembath at the Fortune Gallery.
“I said, ‘What about February for Black History Month?’ And she was like, ‘You know what? I love it. Let’s do it.’ So we booked it right then and there,” Smith recalls.
The gallery exhibition has come to a close, but Smith is determined to keep the project going online — and perhaps pursue another gallery space in the next year:
“As long as there is racism in Canada, I want this project to keep going.”