Photography by @cjw.photo via Instagram
Cameron Wilson, the man behind the black digital model Shudu, has now begun a digital modelling agency. The Diigitals, feels like the latest concept developed to speed up the erasure of black women in the modelling industry.
Wilson designed model Shudu, the dark-skinned model who, at first, resembles a real life human but is in fact a digital model derived from his inspiration. When Shudu first gained popularity, I myself reposted the image in admiration not knowing this was a so-called project. As part of his marketing strategy, Wilson caught the attention of Rihanna’s Fenty team, leading to them reposting the image of Shudu wearing Fenty Beauty products.
His first creation is said to be inspired by a South African Princess Barbie along with Lupita, Duckie Thot, Nykhor and Alek Wek. Wilson, bold enough to call Alek Wek a “throwback”, is not the first to create a digital person, although he is the first to give a digital person the title of “model”. The fact that a virtual dark-skinned black model became viral is very telling about the society we live in.
Wilson’s actions highlight a new and evolved form of systematic racism. I am not shocked that he is being backed by a variety of white-owned platforms; it’s no secret that there are very few signed black models, hence the need for agencies such as Nii agency. Statistically 72.1% of models on the runway were white. And as for print and editorial models, these numbers tend to increase drastically.
If we were to dig deeper, the women of colour who are hired tend to be of a lighter skin tone. When you take all of this into account and have another look at Shudu, Wilson’s “creation” feels like a form of erasure. Regardless of how successful black models become, unless they’re promoting black-owned businesses, black models are often relegated to token status.
In an interview with Highsnobiety, Cameron Wilson claimed: “The comments that have been most critical of what I’m doing have been from white women…I had dark skinned girls and women message me to say that they absolutely love the art that I’m doing.” But Cameron has been called out by many black women too, so his claim that the most critical comments have come from white women is redundant. Cameron continued: “This is not trying to take away from anyone but it is trying to add to the standard of beauty that’s being shifted to something much more inclusive.”
So here is the tea… This is not the first time I have called Wilson out. As someone who has modelled long enough to understand the repercussions of this viral movement, I am still astounded by this venture, orchestrated by a white male photographer.
In 2017 I personally drew attention to Shudu when realising she was not real; I called it out as erasure of real black models. Low and behold, the same person claiming I was being assumptious by calling him out for profiting off black bodies has now opened a digital agency.
Photograph of “newly-signed” virtual model, Brenn:
The digital agency currently has two models on board, alongside an alien. In all honesty, Shudu could be my auntie Maria’s twin. Aunty Maria resides in Nigeria, she is a real life person, and she could have benefited from the jobs Wilson, and by extension, Shudu, is benefiting from and provide for her family. This is also true when you consider all the hardworking unsigned plus-sized black models that Wilson now depicts through Brenn.
If he wanted to help change the standards of beauty he should photograph the black women who inspire him instead of creating digital versions of them, which in turn erases the same women he claims to adore.
Cameron estimates that a single image takes about three full days of work – and that’s not including the weeks of planning. Is this not what you would call an obsession? Companies and online platforms approve of this, because, if we are honest, the black woman is the most hated and disrespected by western society. Yet, in the words of Maya Angelou, “still we rise”.
When I first saw the arrival of The Diigitals, I called Wilson out again on social media. Feverently pointing out obvious erasure, I closed the argument stating we need more black women in tech. Wilson direct messaged me stating “this project is something I’m doing for fun … I also agree that we need more POC [people of colour] in 3D tech, and if you know anyone who doesn’t know how to get started but wants to, let me know”. He patronisingly ended with “I will point them in the right direction for sure”.
I did a poll on instagram: over 200 people took part and a whooping 88% agreed that The Diigitals was erasure. A few have claimed he has a pass because he has worked with black models, but I still feel that this does not make his decisions any better. The fact that he would call his actions “inclusive” is contradictory.
Despite Wilson’s love for technology, he neither has the skills or software to make the 3D version of my aunty Maria, so he uses a tech agency to help him with this project. But just because they are a diverse company does not make his actions okay. With him being a white man and also financially stable, he is privileged enough to outsource external help to fuel the obsession. While he could use his privilege to change the real life of my aunty Maria, he would not have the same amount of control, and maybe that is an issue:
“I’ve had companies approach me, if what they want doesn’t reflect in what I see for her then it’s a no go”, Wilson said to High Snobiety in March.
White men profiting from black skin is nothing new. We have seen this abuse take place in colonisation, from birthing farms and Medical Aparthied, to using black bodies as scientific Guinea pigs – specifically the exploitation of Nigerians for Meningitis trials and other developing countries. We’ve also seen it as part of the LA drug scandal exposed by Gary Web, to the HeLa cell strain – developed from Henrietta Lacks’ cell tissue – being used to cure the entire world, but not allowing her family to receive financial compensation.
This is not an opportunity, this is not a show of appreciation, this is new age fetishisation.