Representation Matters:

How often have you looked at old photographs of your family or yourself as a child and immediately thought, “but I am not that dark!” You then blame the equipment and dismiss it. Although having a darker skin colour never mattered and you celebrate it and are proud, the photograph doesn’t look like you. Think about how often you have been told that you “look different from your photo’s.”

Here’s why:

It can be hard to technically light brown skin against light colours.

Photography is not just a system of calibrating light, but a technology of subjective decisions. Light skin became the chemical baseline for film technology, fulfilling the needs of its “target dominant” market. For example, developing colour-film technology initially required what was called a Shirley card.

Years ago, when you sent off your film to get developed, lab technicians would use the image of a white woman with brown hair named Shirley as the measuring stick against which they calibrated the colours. Quality control meant ensuring that Shirley’s face looked good. It has translated into the colour-balancing of digital technology.

In the mid-1990s, Kodak created a multiracial Shirley Card with three women, one black, one white, and one Asian, and later included a Latina model, in an attempt intended to help camera operators calibrate skin tones. These were not adopted by everyone since they coincided with the rise of digital photography. The result was filmed emulsion technology that still carried over the social bias of earlier photographic conventions.

Concordia University Professor Lorna Roth’s research has shown that it took complaints from corporate furniture and chocolate manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s for Kodak to start to fix colour photography’s bias.

Earl Kage, Kodak’s former manager of research and the head of Color Photo Studios, received complaints during this time from chocolate companies saying that they “weren’t getting the right brown tones on the chocolates” in the photographs. Furniture companies also were not getting enough variation between the different colour woods in their advertisements.

Concordia University Professor Roth’s research shows that Kage had also received complaints before from parents about the quality of graduation photographs. The colour contrast made it nearly impossible to capture a diverse group — but it was the chocolate and furniture companies that forced Kodak’s hand. 

Kage admitted, “It was never black flesh that was addressed as a serious problem at the time.”

Fuji became the film of choice for professional photographers shooting subjects with darker tones. The company developed a colour transparency film that was superior to Kodak for handling brown skin.

Digital photography has led to some advancements- there are now dual skin-tone colour-balancing capabilities and also an image-stabilization feature — eliminating the natural shaking that occurs when we hold the camera by hand and reducing the need for a flash. 

Yet, this solution creates other problems. If the light source is artificial, digital technology will still struggle with darker skin. It is a merry-go-round of problems’ leading to solutions leading to problems.

Researchers such as Joy Buolamwini of the MIT Media Lab have been advocating to correct the algorithmic bias that exists in digital imaging technology. You see it whenever dark skin is invisible to facial recognition software.

Yet, algorithmic bias is the end stage of a longstanding problem.

What is preventing us from correcting the inherited bias in camera and film technology?

Is there not a fortune to gain by the technology giant that is first to market?

In the meantime, artists themselves are creating technology for more just representation. We are hearing more about issues with race and technology as we consider the importance of inclusive representation with the success of films from “Black Panther” (2018) to “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018).

People like Frederick Douglass, who was known as the most photographed man in the 19th century, understood the importance of proper representation.

Representation affects the way people see you and the way they respond to you. If you look like a mass murderer in a suit when you’re applying for a position as an accountant, you’re judged on how you look among other candidates before you might make the shortlist for interviews. Your identity document needs to accurately represent who you are when you are required to produce it for purposes of verification.

When it is said that racism is in the very fabric of our society, we need to understand just how interwoven it is and often how seemingly “innocent” it seems too.

The need to change the way things are in society affects black and brown people more than overt or individual racism.

Changing the lens in every area of society and accurate representation will be the result.

(Some excerpt from an article in the New York Times by Sarah Lewis, an assistant professor at Harvard University in the department of history of art and architecture and the department of African and African-American studies)