Tech & Ethics: Exclusion in Photos and Media

Tech & Ethics: Exclusion in Photos and Media

*By Anne Chang*

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When discussing the ethical impacts of technology, skepticism is no stranger. After all, what is the practical effect of musing about ethics when dealing with innovation and technology? Why spend money, time, and energy pondering about ethical impacts when we can be out there innovating and changing the world?

In short, because ethics matter. Ethics in technology can impact society in ways that we can barely imagine. A decided answer can easily become an undecided opinion. But all is good: certainty is, after all, a bias.

As an exercise, imagine the practical impact of excluding certain people in media — magazines, movies, videos, you name it. For this exercise, consider that we excluded these people technically and operationally by developing a technology that does not work properly for them. A technology that they can buy and that they can use, but that will not work adequately because of some immutable, non-voluntary criteria, like the color of one’s skin.

In other words: let’s think a bit about how the photographic industry excluded people of color from being a part of color pictures for decades — and, therefore, from being represented by media. But before we talk about ethics, let’s face the skepticism head-on: is this exclusion financially sound?

The exclusion seemed to be a business decision at first: western manufacturers (especially Kodak) had identified their public as Caucasians. Following a similar market-centered logic, Asian manufacturers aimed for the Asian clientele, making their technology efficient for local skin tones. It was an entirely practical, financial, client-centered decision. Social and cultural matters just were not mixed with business, and the film industry was not an industry that could easily have newcomers.

Using the Shirley cards as color references, manufacturers developed specific film emulsions for that public. The American National Standards Institute described film emulsions as dispersions of light-sensitivity materials “carried as thin layer(s) in a film base”. Essentially, this meant that, by default, all films developed using Caucasian models. Camera films were, therefore, purposely more sensible to lighter skin tones and less sensible to darker skin tones.

No harm seems to be ever meant, but harm was certainly done. Black people could not be properly photographed because of a technical limitation created during the camera film’s manufacturing process. When pictures were developed, black people would not appear distinguishable in certain cases.

The first reports describe how these films reduces black children to undistinguishable shadows in school pictures. Photographer Adam Broomberg, who held an exhibition in 2013 on the subject of race bias in early color photography together with Oliver Chanarin, explains that:

“if you exposed film for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would be rendered invisible except for the whites of his eyes and teeth”.

Fortunately, there were local hacks: Afro-American photographers, for example, had their specific techniques that allowed the film emulsion to perform more efficiently with darker skin tones. Fuji, a Japan-based filmmaker, had better results for brown tones, and its films could be imported. Further, it was not a market that a manufacturer could easily enter and cater for underrepresented minorities.

The change came, but from an unexpected source: the advertisement industry noticed that print ads did not adequately portray certain goods. After all, film emulsions did not work as well with yellow, black, and brown tones, which made chocolate and furniture ads less appealing. Dark, semi-sweet, and milk chocolates appeared the same color, with no contrast among them.

In response, Kodak developed Gold Max (VR-G) in 1986, a line of film that could “photograph the details of a dark horse in low light”. Photographers Broomberg and Chanarin note that “the radical notion that prejudice might be inherent in the medium of photography itself”. Further, they explain that in 1977 when Jean-Luc Godard was invited on an assignment to Mozambique, he refused to use Kodak films because Kodak was inherently racist.

Digital photography was a game-changer in the photographic industry, so the film emulsion discussion is (maybe) no longer current. However, in similar industries, non-Caucasian people (hence, people of color in general) continue to be excluded and harmed as a direct result of how a product or technology is developed.

The film industry is not so different. When attending Howard University, assistant professor in film Montré Aza Missouri recalls being told by one of her instructors that:

“If you found yourself in the ‘unfortunate situation’ of shooting on the ‘Dark Continent,’ and if you’re shooting dark-skinned people, then you should rub Vaseline on their skin in order to reflect light”.

Ava Berkofsky, director of photography of the HBO series Insecure, told Mic that she simply was not taught how to light nonwhite people in film school. Steve McQueen, director of “12 Years a Slave” recalls that lighting black people in movies could be almost amateur in the past:

“I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.”

However, oversimplifying the matter — instead of addressing the technology — is not in the past. As Missouri summarizes the matter, “it was never an issue of questioning the technology” because “the tools used to make film, the science of it, are not racially neutral”.

Even today, the industry still relies on hacks and empirical techniques by nonwhite professionals. Missouri teaches that, instead of using Vaseline, professionals have to manage the built-in bias of the technology. In addition to importing non-American film stocks, which are more sensitive to darker tones, Missouri advises opening the cameras’ aperture one or more stops to allow more light through the lens.

The hurdle that people of color have to face in these examples is obvious and, honestly, downplayed only by those who never had to rely on inefficient instruments to do their job properly. As award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay explains, the industry often does not realize that black actors require specific adjustments to be adequately portrayed in a film. For example, Kodak started to deal with color balance issues at a professional level only in the ’90s for Oprah’s daytime talk show.

Excluding people of color from industries that provide mass-media representation is, unfortunately, not illegal (although possibly naïve). In photography, it was a consequence of a business decision: catering to a specific clientele identified as relevant back then.

Some of our readers are probably wondering whether this discussion is relevant and whether catering to people of color is financially wise. Well, not everything is about money. We do not worry about accessibility — whether ramps, sign language, or image descriptions — only because there is a market need. But we will entertain these readers in our next post, where we discuss the financials of exclusion of nonwhite people in a specific case.

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Author’s note: Feedback and comments are all welcome, but there are two notes I would like to make clear before receiving comments:

All references to color of skin were based on the original sources, as linked in the text. However, even though there was little data on the exclusion of other non-Caucasian ethnicities, the higher sensitivity to lighter skin tones imply that the exclusion was of all people of color, although black people were unfortunately harmed most. Although most data refer to the US market, there is significant data on how Polaroid purposely adjusted its flash to photograph black people in Africa, which suggests that black people in general — and not only Afro-Americans — were generally excluded in camera films.

Also, the reference to hacks by “Afro-American photographers” were kept as in the original source and not generalized to “black photographers” because the practices were identified in a specific community.