Their exhibit, “To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light” (a line taken from a Kodak statement touting the ability of Kodak film to depict dark skin accurately), aims to explore “the radical notion that prejudice might be inherent in the medium of photography itself.” Here the artists echo an assertion made by photographer Jean- Luc Godard who, in 1977, was invited on an assignment to Mozambique but refused to use Kodak film, saying that it was inherently “racist.” According to Broomberg, the light range was so narrow 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.”26 You might be thinking, surely this is no longer an issue.
“To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light,” Broomberg and Chanarin.
In 2009, Hewlett Packard’s MediaSmart webcam demonstrated how the camera would pan to follow a White face but would stop when individuals with dark skin entered the frame.27 The issue, according to HP, was that “the software has difficulty recognizing facial features in lower light levels.”28 What are we to make of such enduring invisibility? That new tools are coded in old biases is surprising only if we equate technological innovation with social progress. The popular trope that technology is always one step ahead of society is not only misleading but incorrect, when viewed through the lens of enduring invisibility.
Just as Polaroid, Kodak, and others attempted to design differently so that their cameras could vividly represent a broader spectrum of skin tones, so too companies that manufacture digital cameras today are working to address bias in the design and marketing of their products. In developing smartphones for sub-Saharan Africa, China’s Tecno Mobile made it a point to emphasize the quality of images for Black customers:
In one such ad, a wide screen smartphone is shown on a black page with the image of a black woman showing on the screen. The words “capture the beauty of darkness” are written in bold beneath the image, followed by the line “The phone is powered for low-light shooting.” The ad labels the phone, “Camon C8,” as a solution for a commonly held frustration with mobile phone cameras that render poor quality photos of dark-skinned subjects in low-light settings.
In the United States, the default settings of photo technologies, both past and present, tend to cater to lighter-skinned subjects. This is not simply a benign reflection of designers’ or technicians’ unexamined biases, nor is it an inevitable result of technological development, as China’s Tecno Mobile demonstrates. In the next section we observe how visual technologies expose Whiteness and regularly reinforce racist visions, although the way such images circulate and gain meaning is not always a direct reflection of their initial settings.
Exposing Difference In her study of colonial-era photography, visual anthropologist Deborah Poole argues that we must not assume a singular interpretation of the relationship between images and society, one that looks for an all-encompassing “gaze” to exercise domination and control. Rather it is important to investigate the social nature of vision, because, once “unleashed in society, an image can acquire myriad interpretations or meanings according to the different codes and referents brought to it by its diverse viewers.”30 In examining the complex coding of racial desire and derision, Poole’s insights remind us that domination and surveillance typically go hand in hand with “the pleasure of looking.” The seeming adoration poured on racialized others via visual technologies, however, does not in itself signal a decline in racism and domination.