What I'm Reading: The Racial Bias Built Into Photography

Fact: Racial biases exist within __________. (chose a noun)

This article opened my eyes to one word I hoped I'd never see used to complete the above sentence: photography.

In the words of Sara Lewis (author of the article), "Photography is not just a system of calibrating light, but a technology of subjective decisions."

In order to highlight this point, she sheds light on Shirley cards. For those not in the know, Shirley cards were used by lab technicians to maintain the calibration of their colors...a quality control of sorts. The mission? Calibrate your printers until Shirley looked good.

But who was Shirley? Well, a white woman of course. A white woman oozing 70s vibes...light brown hair, pearl necklace, and white dress to match. The problem of course being the light balance for Shirley to look good was no indication that her Black, Asian, or Latina counterparts would also look good. It wasn't until the 90s however that a multiracial Shirley card was released (see below).

Well good on you Kodak. You listened to the feedback of your multiracial audience and made a change. Kudos. Right?


The catalyst for this change wasn't the complaints of Black, Latino, or Asian consumers, it was the complaints from corporate furniture and chocolate manufacturers. Heaven forbid the chocolate companies "weren’t getting the right brown tones on the chocolates" or furniture companies "were not getting enough variation between the different color woods in their advertisements."

The article goes on to discuss how Kodak danced their way around the complexion issue and eventually released a film (Kodak Gold Max) which was “able to photograph the details of a dark horse in lowlight.”

Eventually, the frequency and intensity of head shaking associated with my continuing to read this saga became too much. Nonetheless, I feel more informed and aware of an issue which plagued my more melanin-blessed brothers and sisters. Here's to hoping we've learned our lesson and become more inclusive of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, etc. as we develop new technologies.

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