Code Switch
1:46 pm
Wed April 16, 2014

Light And Dark: The Racial Biases That Remain In Photography

Originally published on Wed April 16, 2014 3:42 pm

When Syreeta McFadden was a child, she dreaded taking pictures after a family photo made her skin appear dulled and darkened.

"In some pictures, I am a mud brown, in others I'm a blue black. Some of the pictures were taken within moments of one another," she wrote in a story for Buzzfeed, digging into an "inherited bias" in photography against dark skin.

She tells Tell Me More's Celeste Headlee that certain cameras and photographers who are unfamiliar with different shades of skin often distort the images and color of black and brown people.

McFadden is now a photographer herself. Though technology has improved and allowed her to capture the many hues of brown skin, she says photography still has a long way to go.


Interview Highlights

On why technology doesn't capture brown skin well and didn't especially in the past

A lot of [the design of film and motion technology] was conceived with the idea of the best representation of white people. And I don't mean to say that it was a deliberate and exclusionary practice, but [it was] much more of a willful obliviousness, if you will. So color film in its early stages pretty much developed around trying to measure the image against white skin. ...

Kodak Eastman had a model on staff named Shirley, [whom] they used as a human face to meter the printed color stock. So she's a pale, white-skinned woman [with] dark hair, that's set against a rather banal background to try and see how white skin fared in a high-contrast light situation. So the Shirley cards became a rubric to set up or establish what would be a much more perfected color image.

On push-back from black photographers

It wasn't so much that Kodak didn't encounter a groundswell of resistance from the African-American community. I think a lot of folks just thought that, perhaps, the color film, they're not very good photographers. That's probably why the color isn't reading our skin tones in varied lighting situations correctly. ...

[Photographer Jean Luc Godard] was commissioned to [do a short film] for the Mozambique government, and what was fascinating about Godard's position is that he felt that the film was inherently racist and said so. His experience with the film stock — and Kodak film stock was more than what we just put inside our cameras — it's also the film stock that was likely used in motion picture making. So for him to recognize that there's a lack of variety and nuance or complexity in dark brown or dark skin images is very telling.

On the current discussion around photography and skin color

One of the things I definitely uncovered is that there's been a lack of a conversation — a frank conversation — about taking pictures of darker skinned peoples in mixed company. Pairing dark brown, dark black faces along with pale, light-skinned faces. While we're aware of it because we're all photographers now and to a certain extent we're becoming a little bit more versed in terms of how different lighting adjustments affect skin tones and how that looks against each other because of the variety of technology that we have available to us. I'd also say that darker skin people, we're going to be vigilant and sensitive to whether or not there is a lightening that happens when certain celebrities, say a Beyonce or a Lupita, appear on fashion covers. ...

I'm talking much more specifically about studio lighting and what the light design is.

On why it's important to care about photography and skin color

I think it matters because we're talking about a saturation of images of darker skinned people that somehow we've accepted in our popular culture that kind of diminishes our humanity, and we're in an era where we're seeing a wider representation of black and brown life, particularly in American life.

We've seen so many images of black bodies denigrated, or rendered as criminals, or rendered in a way that doesn't necessarily reflect a kind of normalcy. We see in stock images, whether it's in commercial advertising or on television, we just see images of a normalcy of living and existing that seems to center around whiteness and shows the full variety and humanity of white folks, or of lighter skinned people.

And to have to always account for my humanity in situations where people would deal with me one-on-one, but the images they were exposed to said something very different about the kind of community and people I come from, it matters.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

And now we turn to a different form of 'othering' that one writer says is apparent in many of the pictures we see. When Syreeta McFadden was a child, she dreaded taking pictures after a family photo made her skin appear dulled and darkened. McFadden wrote about this and the racial bias in photography for BuzzFeed.

And she says certain cameras and photographers who are unfamiliar with different shades of skin often distort the images and the colors of black and brown people. Now she's a photographer herself, and the technology has improved and allowed her to capture the many hues of brown skin. She also says photography still has a long way to go. Syreeta McFadden joins us now. Welcome.

SYREETA MCFADDEN: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Let's go back, just like your piece does, and talk about how we got to this situation. And explain to me, when film was first being developed, how it sort of favored Caucasian skin.

MCFADDEN: In the design of film and motion technology, a lot of this was conceived with the idea of the best representation of white people. And I don't mean to say that it was a deliberate and exclusionary practice but much more of a willful obliviousness, if you will. So color film in its early, early stages pretty much developed around trying to measure the image against white skin.

HEADLEE: And in fact, the color card that was often used to test lighting, to test film was the Shirley card. Tell me what a Shirley card was.

MCFADDEN: So Kodak Eastman had a model on staff named Shirley for which they used as the human face to meter the printed color stock. She is a pale, white-skinned woman, dark hair that's set against a rather banal background to try and see how white skin fared in a high-contrast light situation. So the Shirley cards became a rubric to set up or establish what would be a much more perfected color image.

HEADLEE: And in fact, Kodak didn't develop a multiracial card until 1995.

MCFADDEN: Yes, that is correct. It wasn't so much that they didn't - Kodak didn't encounter a groundswell of resistance from the African-American community. I think a lot of folks just thought that, perhaps, the color film was just - you know, they're not very good photographers, so that's probably why the color isn't reading our skin tones in varied lighting situations correctly.

HEADLEE: Lest anyone think that we're picking on Kodak, you point out that Jean Luc Godard, for example, refused to use Kodak.

MCFADDEN: He was very vocal. He was commissioned to film for the Mozambique government. He was commissioned to do a short film. And what was fascinating about Godard's position is that he felt that the film was inherently racist and said so.

His experience with the film stock - and Kodak film stock was more than just this - like, what we put inside our cameras is also the film stock that was likely used in motion picture making. So for him to recognize that there is a lack of variety and nuance or complexity in dark brown or dark skin images is very telling.

HEADLEE: But our technology has improved, and oftentimes we're just not using physical film canisters anymore, right? How does this play into our current discussions about filming and taking pictures of black skin and some of these arguments we've had over, I guess especially fashion magazines, of whether or not they're lightening Beyonce's skin color, right? They have these arguments all the time.

MCFADDEN: We do. One of the things I definitely uncovered is that there's been a lack of a conversation - a frank conversation - about taking pictures of darker-skinned peoples in mixed company.

HEADLEE: You mean pairing a - black faces with whites.

MCFADDEN: Yeah, pairing a dark brown - dark, like, and black faces along with, you know, pale, white, light-skinned faces. While we're aware of it because we're all photographers now, and to a certain extent we're becoming a little bit more versed in terms of how different lighting adjustments affect skin tones and how that looks against each other because of the variety of technology we have a available to us, I'd also say that darker-skinned people, we're going to be vigilant and sensitive to whether or not there is a lightening that happens when certain celebrities - say, a Beyonce or a Lupita - appear on fashion covers.

HEADLEE: I want to be clear, we're not talking about lighten as with Photoshop. We're talking about actually put lights on the face.

MCFADDEN: Yeah, I'm talking much more specifically about studio lighting and what the light design is.

HEADLEE: You know, the real question is why this all matters, other than obviously doing the best job as a professional photographer. Most of us aren't professional photographers. And I think perhaps the most moving part of your piece was you talking about your early experiences, seeing photos of yourself as a child and what effect it had on you to see yourself in these pictures as dark, where you could barely make out your features. Why does it matter how well we - I mean, there's white people who, when they're photographed, get completely washed out, right? Why does it matter?

MCFADDEN: I think it matters because we're talking about a saturation of images of darker-skinned people that somehow we've accepted in our popular culture that kind of diminishes our humanity. And, you know, we're in an era where we're seeing a wider representation of black and brown life, particularly in American life.

We've seen so many images of black bodies denigrated or rendered as criminals or are rendered in a way that doesn't necessarily reflect a kind of normalcy. We see in stock images, whether it's in commercial advertising or on television, we just see images of a normalcy of living and existing that seems to center around whiteness and shows the full variety and humanity of, you know, of white folks, of lighter-skinned people.

And to have to always account for my humanity in situations where people would deal with me one-on-one, but the images they were exposed to said something very different about the kind of community and people I come from, it matters.

HEADLEE: Syreeta McFadden is a writer, photographer and regular contributor to "Feministing." She joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much.

MCFADDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.