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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View: The bias of my camera

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

I started snapping photos pretty much as soon as I arrived in Sierra Leone, and I haven’t stopped. Every day, I see something fascinating or beautiful to turn my camera on. Looking back at my pictures, I’m happy to see how my camera captures the gleam of an orange sunset, the multicolored cityscape of Freetown or the dark green hills above the city. But flipping through the pictures on my camera, I’m usually disappointed whenever I come to one with people in it.
Even when the shot looks fine, people’s faces are too much in shadow. This is especially true with photos taken indoors or in low-light settings. When I run the pictures through Photoshop to adjust the exposure and shadows, they end up looking marginally better — but still more like a patch-up job on a fundamentally bad photo than a decent photo that’s been lightly cleaned-up. Sometimes Photoshop forces me into a Faustian bargain: remove the dark shadows from people’s faces, and the rest of the picture suddenly looks like it was shot in a studio bathed in blinding fluorescent lights. Making people’s faces look normal can make the whole thing so weirdly lit that it looks fake and, well, Photoshopped, but the wrong kind of Photoshopped.
When I first grappled with this problem, I thought my photography skills had taken a downward turn or maybe that I was actually totally incompetent as a photographer. It’s very possible that both these things are still true, but I don’t think they’re entirely to blame here. No, I think part of the problem is that my camera doesn’t know how to photograph people with dark skin.
After the fifth disappointing photo and frustrating Photoshop session, I remembered a headline I saw about the ways photography is biased against dark skin. Indeed, after digging around a bit online, I learned that photography is indeed racist, in the sense that it was designed to work best with white skin.
According to an article in Priceonomics, in the early days of photography, when people manually developed rolls of films, technicians would calibrate the color balance of photos based on images of white, European American models. These models were used as the default template, such that images were “properly” exposed if the models in them looked normal.
When digital photography emerged, and made the physical rolls of film obsolete, the same limitations, for the most part, were transposed onto the new medium. Now when cameras are turned on darker-skinned people, they fail to capture what they really look like. Shadows can obscure people’s features, and the color balance is off.
In an essay in BuzzFeed titled “Teaching the camera to see my skin,” African American writer Syreeta McFadden describes the alienation she felt growing up when photos failed to capture her as she really was.
“The inconsistencies were so glaring that for a while, I thought it was impossible to get a decent picture of me that captured my likeness. I began to retreat from situations involving group photos.”
The inventors of photography may not have had a malicious intent when they excluded people of color from their technology, but it hardly matters. They simply didn’t consider that millions of people around the world have darker skin. “If you’re modeling light settings and defining the meter readings about a balanced image against white skin, the contours and shape of a white face, you’ve immediately erased 70% of the world’s population,” McFadden notes.
She also points out that there’s no reason photography had to be this way. It’s not an unfortunate side effect of a revolutionary technology. Photography could have been designed to capture the full spectrum of humanity. It just wasn’t.
Nowadays many digital cameras are designed to do a better job of capturing darker skin, and overall things are better than in the early days. But as I’ve been discovering, it’s still harder to photograph dark skin than light skin. Sure, if I was more technically skilled, I would be able to take better pictures of people here. I can’t blame the camera for everything.
But when I read about techniques for photographing darker skin, I have to admit that I couldn’t make much sense of them. It was very technical and advanced.
I could take the time to master these techniques. But it seems fundamentally wrong that while it’s easy to snap a normal-looking photo of a white face, taking good photos of dark skinned people requires advanced photography skills. Most of the people in the world, and probably most camera users, are not white. Maybe now is the time to make cameras less racist.
Wednesday August 24, 2016

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