The Racist Camera

How is the camera racist? This is the broad question that I hope to research for my final project. By exploring the roots of this modern technology I hope to uncover the white supremacist ideals upon which it was founded and expose (no pun intended) the flaws in modern film production and media representation of minority groups.

There is an inherent bias towards white skin in photography. That is how film works. You choose a subject, expose for that light, and then adjust the camera’s shutter speed and aperture to best capture that subject in the current lighting situations. But what happens when you have the camera doing this automatically? Or when you have two subjects with varying skin tones?


Often times it is the light skin that gets exposed for and everything darker falls out of the frame of reference. This is because when color film was first being developed the researchers needed a standard for skin tone. They chose this fancy white lady in a white dress. Today her skin color reference cards are known as “Shirley cards”.


Syreeta McFadden writes that “The image is used as a metric for skin-color balance, which technicians use to render an image as close as possible to what the human eye recognizes as normal. But there’s the rub: With a white body as a light meter, all other skin tones become deviations from the norm.” The problem here isn’t the face value science of the camera or the light meter per se; both are programmed to work in certain light situations and expose for the correct amount of light. Certain tones of skin are naturally going to reflect more light than others and thus need different exposures just as a white or black chair would need different settings. The problem is though when standards and “normal” settings are set with the lightest white skin tone as the basis. It comes from those who were in charge of the camera industry when film and devices were being developed (cough cough…white males) and how this technology was decided to be used.

The legacies of white supremacy in these early decisions are still seen today. They are seen in the lightning of celebrities’ skin tones on magazine covers, in the way filming direction needs to be thought out when filming a cast with darker skin, and overall how the representation of skin color plays out in the public eye.


I expect to use some limited resources I have already found, such as articles online and in journals, as well as resources here at Harvard that might have old cameras, or old instructions for using cameras or advertisements for photography. As Lorna Roth, wrote, the techniques behind the development of color film, “could have been designed initially with more sensitivity to the continuum of yellow, brown and reddish skin tones but the design process would have to be motivated by a recognition of the need for extended range” (Roth), but back then the entire market consisted of white consumers. There are tons of old archived magazines and newspapers in the library system that I can look into to find more evidence of this. There are also archives of actual old photographs that I can use and maybe get some first hand accounts. I envision this project taking the form of a visual website that will combine text describing what I find as well as a highly visually based component since the controversy around the camera is visually based. An aesthetic like those on is something I am envisioning. At this point I only see it being text and image based, but perhaps if I start to find certain statistics that are relevant to track along the way, I can include graphs or time lines that portray particularly jarring facts. This project is simply seeking to shed light (or darkness) on an issue that most people don’t even realize is a problem. Photographs saturate our lives and we are such a visually based society. It is time that we know the history behind the devices we use.


Hornaday, Ann. “‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Mother of George,’ and the Aesthetic Politics of Filming Black Skin.” The Washington Post 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

Inside Amy Schumer – Interracial Wedding Photographer. N.p., 2014. Film.

Johannesburg, David Smith in. “‘Racism’ of Early Colour Photography Explored in Art Exhibition.” the Guardian. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

Keilla. “Fashionably Informed: “White-Washing” & Skin Lightening.”College Fashion. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

Roth, Lorna. “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity.” Canadian Journal of Communication 34.1 (2009): n. pag. Web.

“Shirley Cards.” the colour balance project (BETA). N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

“Teaching The Camera To See My Skin.” BuzzFeed. 12 Apr. 2014 Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

“The Hardest Part of Being in a Biracial Relationship Is Taking a Picture Together.” Imgur. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

“The Truth About Photography and Brown Skin.” Jezebel. 3 Apr. 2014 Web. 19 Oct. 2014.


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