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light, refracted

sibilant

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I hate taking selfies. Actually, I hate having my picture taken in general.

Scrolling through my phone, I can count on one hand the number of pictures that I have of myself--even fewer that were actually taken this year. On the other hand, my phone is full of pictures of my friends. I love taking pictures of them--they shine so brightly and I just want to preserve that ephemeral brightness, or even just a glimmer of it.

I think, recently, I've realized that the reason why I hate taking pictures of myself/having my picture taken is because the camera can't capture my brightness.

And I mean that in a very literal sense.

I remember, distinctly, a moment from the previous year. My friends and I put on a movie night in one of our rooms; we turned off all the lights, watched four Disney movies in a row, singing along loudly and rambunctiously and very off-key. I felt so happy in that moment--with a face-hurting kind of smile. One of my friends suggested that we take a picture to commemorate the moment, because we hardly ever take pictures together. When she took a selfie of us, my face disappeared into the background. My friends, with their pale and fair and lovely skin, shined even brighter. 

To her credit, my friend was determined. She turned on flash, suffered basically being blinded. None of us looked good with flash, but me especially...the flash highlighted all the olive undertones in my skin, making me look like a mottled mess of browns and greens.

As an engineer, my natural instinct was to dive into the technical background of why the camera didn't see me. In my research, I found that--as tends to be the case with a lot of technology--there was nothing that made it technically impossible for the camera to capture my brightness in the same way that it captures my friends' brightness. Instead, the camera is only one example of designed exclusivity.

I learned that digital cameras are actually calibrated towards light spots/lightness. The light sensors in digital cameras search for something lightly colored/light skin before releasing the shutter. If there are no light spots, the shutter never releases. As though there's nothing to take a picture of. And I fade into the background. [1]

I dove in deeper, and learned that the first color film stock that accommodated dark tones was created by Kodak due to pressure from chocolate and wood furniture companies, since Kodak's original film stock couldn't properly capture the brown tones of their products. Kodak advertised this film as being able to "photograph the details of a dark horse in low light." [1] The ability to take better pictures of darker-skinned people came as an unintended consequence; Earl Kage, the manager of Kodak Research Studios at the time, said himself, "it is fascinating that this has never been said before, because it was never Black flesh that was addressed as a serious problem that I knew of at the time." [2]

Kage's words struck a chord in me. Color film stock could have been created initially with better handling of reds/browns/darker tones--but the thought never occurred to the scientists, because they had a very specific set of people in mind when they thought of who would be photographed. This form of bias and hate feels almost infinitely more painful than a directed and intentional exclusion, because it reflects a deep-rooted paradigm about who gets to be photographed, who gets to be seen, who gets to be a holder of knowledge.

The entire idea that Kodak's film stock was optimized for horses and furniture and chocolate before people is further evidence of the dehumanization of people of color. When I learned this, I was immediately reminded of an encounter I had when I first immigrated to the United States. I was seven years old, bright-eyed and fresh-faced and nervously eager to make new friends in a country I'd only ever heard stories about. I went to the playground. 

When one of the white boys saw me, the first thing he said was, "You look like a gorilla." 

I don't think that that boy meant any harm; I honestly believe that he'd simply never seen a non-white person and was genuinely confused, and drew the first association he could, as children are wont to do. That comment was entirely insignificant to him and I'm positive he doesn't remember. For me, though, it was the start of a long struggle of feeling like I don't belong, and like I will never belong, because the world--and specifically the country I live in--has been designed to exclude me, because I was never in the picture for them.

These experiences make me realize that I'm never going to be pretty. I don't think I'm ugly anymore, but I don't think I'll ever fit into the societal definition of pretty--I don't get to be pretty. I think all I'm left with is unpretty.

But I'm hopeful that that will change.

Being an engineer is empowering because I know that I have the opportunity to be at the table and reshape the definition of who gets to use the technology I create. I don't think that that ability is restricted only to engineers; I believe all people have the ability to challenge the idea of who gets to do [insert basically anything, ever]. I think it starts with becoming aware of all the things you get to do, that others may not get to do. I'll defer to Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack here. (This article is specifically about white privilege but I think the thought process could be extended to many other types of privilege).

Then, I think it becomes a matter of creating new definitions of who gets to do all of those things. This, I think, is the true power of representation, and why I'll always consider representation an act of social justice. It redefines who gets to be the main character, who gets to be the superhero, the villain, who gets their story told and who gets to be seen.

And for people like me, it starts with refusing to let anyone tell you what you get to do or be...which is why I can say and am saying for the first time ever: I deserve for my brightness to be captured and preserved, just like my friends. I deserve to be seen, and I deserve to be pretty. I deserve to be loved.

One final note: in the past when I've expressed these kinds of thoughts to people, they've immediately responded with reassurances that I'm pretty/beautiful/gorgeous/insert synonym here. I'd really love if you refrained from saying that; it's always felt a bit like a minimization/dismissal of my pain, even though I know it isn't intended as such.

Okay. Thank you for reading, it means a lot! I would love to hear thoughts/reflections. ❤️ 

 

citations (not cited properly sorry)
[1] The Inherent Color Bias of Image Capturing Technology: Colorism in Photography - Ade Osinubi (Medium article)
[2] Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equality - Lorna Roth, from the Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 34 (2009).
[3] Teaching the Camera to See My Skin by Syreeta McFadden (Buzzfeed Article) - cited in [1], but I wanted to directly cite McFadden because she's amazing. Upon realizing these things, she took it upon herself to prove that she deserved to be seen. 

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Noelle Zingarella

Posted

Shreya, thank you for this thoughtful piece. I haven't read through the articles that you linked to yet, but I plan to do so soon.

It's wonderful that you are raising these points, and that you are using your work to promote positive change. 

I've always thought that the camera "likes what it likes" and so certain people "look better" being photographed than others. I've never considered the idea that the camera "likes what it likes" because someone programed it to be that way--but of course that must be true. Although I have light skin, I have a round face and curvy body, and I almost always look terrible in pictures (I also hate having my picture taken, and avoid it whenever possible.)

Beyond changing the way cameras are designed--which is a fabulous idea--I think it would be awesome to see more people make use of artists and portraiture. This is probably a crazy idea (and self-serving, since Mr. Zingarella makes his living as an artist) but when an artist creates a portrait, he or she can capture so much more than the simple image of a person. A good portrait can go a long ways to capture the character and the brightness of the subject.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this post!

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sibilant

Posted

1 hour ago, Noelle Zingarella said:

I've always thought that the camera "likes what it likes" and so certain people "look better" being photographed than others. I've never considered the idea that the camera "likes what it likes" because someone programed it to be that way--but of course that must be true. Although I have light skin, I have a round face and curvy body, and I almost always look terrible in pictures (I also hate having my picture taken, and avoid it whenever possible.)

I used to think that too! I'm starting to realize, though, that everything is designed, because the systems we live in and the technology we use was all created by other people--so obviously, their biases are incorporated into those systems & technology.

1 hour ago, Noelle Zingarella said:

Beyond changing the way cameras are designed--which is a fabulous idea--I think it would be awesome to see more people make use of artists and portraiture. This is probably a crazy idea (and self-serving, since Mr. Zingarella makes his living as an artist) but when an artist creates a portrait, he or she can capture so much more than the simple image of a person. A good portrait can go a long ways to capture the character and the brightness of the subject.

It's so cool that your husband is an artist and I absolutely love that idea! Portraits feel more human than pictures too :D 

Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoy the linked articles; they made me think a lot :) 

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Dojh167

Posted (edited)

This is a great post. There is so much of this throughout the history of photography and film (and the present, of course, because far too many creators refuse to learn and adapt), and even in live theatre where, even without any cameras present, there are similar biases. The history of lighting design is built around lighting fair skin, but light naturally reacts differently to different shades of skin. You’re not going to want to use exactly the same light for light and dark skinned people, and having mixed skin tones on stage at once poses an extra challenge. Yes, this absolutely contributes to who gets cast. Even when arts conservatories where lighting design is taught may point out strategies for adapting for different skin tones, most of the acting students at these places are mostly white, and that is what designers are going to get the experience and habit of lighting. Three guesses what color most designers favor when deciding (consciously or not) who to make look their best. 

Edited by Dojh167
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sibilant

Posted

25 minutes ago, Dojh167 said:

The history of lighting design is built around lighting fair skin, but light naturally reacts differently to different shades of skin. You’re not going to want to use exactly the same light for light and dark skinned people, and having mixed skin tones on stage at once poses an extra challenge. Yes, this absolutely contributes to who gets cast.

Yessss. I read a few articles on colorism in theater that explained how directors used "technical difficulties with lighting" to explain away racist casting decisions. I especially like that you brought up how you need to adjust the lighting if there are mixed skin tones present, and it made me think about this quote from one of the linked articles (the Canadian Journal of Communication article), about problems with photographing Black students when schools in America first started desegregating:

Quote

When each student was photographed alone, differences in skin tones were easily accommodated through compensatory lighting and a range of technical adjustments learned through experience, but when a group portrait was set up and children of all races and ethnicities were photographed together, these techniques could not resolve the problem of the film bias in favour of “Caucasian” skin. Consequently, the picture results showed details on the White children’s faces, but erased the contours and particularities of the faces of children with darker skin, except for the whites of their eyes and teeth. Parents complained about this situation and demanded a wider continuum of darker skin tones.

I think in a truly inclusive society, the systems and technology we design are inclusive of all, in all situations.

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just.a.willow.tree

Posted

❤️

This makes me curious about cameras used for filmmaking (of which I have very limited knowledge haha). I assume that similar concepts are at play, where the cameras have been built to favor fair skin? So for films with casts with a variety of skin tones, are these cameras naturally skewed slightly towards making lighter skin tones look better (and I just haven't been observant enough to notice :P), or is this generally offset by the lighting?

It also makes me wonder what different skin tones would look like if taken by cameras created specifically for the purpose of capturing darker skin tones. (If there are examples in the articles you linked, ignore this haha. I'll look at them soon!)

It doesn't surprise me that cameras simply were not created with darker skin tones in mind, but this was an incredibly intriguing blog post. I hope that someday we can see change in our technology to reflect the diversity of people in the world!

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