Skin in the frame: black photographers welcome Google initiative

Christina Ebenezer first started taking photos with a group of friends when she was a 17-year-old student. Even then, she noticed the difference in how her camera captured people of different skin tones.

“I didn’t think much about this until I got older and became more experienced in photography. It was when I learned that the early Kodak Vericolor Shirley Cards were based on various white women that I thought OK, this was an industry standard that was not made with people like me in mind,” Ebenezer, who has photographed for British Vogue, British GQ, and Vanity Fair, said.

Kodak’s Shirley Cards were used by photo labs for calibrating skin tones, shadows and light in photographs. The card, named after the original model who worked for Kodak, ensured Shirley looked good, to the detriment of people with darker skin colour.

Kodak Shirley Card.
Kodak Shirley Card. Photograph: Kodak

Robert Taylor, who has been a photographer for 30 years, remembers working with “well-intentioned white photographers who had plainly done their best, but just hadn’t got to grips with the technical and aesthetic challenges of doing black people and black skin right”.

Taylor, whose work is held in several permanent collections including the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Royal Society, added: “And in some cases, literally, the settings and the choices of how things are set up in analogue as well as in digital just didn’t work as well with dark skin.”

It’s this bias that Google’s new equitable camera initiative hopes to tackle. The company has partnered with 17 professional image-makers to make changes to their computational photo algorithms to address long-standing problems, a spokesperson said.

The initiative has been welcomed by black photographers in the UK. “It’s definitely an important step forward. It’s amazing and commendable what they want to do,” said Daniel Oluwatobi, a photographer and videographer who has worked with a range of musicians, including Ella Mai, Pop Smoke, Burna Boy and the group NSG.

But, Oluwatobi added, people need to be more conscious not to put too much blame on the equipment itself. “I want to have a balanced approach,” he explained. “A lot of the time, it’s the person behind the camera, and also the preferences involved in post-production. I’ve taken pictures on absolutely dreadful cameras and I’ve made black people look amazing because of how I am about lighting, post-production, and even the style I seek.”

Christina Ebenezer
Christina Ebenezer: ‘It got to a point where I thought, why am I trying to mould myself into something that I’m not?’ Photograph: Christina Ebenezer

Ebenezer agrees that the racial bias in photography goes much further than the equipment itself. Though she started off taking pictures of family and friends, from a range of different skin tones, she was pressured to focus on white models when she got into fashion. “I was told you really need to do this for your portfolio to be taken seriously,” she said.

“It got to a point where I thought, why am I trying to mould myself into something that I’m not? I’ve grown up around so much beauty when it came to people of different races and ethnicities. So why would I now make my portfolio based on people that I didn’t have a personal connection with? I see my family members, I see my friends, I see those are the people that are around me 24/7 so why would I shy away from highlighting people like them in my work?”

For Ebenezer and many other black creatives, the past year has been a busy one as the industry responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by commissioning them for work. Ebenezer describes this progress as mixed. While more people are listening and trusting her skill, she is still often the only black person on set.

“I’m less clear that anything really different is going on. The things that will make a change are more opportunities for high-quality work, and sincere, sensitive engagement between people who are not alike. That’s what will make the breakthrough,” Taylor said.

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