Can the camera be racist? The question is explored in an exhibition that reflects on how Polaroid built an efficient tool for South Africa’s apartheid regime to photograph and police black people.
The London-based artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin spent a month in South Africa taking pictures on decades-old film that had been engineered with only white faces in mind. They used Polaroid’s vintage ID-2 camera, which had a “boost” button to increase the flash – enabling it to be used to photograph black people for the notorious passbooks, or “dompas”, that allowed the state to control their movements.
The result was raw snaps of some of the country’s most beautiful flora and fauna from regions such as the Garden Route and the Karoo, an attempt by the artists to subvert what they say was the camera’s original, sinister intent.
Broomberg and Chanarin say their work, on show at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery, examines “the radical notion that prejudice might be inherent in the medium of photography itself”. They argue that early colour film was predicated on white skin: in 1977, when Jean-Luc Godard was invited on an assignment to Mozambique, he refused to use Kodak film on the grounds that the stock was inherently “racist”.
The light range was so narrow, Broomberg said, that “if you exposed film for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would be rendered invisible except for the whites of his eyes and teeth”. It was only when Kodak’s two biggest clients – the confectionary and furniture industries – complained that dark chocolate and dark furniture were losing out that it came up with a solution.
The artists feel certain that the ID-2 camera and its boost button were Polaroid’s answer to South Africa’s very specific need. “Black skin absorbs 42% more light. The button boosts the flash exactly 42%,” Broomberg explained. “It makes me believe it was designed for this purpose.” (via ‘Racism’ of early colour photography explored in art exhibition | Art and design | guardian.co.uk)
Fascinating history. Although, aren’t there more shades? How does 42% more light correctly expose varying shades of skin tones?
I hope the installation of these images lends to the photographers intent. Like, how does the mere subverting of intent relay the artists’ aims? I’m not interested in statement-driven work. I don’t want to have to read your statement to have some understanding or grasp of your concept. Does it matter to the artists? Or are they more interested in using antiquated technology to make poor images of “nature.”
I’m being an art school asshole, I know. Honestly, I think I’m bored of straight photography, especially when it’s hanging on walls. Images are everywhere. What makes your images worth looking at? It’s an issue visual artists need consider in an image-ridden culture?
Maybe that’s why I dropped photography??
Shit, now I feel compelled to use photography for my next project.