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.
As it happens, I wrote about Polaroid and South Africa in INSTANT, and cut the passage, for space, late in the editorial game. These artists have it mostly wrong. But it is an interesting story, one that I regret leaving out of my book.
In 1970, a woman named Caroline Hunter—a newly hired young chemist at Polaroid—ran across a mockup of a South African passbook in one of the company’s labs. She quickly discovered that the repressive government was indeed shooting its ID photos on Polaroid film, even though Polaroid claimed not to be doing business in South Africa. Turned out that an independent distributor was selling equipment and film, either against Polaroid’s wishes or to allow plausible deniability back in Cambridge. (Given that she saw a passbook in the labs, it’s hard to believe that Polaroid was unaware, though the level at which information stopped and started within the corporation is unknowable.)
At the time, Polaroid was perceived as a pretty progressive outfit when it came to issues of race. Edwin Land had taken pains to increase black employment, and on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 had gone to one of Polaroid’s factory floors to offer an impromptu speech about unity (“we must do better”) to the staff that many say they won’t ever forget. Compared with some multinational companies of this era (Coca-Cola comes to mind), it had seemed to be an enlightened company.
Hunter and a fellow employee named Ken Williams formed a group called the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, intended to shame their employer into straightening this out, and adopted an eye-opening slogan: “imprisons a black South African every 60 seconds.” They were on the right side of the issue, and at Polaroid itself, the South Africa news was handled hamfistedly at best. First came denials—”we don’t do business with South Africa”—until the opposite was confirmed. The Polaroid sent a delegation to Johannesburg to investigate, noting in its press releases that it was made up of two black employees and two whites. The group returned with the recommendation that Polaroid could potentially effect some good by continuing to do business there, leaning on its local affiliates to increase their hiring of black South Africans and upping their pay. Not a horrible idea—but one that smacked of self-justification. A big cash donation to some Boston civil-rights groups was also well-intentioned, and instead looked like a payoff. The whole affair made this ostensibly enlightened company look retrograde, and no better than any other. Hunter and Williams were eventually fired.
It took Polaroid seven years to bail out fully from South Africa, by which time similar movements had cropped up in many other corporate environments. Anyone who went to college in the 1980s probably remembers DIVEST NOW campus protests, aimed at the trustees and the universities’ endowment portfolios. (My own school’s activists built a mock shanty, akin to the ones occupied by poor South Africans, on the quad, where it was desultorily occupied until it was firebombed one night by three frat guys.) The movement that Hunter and Williams got going was a major start to the worldwide economic pressure on South Africa that helped break the back of apartheid. The two of them ended up getting married, too; Williams died in 1998, but Hunter is still around, and spent her life teaching and doing civil-rights work. She received the Rosa Parks Award from the NEA in 2012.
As for these London artists: They have stumbled on a little slice of the story, but what they’re saying is mostly ill-informed. The ID-2 system used for making driver’s-license (and passbook) photos was calibrated for white skin, with an additional “boost button” for darker complexions, because most of the people who bought the cameras (and were photographed with them) were white. The compensation button was not there for South Africans; it was there for anyone with darker skin, which requires more light for the right exposure. Yes, at Polaroid, the Eurocentric executives probably did have a presumption of whiteness as the norm, and blackness as a variant; that was how American corporations thought in a less enlightened age. But to suggest some scheme aimed directly at black South Africa, as these guys do?
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.”
That’s just an inability to see the whole world beyond your own borders—this was an American company building cameras principally for its home market, with barely a thought to Africa. (Not to mention that black skin comes in a full range of tones, not just one.) Polaroid’s executives may have been naïve about race, and guilty of spin and backpedaling when they got caught behaving poorly. But they didn’t build that naïveté into the way light and silver halide react. Polaroid’s engineers were thinking about Cape Cod, not Cape Town.
UPDATE, 5/30/2013: An earlier version of this post made reference to an act of violence reportedly threatened by Ken Williams, and another similar threat by an unnamed member of the PRWM. The Williams estate vigorously denies that they occurred, and because my reporting was based on secondhand reports—and out of respect for the civil-rights record of the Williams/Hunter family—I have removed the passages in question. I apologize for publishing the unsubstantiated material.
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