A brief history of color photography reveals an obvious but unsettling reality about human bias.

In the 1970s, Kodak got called out by some furniture companies because their film wasn't working right.

Light-grained or dark-grained wood tones, in photographs developed from Kodak film, all looked basically the same, which sucked when it came to advertising.


"WTF? This is not what it looked like in the catalog!" All images via Vox/YouTube.

Then chocolate companies started raising hell. Milk chocolate? Dark chocolate? No one could tell the difference. With money on the line, Kodak finally decided to look into it.

Kodak's color problems actually began decades earlier, when they were setting standards for color balance.

They weren't basing it on wood or chocolate samples. They were basing it on skin color and what was considered "ideal."

A video by Vox (which you can watch below) takes us into a darkroom and reveals in full color how human bias can distort our lives in unsuspecting ways.

Color film was designed for a precise consumer market whose likeness was on a printed image called "The Shirley."

Shirley cards, named after a former Kodak studio model, were images used as the standard for color calibration in photo labs all over the world.

A 1978 Shirley card. Long after model Shirley Page left Kodak and new models were hired, they continued to call the cards "The Shirley."

When a lab ordered a Kodak printer, the company sent Shirley cards with them as a guide. Technicians would adjust the color settings to match the model's skin tone.

Models for Shirley cards were always white women.

To color match "Shirley's" skin tone was to achieve a "normal" color balance, a setting that was applied to everyone's film, regardless of skin color.

Ohhhh, so that's what normal people look like.

Some might describe the exclusionary practice as rational economic behavior, or a decision believed to be made in the company's best interest. Lorna Roth, professor of communications studies at Concordia University, explained to NPR:

"At the time, in the '50s, the people who were buying cameras were mostly Caucasian people. And so I guess they didn't see the need for the market to expand to a broader range of skin tones."

In retrospect, we can see there was nothing rational about it.

But even those who wanted to optimize photos for darker skin tones couldn't do it.

Color photography involves a mix of chemicals, both in the film and in the development process. According to Vox, "for many decades, chemicals that would bring out various reddish, yellow, and brown tones were largely left out."

So, says Roth in the video, "if you're shooting people with lighter skins, it looks good."

"If you're shooting people with darker skins, it doesn't look so good."

"If you're shooting mixed race in the same screen, then we see the real problems."

As the entertainment industry got more diverse, film technology has had to get less racially exclusive.

Newer camera systems were created with computer chips that let people independently adjust color settings for different skin tones. And with the new technology came new Shirley cards that better reflected the world's diversity.

They were a step in the right direction...

...but some of them were problematic in their own right.

One decade at a time, I guess?

We've come a long way, but we haven't escaped racial bias in camera technology.

The new frontier for imaging equality is — you guessed it — digital.

In 2009, Hewlett-Packard was (hilariously) accused of making a "racist" computer.

"Technology should be the ultimate equalizer," says Vox. "It should serve everyone's needs without an inherent bias."

It took Kodak decades to address their discriminatory practices with film. Sadly, it was pressure from business interests, not an attack of conscience, that got them to act.

Imagine how quickly this and countless other challenges could be solved if they were being solved not for money but because it's the right thing to do.

Check out the video by Vox. It's so worth just a few minutes of your day.

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Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


Capital One

Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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