My skin is brown so sometimes I look weird in photos.

Usually, I'm rendered virtually invisible, either by my surroundings or poor light.
Or thanks to filters and edits, I'm completely washed out — an ashy or jaundiced version of myself. It's not a good look.


With a few friends ahead of the Rose Bowl in 2011. At least my glasses and shadow showed up.

If you're taking pictures while brown — and there are a lot of us — there's a good chance you've experienced this too.

47% of African-American and 38% of Hispanic people online use Instagram. (The figure is around 21% for white internet users.) However, the filters and features that make the tool so fun to use often make the skin of black and brown people look pale, aged, or washed out.

Except you, Hefe. You never let me down. Filters by Instagram. Photo by the author.

That's because the film photography aesthetics Instagram mimics weren't created with people of color in mind.

It all dates back to something called the Shirley cards, named after a former Kodak studio model. Decades after the original Shirley left Kodak, the cards featured a white woman often in a brightly colored dress.

GIF via Vox/YouTube.

The technician would adjust the colors of the printer to match the model's skin tone. And this color balance was applied to everyone's film, regardless of their complexion.

So for decades, people of color were quite literally edited out of the pictures.

While the original Shirley card gave way to more diversity and eventually to digital photography, the resurgence of this classic aesthetic means the problems of early film are back with a vengeance.

But all is not lost. Not even close. Because now, there's Tōnr.

Conceived by product engineers and designers of color for Vox Media's Hackathon, Tōnr is a new web application with filters that showcase and highlight the richness and beauty of darker complexions.

"I haven’t been lucky when using filters in the common photo apps: they wash me out, add to much contrast, and are generally unflattering," said Pamela Assogba, full stack engineer at Vox Media and member of the Tōnr team, via email. "I think my skin tone is great, and deserve better treatment, so working on a solution made sense, especially because a lot of people could benefit from it."

Image via iStock.

The team of Vox engineers and designers came together for two and a half days of intense work, creating melanin-flattering photo filters using JavaScript and Photoshop.

"When I first started formulating the filters, I made sure to start with darkest skin first and work my way backwards," said designer Brittany Holloway-Brown. "It's important to pay attention to the margins of marginalized communities and to let them know that their faces, their bodies, their thoughts matter. It's a very small push against the heavy status quo."

Holloway-Brown researched fashion spreads, photography, and plenty of selfies on social media to see how people of color were lit and portrayed. "My focus was on emphasizing the color, enhancing undertones and heightening the saturation of the skin," she said via email.

On desktop or mobile, users can apply one of Tōnr's 12 filters to their photograph.

There's no upload required, so the photo never leaves your device. Once it's edited, users can upload their pictures to Instagram for additional edits or share them with their networks as they are.

"Tōnr is an act of love, expression, resistance, and passion because this is an application that tells me and people that look like me that we matter, even if society tends to say different," said Assogba.

Image via iStock.

As a woman of color with a fondness for the occasional selfie, I decided to try Tōnr out for myself.

While none of the filters made me look like Kerry Washington (technology is only so powerful), most of them did bring out the warm tones in my skin. If nothing else, I had more options and starting points than ever before.

I'm not a Sorbet girl, but consider Strut my filter of choice for summer '16. Filters by tōnr. Photo by the author.

Though Tōnr is still in its infancy, the team is all about reaching more people of color, both as users and creators.

The team hopes to add more filters, and a mobile application for iOS and Android is on the table. But for now, they're reaching out to other developers and creators for their ideas and input.

"We made the app open source so that others who are down for the cause can make contributions to this project," said designer Alesha Randolph.

Assogba added, "I’m really excited to see other people of color dig into the open source code and build filters or propose features for an app built with them in mind."

Everyone, regardless of complexion, deserves to look and feel their best. Here's hoping this tool, and others yet to come, help all of us do just that.

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