The nature of technological development and attempts at controlling a stagnant image of the racialized other have all created rifts in self-recognition for POC (people of color). Recognition and representation are used in similar ways in this essay; recognition primarily refers to the positioning of a marginalized individual (e.g. if they can recognize themselves) in relationship to images of themselves, and representation refers to the positioning of a producer of images. W. E. B. Du Bois’ describes this fragmentation of the self with the term double consciousness. Double consciousness is a concept familiar to many POC, who are forced to distinguish their racialized self from their white, or American consciousness. In juxtaposition to their own beliefs and experiences, they constantly see through a white lens, particularly when gazing at the distorted black body. I’m going to focus on two particular causes of double consciousness: misrepresentation and lack of representation and finally, then move on to potential and proper forms of self-recognition.
Racial misrepresentation is an extremely layered, tautological, and complex issue. On a relatively straightforward level, there is the case study of racial misrepresentation with Edward S. Curtis’ The North American Indian. The North American Indian is a forty-volume edition of photographs and writings from 1907 to 1930 that tried to capture Native American life of all tribes. His first and most famous photograph, The Vanishing Race-Navajo depicts a group of Native Americans on horseback heading towards a hazy, blurred distance. In fact, it was Curtis who coined the term “vanishing race” and began depicting this phenomenon. Pauline Wakeham aptly asserts he uses a “doubled preservationist/predatory logic” and taxidermic approach with his work (Wakeham 2008, 90). In capturing their images for “preservation purposes” and marketing them as “vanishing,” he actually marked their bodies for death. This term made it seem as if Native Americans were already absorbed into the national past and thus further American expansion would no longer present a problem. Curtis’ photos literally and figuratively captured Native Americans, making their supposed culture and bodies mass-consumable, while at the same time making them obsolete (Egan 2006; Wakeham 2008).
In addition to this, Curtis also constructed Native American life by fabricating settings to appeal to the white gaze. He tried to “replicate [...] traditional Indianess” by dressing Native Americans inn props and costumes, and used fake settings for his photographs (Wakeham 2008, 100). Curtis had literally constructed the Native American image. In fact, the models in the photographs were referred to as “actors” and were usually paid fifty cents per day. Clearly this construction of race and culture is, to some degree, a misrepresentation of the diversity of Native Americans (Holm and Quimby 1980; Wakeham 2008).
Unsurprisingly, the other example of racial misrepresentation, typification, can also be seen with Curtis’ photographs. Curtis claimed his photographs were authentic documentaries and he used them to study the Native American face using the pseudo-scientific field of physiognomy. He believed his photographs had a pedagogical function that could document and preserve specimens on the brink of extinction. Typification is particularly complicated particularly because it is tautological. This tautological act of typification and misrepresentation can be seen most evidently with criminal I.D. cards. Criminal I.D. cards were invented by Alphonse Bertillon in 1883 and used to track criminals using physical attributes. Criminals would have their head measurements (shape formations of their eyes, eyebrows, mouth, ears, individual markings, etc.), body measurements (including individual markings such as scars or tattoos), and personalities recorded and used for scientific research, in particular, physiognomy. Scientists asserted that physical attributes, such as the size of the face, had a direct correlation with personality and other nonphysical attributes. Thus, these criminal I.D. cards, inscribed with the criminal's measurements, were used to define and explain criminality. In turn, criminals with certain attributes would be more commonly detained. In specific, marginalized people, particularly non-white, mentally ill, and impoverished individuals, became the most common suspects, and in turn, the most common criminals. These I.D. cards and pigeonholing types of people grew exponentially and while physiognomy has become largely disproven, incarceration of typified individuals remains a major issue to this day. This type of misrepresentation leads to the split of consciousness/lack of recognition, in which the marginalized individual, particularly a POC, only sees herself or himself as a criminal through the white gaze (Tagg 1988; Wakeham 2008).
Conjointly related to misrepresentation is lack of representation, which is more complicated because there is no clear person or single system at fault. Technology evolves and develops primarily for and because people benefit from it, since relatively unrestricted business and capitalism inherently lead to rapid technological advancement. This means that technology is often developed for specific markets and demographics in mind. Shirley cards are a prime example of how this process could lead to a lack of representation and recognition, and eventually misrepresentation. Shirley cards are references photos from Kodak used for technicians to balance exposure, colors, and hues. Technicians in film labs use these reference cards to make sure the colors and exposure of a photograph are correct. Until 1996, Shirley cards featured white women in color, bright outfits and were labeled with the word “normal.” These cards shaped the treatment and handling of film and film emulsions in still (and moving) images, and reflected the interests of Kodak, and their key marketing demographic: the white consumer (Del Barco 2014).
To produce a colored photographic print, one needs color paper and color dyes. Colored paper consists of three emulsion layers, each sensitive to red, green, and blue light. Combinations of different chemical solutions are then used to develop those layers once exposed to light. This combination of different layers of color in the paper and the solutions determine a film’s color balance. However, for most of history, film emulsions were designed with little regard toward the brown, red, and yellow portions of the light spectrum and developing solutions that brought out brown, red, and yellow tones were largely left out. Since the design of film chemistry largely focused on a light-skinned, white consumer market, light skin became the normalized skin tone. To this day, even with digital cameras, when white people are photographed next to people with darker skin colors, people with darker skin colors are easily under exposed. White skin overshadows and obfuscates black bodies in photographs. There is often a complete omission of facial features and a clear misrepresentation of appearance, beginning with skin color (“Color Film” 2015; Del Barco 2014; Roth 2012).
Besides, Shirley cards, another example of lack of representation is with facial recognition software. Much like Shirley cards, facial recognition software utilizes automated computational analysis to recognize and then measure the various features of a face. Since every face has different distinguishable “landmarks,” or different shapes and contours that define facial features, these landmarks are defined as “nodal points.” These nodal points are defined by different attributes, such as the width of the nose, depth of the eye sockets, shape of the cheekbones, and so on - there are about 80 nodal points on each human face. These nodal points are measured up and these measurements become a numerical code, called a faceprint, which represents a specific face in the database. The facial recognition software system begins a comparison process, the template is compared with the new sample/faceprint, and finally the system decides if the extracted features from the new sample match or not. There is a clear flaw in this system: “unique” faces are unaccounted for (Bosner 2001; “Face Recognition”).
Since the system highly relies on a comparison system and there is a limited space for data to compare the physical sample to, in many mainstream technology systems, POC are unaccounted for. Webcams and cameras made by companies like Hewlett-Packard, Nikon, and Sony have all failed to recognize POC on a mass scale. For instance, Hewlett-Packard’s MediaSmart webcams fail to recognize darker skin colors and the Nikon Coolpix S630 will ask Asians: “Did someone blink?” since it fails to recognize Asian eyes as open (Albanesius 2009; Rose 2010). Like Shirley cards, this technology is not created with racist intents, but deeply-ingrained systemic racism has structured markets, wealth, income, and desirable demographics that define the development of these technologies. This results in a lack of recognition, representation, and a double consciousness; non-white consumers are both fragmented from and yet still projected onto normalized whiteness.
There is no doubt misrepresentation and lack of representation still exist, however there are still many examples of self-recognition in marginalized communities. In particular, W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Exhibit of American Negroes” and Garry Winogrand’s street photography have allowed for diverse, humanized depictions of Black Americans. For the 1900 Paris Exposition, Du Bois presented 32 charts, 500 photographs, maps, and plans to show the history, present condition, education, and literature of African Americans. He successfully publicized the economic, social, and cultural nuances the defined the African American identity, but more importantly, this exhibit was created and compiled by African Americans themselves (Du Bois 1900).
On the other hand, Winogrand took voyeuristic, but brutally honest images of Black Americans, hispanics, and women. Using a Leica M3 camera, which had capabilities perfect for quick, motion-based photography, and also discreet photography, Winogrand was able to master street photography (Pritchard 2014). He would snap photographs of pedestrians in motion, oblivious of their race, background, and histories. Unlike Curtis’ photographs which required posing and intentional fabrication, these photographs were candid snapshots into anonymous lives. Both Du Bois and Winogrand were able to offer humanity to their subjects, by giving them the freedom to simply exist as fragmented, transient individuals.
Social media outlets like Livejournal and Myspace offer this same benefit. With an emphasis on community and “friendship”, both websites offer self-recognition through others. Rather than having one person speak for and represent an entire race, people are able to vocalize their own concerns and upload their own content; they are individualized and humanized. By having marginalized individuals speak for her or his own experience, and more diverse representations in mainstream media outlets, double consciousness can gradually fade. Marginalized people can begin recognizing themselves as individuals, rather than fragmented others.