Vision and Justice: The Racial Bias Built Into Photography

Recently, Sarah Lewis, a Harvard professor organized a two-day Vision and Justice conference on the role of the arts in relation to citizenship, race, and justice. As it turned out, she experienced some of this unconscious bias at this very event. Her essay exploring the relationship between racism and the camera, titled The Racial Bias Built Into Photography, was published by the New York Times on April 25, 2019.

At the conference, a technician categorizing light skin as the norm saw other skin tones as needing special corrective care. As Lewis, a black women, explains:

“My work looks at how the right to be recognized justly in a democracy has been tied to the impact of images and representation in the public realm. It examines how the construction of public pictures limits and enlarges our notion of who counts in American society. It is the subject of my core curriculum class at Harvard University. It also happened to be the subject of my presentation that day.”

What stands out in her article is how she interweaves a personal example of the how unconscious bias is built into photography, (and I would add life itself) into the larger culture. In a nut shell, she asks: “What is preventing us from correcting the inherited bias in camera and film technology?”

The event grew out of an award-winning May 2016 Aperture issue that Sarah Lewis guest edited. The Vision and Justice web site summarizes the three questions guided the program as follows:

    1. How is the foundational right of representation in a democracy—the right to be recognized justly—tied to the work of images in the public realm
    2. What is the role of the arts for justice?
    3. How have narratives created by culture—the arts, performances, and images—both limited and liberated our definition of national belonging in this digital age?

Other participants included Ava DuVernay, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Wynton Marsalis and Carrie Mae Weems.