Technology | Diversity

Light and dark

Multimedia artist Musquiqui Chihying explores how people of colour are portrayed in film and television - and what camera technology has to do with it. A conversation

Black background. In the lower left corner is a black man in a light yellow almost white judo suit. The man has his head tucked in, his arms are in front of his body in a defensive posture. Opposite him is a luminous spotlight, the light of which is directed at the man.

The protagonist fighting the light: scene from Musquiqui Chihying's film "The Lighting"

Interview by Atifa Qazi

Mr Musquiqui, your film “The Lighting” is about how people of colour are photographed and filmed and how technology plays a discriminatory role. Can you explain that in more detail?
Most modern cameras are made for bright environments. Therefore, focusing and exposure don’t work properly for people with darker skin. This was already an issue in the film industry in the 1940s because the female model, Shirley, that Kodak originally used as a benchmark for developing colour film was white. This meant there were  always problems when filming other skin colours.

Among others, the recently deceased director Jean-Luc Godard noticed this when he filmed in Mozambique in the 1970s. He pointed out that his Kodak films did not depict dark-skinned people in their true colour and that the technology was not neutral but racist. In the 1980s, Kodak developed a better version of colour film called “Kodak Gold”. This was promoted, among other things, for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, under the slogan “True Colors”. However, the problem that dark-skinned people usually cannot be exposed properly still remains to some extent today - despite all the digital innovations.

“The benchmark for the development of colour film was a white model called Shirley”

In what way?
For darker environments or darker-skinned protagonists, the apertures still have to be set manually most of the time. However, this often affects the quality of the image. In addition, test images of white women are still often used in image processing, for example, the image of Lena Forsén, a Playmate from the 1970s. Because the industry is not only white, but also very male-dominated, the social and technological bias has hardly diminished in the leap from analogue to digital. Yet there are certainly possibilities to make technology more neutral.

Against this backdrop, you talk in your film about a Chinese smartphone that is sold particularly often in Africa - and that can depict black people better than other devices.
Yes, during one of my research trips I came across a smartphone made by the Chinese company TECNO in Togo. The company had realised that other companies did not offer special features for darker skin. So, together with the Taiwanese company MediaTek, it developed an algorithm that helps to better recognise darker skin types and create more detailed portraits of Black people.

“The algorithm was trained step by step to recognise black faces”

How does it work?
I asked the designer of the software exactly the same question. He said, “If you can get a camera to recognise a face, then you can do anything you want with the image.” But the hardest part, he said, was getting the device to see the face in the first place. And that's exactly what he did. To do that, he created a database of the faces of People of Colour that didn’t exist on this scale before. His lab collected countless pictures from the internet, and even some of the company's employees in Africa took pictures of their customers to expand the database. Thus, step by step, the algorithm was trained to recognise black faces. The software developer did not even have to travel to Africa for his work.

Do you think that is a positive development?
From a purely technical point of view, yes. After all, an algorithm has been improved that didn’t work well before. Nevertheless, you also have to deal with questions about racism and discrimination here. For example, because TECNO likes to emphasise in commercials that the new algorithm makes the skin lighter and “more beautiful”. One problem is camera technology, the other problem is that white skin is still perceived to be “better”.

“We have always pursued an ideology of light”

So the problem is not only the technologies, but the people who develop them?
Yes, because once an algorithm is programmed, it usually works perfectly. Algorithm is like a child. If you want it to display the world realistically you have to give it enough data. I interviewed three photographers in my film. Some of them also think that camera is racism while others say that it is neutral, that the problem is created because the user uses it incorrectly. And then the third one mentioned the producer side saying that black people should create their own camera.

I think the problem boils down to our basic attitudes. That is, the fact that we have always followed an ideology of light. When we sit in a dark room and can’t see something clearly, we automatically think of switching on the light. That is the premise of photography today. Yet it could be completely different from the beginning. Why shouldn’t it be normal to photograph with reduced light?

Why do you think Western camera and smartphone manufacturers were not quicker to develop an algorithm that can correctly depict darker skin tones?
Such developments are primarily about markets, customers and capital - and there hasn’t been enough of that to fuel this technology so far. Only recently, an engineer told me that Apple is now working on similar and even more powerful algorithms. And Google wanted to solve this problem as early as 2019. However, it adopted extremely questionable means: The company tried to collect data by giving Black homeless people a mobile phone and asking them to play a game on the device.

“This camera reproduces both darker and lighter skin tones in great detail”

In the process, information about people's faces was collected by camera without their consent. In the film industry things changed with the Hollywood flick “Black Panther”, which was shot in 2018 primarily with Black actors and actresses. The production used a camera from the German company ARRI, which had also been used two years earlier for the film “Moonlight”. This camera reproduces both darker and lighter skin tones in great detail. On the one hand, this is a good development, but it also shows how relevant the subject remains in Hollywood - and that it has hardly been discussed in recent decades.

“The Lighting” ends somewhat surprisingly with a kung fu sequence played by a Black actor in the lead role. What is behind this scene?
I made this film not only to explore the differences between digital and analogue cameras and how they portray People of Colour, but also to remind us of the Golden Age of Asian cinema. Bruce Lee has always been an important figure in terms of “race”. His films are about beating up white people. That is why he is so popular in Africa. In our kung fu film, however, “the light” is the enemy.

The interview was conducted by Atifa Qazi