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They Call Me Mr Tibbs - a lesson in bias.

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

As you look at some of the scenes in the recently deceased Sidney Poitier’s great film In The Heat of The Night you can see the perspiration on his face. This was not for dramatic effect or water sprayed on his face to fit the scene, but genuine sweat caused by the need to crank up the lighting to show his face in the otherwise dimly lit scene. This is because colour film that was used had a bias to show Caucasian skin colour.

This is true throughout the history of photography with black and white photography initially being developed commercially with a requirement to take portraits and pictures of Europeans initially in France, Britain and Europe and then into North America. This was an issue to early black and white movie makers where white actors had to make their faces whiter with make up to enable expressions to be seen in the shorter exposure times that moving pictures required.

Kodachrome was the widest used and longest surviving colour film used to make movies and used by countless professional and amateur photographers throughout the globe. When John Capstaff in 1913 started to develop the early colour film it was done with a primary aim to get good rendition of skin tone – but specifically white skin tone. Why would this not be the case, as both him and many of the people around him were white. However, although Kodak film improved over time this inherent bias continued throughout the development of the film right into the 1970’s and beyond. Interestingly Agfa film in Berlin followed a similar quest to reproduce Caucasian skin tone accurately led by their scientist Rudolf Fisher.

Such bias even happened in colour television photography. My father served an apprenticeship at Pye’s in Cambridge and was involved in manufacture of early colour TV cameras. He had been taught to set up colour monitors using the back of his hand. I remember him showing me how to adjust a colour TV to get the skin tone using the back of your hand as a guide. My father’s favourite Test Card was Test Card “F” – the famous one with the girl and the clown. He told me that whilst the other colours on the card were good to help get true colours the most important bit was the girl’s arm and face to get the right skin tone. The bias is obvious. Whilst I do not know whether TV studios encountered issues caused by skin tone I have seen a clip of Charlie Williams joking that they had to turn the lights up when he did his stint hosting The Golden Shot in 1973.

Even modern photography can show signs of technological bias towards white skin tone. I recall my niece getting a new Canon camera and her brother joking that the facial recognition wouldn’t work on him because of his black face. Whilst a joke, Canon did have problems with facial recognition on non-white skin tones. This may not be deemed too much of a problem until you realise that this software can also be used by security services, police and other agencies. Now this algorithmic bias can have a big impact and lead to exclusionary experiences and discriminatory practises.

So my challenge to anyone that does not believe in bias consider this, if colour photography and television had been invented and developed in Africa do you think Mr Tibbs would have had to loose so much sweat?

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