Hegemony of Whiteness

But the hegemony of Whiteness is exposed not only in the context of the global competition to capture different regional markets. It is also exposed through practices that are more explicitly political. In South Africa, for example, Polaroid’s ID2 camera, with its added flash “boost button,” was used to better capture Black citizens’ images for the infamous passbooks that violently restricted the movement of Black people throughout the country.

Polaroid’s profit from South African apartheid spurred widespread protest against the company. The protest was led by the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers’ Movement, which was founded by several African American employees in the United States, most notably photographer Ken Williams and chemist Caroline Hunter. The Workers’ Movement “pointed out that part of Polaroid’s profit in South Africa was earned from the sale of photo-identification units” that were used to photograph Black South Africans for the much hated “reference” books or “passbooks,” which control the movements of Blacks into urban areas in the Republic of South Africa. If a Black is without one of these documents he is subject to imprisonment, a fine, or deportation from the urban area in which he was found.22

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One of the flyers that the Workers’ Movement posted around the office summed up the problem: “Polaroid Imprisons Black People in 60 Seconds.”

After initial protests, Polaroid experimented with ways to improve the conditions of its Black South-African workers, but activists deemed the reforms inadequate and continued pressuring the company over a seven-year period, until finally Polaroid pulled out of South Africa completely. This move, in turn, propelled the broader movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions throughout the 1980s, which prompted other companies to withdraw from South Africa too.24 In short, the use of visual technologies “in systems set up to classify people is an important aspect of the history of photography,”25 one that connects the design of technology and social policy.

Aiming to expose the Whiteness of photo technologies, London-based artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin used decades-old film and Polaroid’s ID-2 camera, which were the ones used for passbooks, to take pictures across South Africa for a month.