Will Authentic Representation Ever Be Achieved For Black People In The Digital Media Age?

August 13, 2015  |  

On a recent visit to The Studio Museum of Harlem, I was introduced to famed photographer Lorraine O’ Grady’s captivating work. O’Grady’s images had me beaming with Black girl pride as they stood as gentle affirmations and reminded me just how important it is for African Americans to depict and tell our own stories.

In the days of rampant cultural appropriation, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the continual Black death at the hands of police the simple act of seeing oneself authentically, beautifully, and righteously depicted became therapeutic.

O’Grady’s “Art Is…” exhibit featured photos from the artist’s 1983 street performance where O’Grady and her team took to the streets of Harlem dressed in all white holding gold picture frames against their community.

“The performance much like Lorraine O’Grady’s practice was meant to confront and challenge assumptions around race and accessibility…” read the description of the exhibit.

O’Grady’s goal to portray her community authentically and challenge stereotypical depictions of Black life is one we are still aiming to achieve decades later. As the use of social media, smart phones and the web grows, so should the racial depictions seen across these platforms.

In July, writer Morgan Jerkins wrote a piece titled “The Quiet Racism of Instagram Filters” where she showed just how far back racism has been embedded into American photography. Older cameras from the 1950s often focused on depicting white beauty by calibrating skin tones using a white model – no matter the image. One of the largest camera companies, Kodak, did not change the calibration technique of their cameras until candy and furniture companies complained they could not shoot their dark chocolate and brown furniture.

Jerkins argues the same calibration technique is true for platforms such as Instagram today. Instagram’s filters often mute dark skin tones while highlighting lighter features.  Is it time the photo-sharing platform updated its filters? Jerkins thinks so.

However, the issue of authentic representation does not only fall on sites such as Instagram. For instance, take Apple’s recent move to create a more diverse line of the ever-popular emojis. The social media sphere rejoiced this April as the new smiley faces appeared. It was as if Dr.King’s dream of inclusion had finally trickled down to Apple and, well, we were hype. No more banana-colored skin, we were now all hues of coco.

But, what about the hair? Or authentic facial structures? Does it take African Americans creating our own images in order to get it right? App company Oju Africa thinks so as they were the first company to create a line of Black emojis.

“It’s very important for us, as a small African company, to make it known to the world that we were the first to do it,” Alpesh Patel, Oju Africa’s Ugandan-born chief executive told CNN speaking of the need for more authentic representation.


Most recently, a stock image company has emerged to bring authentic depictions of Black life to the web. For years, ShutterStock has been the go-to place for online magazines and bloggers alike to find the images they need. But the photo-site does not always have the best images and searches often come back null and void. I once searched for African American museums and yet a picture of three hooded men in all white appeared — the Ku Klux Klan — not exactly what I was searching for.

The new stock images site, Blackstockimages.co, launched its beta stage last week with the tagline ‘Reinventing the Black medium.’

“The benefit of using BlackStock is clear, better representation is needed throughout the digital media space. By focusing on respect, authenticity and culture, we’ve built a platform that presents Black culture in a genuine light — leaving the generic visuals and offensive propaganda to the other sites,” states the site.

Is this the route more businesses will have to take in order to produce authentic portrayals of Black life across our computer and cell phone screens? Or should more mainstream companies such as Shutterstock, Instagram and Apple be more authentically inclusive?


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