Gesturing to the racial bias behind Kodak’s mid-century skin-tone “Shirley cards,” Sonya Mwambu brings deeply textured layers of Black artistry, history and the racial politics of popular culture. Initially optimized for white skin through the 1970s, Shirley cards eventually began to be produced with a wider range of skin tones in the late 20th century.
In this poetic short film, Mwambu critiques the pervasive racial bias in commercial photography, marketing and pop culture — bolstered by a material scarcity of tools and techniques to reflect racial diversity in 20th century photography. Going beyond the surface, THE SHIRLEY CARD reminds us of the additional burden of labour that used to be required to process photographs with racially diverse subjects, and the standards to which our society calibrates the very tools we use to create images.
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