- Decades before there were iPhones and Instagram, Polaroid was pioneering the domain of highly portable, fast-developing photography.
- But Polaroid’s instant-imaging tech was being used for a sinister purpose in South Africa as an integral component of a tool used by white authorities against Black citizens.
- When US-based employees Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams discovered this, they embarked on a campaign that would change the company and the world.
- For more on the history of Polaroid, subscribe for free to Business Insider’s podcast, “Brought To You By…“
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The year was 1970, the government was South Africa, the policy was apartheid, and the technology was Polaroid.
In addition to making a line of hugely popular instant cameras, Polaroid also developed and marketed a system called ID-2, which organizations used to create photo-identification documents.
Polaroid employees Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams dug into their company’s presence in South Africa and learned that the government was using ID-2 to make documents known as “passbooks” that were widely understood to be a tool for enforcing white supremacy.
“Under South African law, Blacks had to carry a document called their passbook, similar-sized to our passport,” Hunter told Business Insider’s Charlie Herman in the latest episode of “Brought To You By…”
“You must have it on your physical person at all times,” she explained. “It is the permission for [people] to move, to exist, and is considered the handcuffs of Black people.”
As two of the few Black employees at Polaroid, Hunter and Williams had more than enough experience living though American segregation, and they simply could not allow the fruits of their labor to be used to oppress others.
“We saw ourselves as David helping the people fight Goliath,” Hunter said.
‘An incredible demand’
So, in an act of what the late John Lewis would have surely deemed “good necessary trouble,” the pair papered the company’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters with flyers bearing a headline that riffed on a company tagline: “Polaroid — Imprisons Black People in 60 Seconds.”
The company was not initially receptive — local cops were called — but Hunter and Williams kept at it.
Eventually, hundreds of their coworkers and community members came together in support of three demands: That Polaroid denounce apartheid in the US and South Africa, withdraw from South Africa, and donate all profits from South African business (less than half a percent of global sales).
“It was an incredible demand, because it was unprecedented at the time,” said Eric Morgan, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay and author of “The World is Watching: Polaroid and South Africa.”
“No other corporation had been pressured by its workers to do something like this,” he added.
Polaroid was by no means the only US firm doing business in South Africa, nor was it the largest, but the company was widely loved by the public and respected by business leaders.
In response to mounting pressure, Polaroid dispatched a team on a fact-finding mission to South Africa to determine its response. After all, simply halting sales to the region would not necessarily end the objectionable use of Polaroid’s products.
Getting Polaroid out of South Africa
At the unanimous recommendation of the team — made of both Black and white employees — Polaroid elected to continue operating in South Africa, and announced some workforce initiatives that it hoped would improve the prospects of Black South Africans. The company also said it would not sell its products to the South African government.
“We didn’t buy the charade at all. We never did,” Hunter said. “The prize was Polaroid out of South Africa.”
Over the next decade, other multinationals followed Polaroid’s approach of continuing to profit from business under apartheid in South Africa while denouncing racism in the US. By 1977, roughly 350 companies including General Motors, GE, Chase, and Citibank, had financial ties to the country totaling close to $4 billion.
Hunter and Williams eventually stopped working at Polaroid but kept up a multi-year campaign calling for an international boycott of the company’s products. Ultimately, Polaroid withdraw from South Africa after fraudulent behavior by its local distributor was revealed in a Boston Globe investigation.
Even so, Morgan said, “the Polaroid story kind of sets the tone for what is to happen in the movement over the next decade and a half.”
The next decade brought increasing political and economic pressure against the South African government, with more and more companies following Polaroid out of the country. Finally, in 1995 apartheid came to an end with the presidency of Nelson Mandela.
And while it isn’t necessarily one company’s responsibility to restore social justice, Hunter asks, “was it the job of Polaroid to profit from apartheid? That was our question, and our answer was: No.”
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