How Two African-American Employees Exposed Polaroid’s Role In Apartheid South Africa

In materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez’s new book, she tells the story of a pair of Polaroid employees exposed the company’s involvement in a police state.

The following is an excerpt from The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez.

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The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another


In the 1960s, Polaroid equaled innovation, as Apple would two decades later. Both these companies had enchanting leaders in Steve Jobs and his Polaroid forefather, Edwin Land, who was rumored to churn out patents at a rate second only to Edison. Land and Jobs were wunderkinds, and both were college dropouts—Jobs from Reed College and Land from Harvard. Land never dissuaded his worshiping employees from calling him Dr. Land, although he left Harvard after his freshman year and never graduated. This bashful, pipe-smoking genius built Polaroid from the ground up, first making polarizing plastics, hence the name of the company, which prevented glare in headlights and blocked rays in sunglasses. His next big breakthrough was with instant photography, which was the technology on which Caroline worked.

Caroline mixed together chemicals, making the product that was going to be on everyone’s Christmas list—instant color photographs. When a picture was snapped, it ran between two rollers as it exited the camera. A soft, buttery paste, officially called goo, residing at the bottom of the white frame of the photograph, would squirt out onto the light-sensitive film, developing the picture. Caroline’s concoctions convinced those images to magically appear in under a minute, as if produced by Aladdin’s genie.

One fall afternoon in September 1970, Caroline was going to lunch with her new boyfriend, Ken Williams. Ken, a photographer at Polaroid, was a tall, thin, bearded, older African American man. He was self-trained, and one of Polaroid’s best artists, with an intuition for his craft not taught in schools. He knew how to pull and push colors in and out, by warming a film packet under his arm or by cooling it in the snow. Ken made his way to the photography department by a stroke of luck, when word got around at the Polaroid factory in Waltham, Massachusetts, about a camera film assembler, who used to be a janitor, who took beautiful pictures. When one Polaroid executive saw Ken’s work, he promoted Ken to Polaroid’s headquarters in Cambridge. There Ken’s job was to show the beauty of Polaroid’s products in the art department. It was also in Cambridge where he met Caroline, and they became a Jack Sprat duo—tall to her short, popular to her guarded, modest to her stylish. Although they differed in age and their amount of education, they complemented each other, like a jazz trumpet and a drum.

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The two worked in separate buildings on Main Street in Cambridge, three blocks apart from each other and just down the road and across the tracks from MIT, in a part of town called Kendall Square. Ken worked on the first floor of a tall, futuristic glass building. Caroline worked on the second floor of an old three-story brick edifice at the corner of Osborn Street. On the first floor of her building was Dr. Land’s office, which was a historic landmark, since the first two-way “long distance” call was received there by Thomas A. Watson when Alexander Graham Bell telephoned him from a room in Boston. This was a room worthy of Land’s mighty brain.

As Caroline headed out to see Ken, her long nose was inundated by a range of smells. From the laboratories wafted chemical odors that were strangely sweet, like that of a gas station. Outside the building, the scents of neighboring factories engulfed her, too. A westerly breeze brought the pleasant and sugary aromas of chocolate, mint, or root beer from the nearby NECCO candy factory. Underlying those delightful scents, however, were stenches from the slaughterhouse and the tire reclamation plant.

Ken’s office was a den of photographers where grease pencils, loupes, and metal straightedges littered every flat surface. As the two headed out of the office, Ken put on his jacket, to combat the falling temperatures in New England, as the leaves turned yellow. The banter between the two as they readied to go was ordinary and important. But suddenly their conversation was interrupted when they saw something unusual by the door on the bulletin board.

Pinned to the cork was a mock-up of an identification card. The face in the photo was familiar, but the words were not, reading “Department of the Mines, Republic of South Africa.” Ken turned to Caroline and said, “I didn’t know that Polaroid was in South Africa.” She replied, “All I know is that South Africa is a bad place for black people.”

On seeing the words “South Africa,” lessons from Mr. Valder’s tenth grade history class came back to her like an instant image of Polaroid film, along with the memories of the book that deeply impressed her as a teenager. She knew that South Africa was a dark spot of oppression on the globe and wondered why Polaroid had dealings there. The last time the United States heard about the brutality in South Africa was when the Sharpeville Massacre was televised in 1960, ten years earlier, when the police killed seventy protesters. The brutality still existed in the country, but the news wasn’t covering it much. The most recent small headline was just the year before, in 1969, when the United Nations wrote a scathing report on South Africa’s apartheid policies, recommending that companies and countries “desist from collaborating with the government of South Africa.”

While a picture is said to equal a thousand words, the photo on the bulletin board did not provide enough of them, and only generated more questions. By the end of their lunch, they decided they needed to learn more.

For two weeks, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams went to the library after work, devouring as much as they could about South Africa. Caroline, with library skills honed during her college work-study days, dug up information in many inches of books and in miles of newspaper microfilm. They found that South Africa was a police state and that a passbook controlled the motion of black South Africans. A passbook was a twenty-page bound document with all the information about its holder: where they live, where they can work, and where they could visit. If a person did not have their passbook, they would be fined exorbitantly or jailed for up to a month, doing hard labor. At the heart of the passbook was a photo made by Polaroid.

Not only did the passbook monitor the movement of fifteen million blacks, but passbook laws controlled the flow of black South Africans in and out of white urban centers, like a faucet, changing with labor needs. When workers were needed in the farms, passbook laws were stiffened to keep them tethered to the fields. When laborers were needed during the war effort, passbook laws were loosened to drive labor into city factories. When men were needed in the diamond mines, passbook laws were tightened again to keep them pinned to the quarry. When blacks were not needed any more, the flow was shut off and they were sent back to their segregated enclaves, or homelands, separating whites and blacks.

In 1966, Polaroid created the ID-2, a photographic system that produced two color photographs for identification cards and official documents in sixty seconds, without the need for a darkroom or chemicals. This system made it increasingly easier to create one photo for a passbook and one for a government file. The ID-2 fit in a suitcase, taking hundreds of pictures an hour. One camera in any of the 350 passbook centers in South Africa, along with thousands of boxes of film, could easily capture the likenesses of fifteen million blacks, allowing the country to have information about the whereabouts of each, before the age of GPS tracking.

After reading all they could about South Africa, Ken met with an executive he knew at headquarters on Thursday, October 1, 1970, to share what he learned. During the weeks of their research, Caroline and Ken’s fervor grew to a boil. Management’s reaction was lukewarm, however, first insisting that they did not know if they had a presence in South Africa and then saying if they did it was small. They asked Ken to find out more and to have another meeting to discuss it. But Ken had heard enough, since he had proof of Polaroid’s activities there. He wanted action. He felt that this matter was too urgent for more discussion. Another meeting was set up with Ken for the next day, but Ken didn’t show up. He and Caroline decided they were going to do something about it.

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez is out now from the MIT Press.

Meet the Writer

About Ainissa Ramirez

Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and author of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another (MIT Press, 2020). She’s based in New Haven, Connecticut.

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