Object Lessons: Polaroid ID-2

7 February 2024
By Paul Schmelzer | Photo by Xavier Tavera

Art professor Xavier Tavera first learned about Polaroid’s ID-2 camera through the sculpture Ceramic Polaroid Sculpture (2012) by the art duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. “They made a mold out of it and cast it in porcelain,” he says, “and they painted it white, which says a lot about the camera.” Created for use in 1980s South Africa, the ID-2 was integral to the apartheid government’s internal passport program (or dompas, “stupid pass” in Afrikaans), used to catalogue and control the movement of Black South Africans. A key feature is the camera’s “boost” button. As Broomberg explained it in 2013, “Black skin absorbs 42 percent more light. The button boosts the flash exactly 42 percent.”

In Tavera’s classroom, the ID-2 is emblematic of the entirety of the apartheid mission. The film was expensive, testifying to the regime’s financial commitment to surveilling Black residents. And it was so cumbersome it couldn’t easily be used to photograph people where they lived: requiring a power source and a stand, it forced the government to bring people in to be photographed. “It needs to be plugged into a building. The building is plugged into an institution. The institution is plugged into a horrible government,” Tavera says. “For that reason, it makes it even more eerie, even more complicated.” 

Beyond that, Tavera hopes there’s another lesson in the camera. “Maybe there’s an opportunity to use it differently—to use the tools of photography to tell interesting stories, not to document a certain kind of people.” In his own work, the Mexico City-born photographer often trains his lens on the ever-present but often invisible Latine workers who make food, serve in the military, keep factory production lines running, or work in heavy construction in Northfield, Faribault, Minneapolis, and elsewhere (for more on his work, see Contact Sheet). 

How do students respond when he brings out the Poloroid ID-2? “Usually it’s a kind of shock. We’ll be discussing the normal information we have around photography and then all of a sudden to have in their hands an object that has been used for nefarious purposes is uncomfortable. I truly believe that college shouldn’t be comfortable.”

Object Lessons is an occasional series highlighting instructional objects—not classroom tools like microscopes or spectrometers but items that by their very objectness are enlightening—used by Carleton professors. Faculty can suggest their own pedagogical objects by emailing voice@carleton.edu

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