The Face of Race

The Human Race Machine has come to St. John’s. An accompaniment to the PBS mini-series “RACE: The Power of an Illusion,” the machine is able to manipulate images to change a person’s race, age, gender and level of disability, showing participants what they would look like if they had different physical traits.

“I thought it would just bring a lot of attention to the fact that we all talk about how diverse the university is,” said James Salnave, director of Student Development. “We talk about the diversity and then also talk about just the issue of race. Race and ethnicity and how race is just a man-made term.”

The machine, set up much like a photo booth, which will be in Marillac Terrace until Oct. 6, is comprised of four individual software programs. The first component, the Age Machine, uses software that has been utilized by the FBI and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for more than 20 years to locate kidnap victims.

The Couples Machine is used to combine photographs of male and female participants, in varying degrees, and allows couples to view their potential offspring or see “maleness” and “femaleness” layered in one face.

The Anomaly Machine allows participants to see themselves with simulated facial irregularities, such as those encountered in the physically disabled.

The Race Machine allows participants to see themselves with the facial characteristics of six different races mapped onto their own face.

While the programs were able to show the differences that people of various races have, it also showed the similarities that many forget exist.

“We are all alike and I think it’s just a couple of things that make us different, as you see when you map out yourself on the machine,” Salnave said. “It maps out your eyes, your nose, your eyes and your chin and shows the differences in each of us. I saw that and said ‘Wow! This could be something that could bring us insight into race and ethnicity at St. John’s.'”

Salnave got the idea to bring the Human Race Machine, developed by artist Nancy Burson, after seeing the program on an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” After contacting Wolfman Productions, the company responsible for producing the program, Salnave was able to bring the installation to St. John’s.

Students have had mixed reactions to the program. While many agreed that it is an interesting project, they were unable to agree on how well it was executed.

“Honestly, I was disappointed,” said sophomore Isolte Valentine. “It was all distorted. They need to work on their computer graphics.”

Others, however, felt that the program was well done and provided insight into the idea of race.

“It was interesting,” said sophomore Krystle Bohanon. “The race part really got you. My face looked really different; I couldn’t tell it was me.”