I have a new blog – Photomotel

Hello!

I am now blogging over at Photomotel. Join me there for up to date thoughts on photography, visual culture, and narrative.

As ever, I’m interested in new conversations on how we image our world. Have a look: http://photomotel.wordpress.com/

Thanks to all who have followed and visited this, my first ever blog.

x

 

The separation of body and soul

I’ve been thinking about picturing the dead and how the object making that bodies – especially women’s bodies – are subject to through the photograph are a kind of death-making. I guess I’ve been provoked by the images of Reeva Steenkamp, whose bikinied body posed next to headlines that screamed of her murder. It was painful to see those front pages. If nothing else, it tells us that images and narratives matter. Images hurt, maim, murder. Images save and recover. Linda Stupart has written a great piece, “Woman, object, corpse: Killing women through media”, which pretty much summed up and furthered my thoughts regarding those Steenkamp images. Have a read.

I wanted to find an example of an image that was painful to see, but set out to do the opposite to what those front pages did the day after Valentine’s. It had to be beautiful, it had to reckon with the objectification of women’s bodies and the very real damage they suffer because of it. No violation, no leering glance. How does one save a woman’s body from the bounds of dead object and yet still tell of the danger and struggles she faces because of that body?

My former classmate, Helen Rimell, drew my attention to her work documenting the lives of Mumbai’s sex workers which appeared on Vice last week. And I think it answered and provoked some questions:

http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/south-mumbai-sex-workers-violence-funeral-set-on-fire

The photo I wish to focus upon is a portrait of the dead body of a woman called Mumtaz. As explained in the piece, her family believe she was murdered by her partner. It features about half way down the page linked to above. I didn’t want to paste it here because I feel this is something you have to elect to see, not something you stumble across on a blog. As I say, I’m focusing upon that one image, but as an important aside, Vice’s SEO orientated labelling of the whole story is predictably lame and offensive – the text preview that appears if you share the link on facebook calling this “a scary story”, doesn’t really even begin to cover the depth of feeling in these images. Similarly, the shock tactics of the headline substitutes these women’s stories with horror house dummies. Helen’s photo project and her narrated experience of it are a world away from such tactics.

My opening questions when approaching this image were: what does it mean to show someone’s life and death? What does it mean for me – a white, middle class, western woman – to see this life and death; one so unknown to me?

I find it interesting that we often talk about the showing of a dead body as in some way degrading – and indeed it is the case that the Western media is happy to oggle many more dead and maimed black and brown bodies yet treats white bodies with a respectful averted gaze, but in this case the way the body shown stands outside that damaging dynamic. Yes, it is shocking, but Mumtaz’ body acts as a testimony to her life and the struggles she faced. As Helen says, the family wanted the world to know what had happened to Mumtaz and so wanted photographs of everything at the funeral.

There is also the fact that the visibility of the body is a natural part of the funeral process in this context, which surely transforms the extent to which we would call the viewing of the body an exposure. Instead, it is evidence which demands witness and the beautiful elements keep us looking at what is hard in the image. Golden petals, pink stains, a slash of sunlight – naturalistic elements of the funeral which become metaphors for this female body and female life. All are painful, all demand regard. I think it is important to recentre identity in the body in this way, especially when you live and die by the fact of it.

Ladies, you’re pretty artsy and creative, right? [Cross post]

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Ooh the ‘Lady Carefree Elite’ – wait, isn’t that a brand of tampon?

PIX is a photography lifestyle magazine for women. If you love to snap photos, chances are you’re pretty creative and artsy about the rest of your world too. It’s important to you that your business is modern and cool, you’ve always got an eye out for hip clothing and accessories, and looking professional and shooting well are top priorities.  If this sounds like you, PIX is here to help! In each issue you’ll find tips, ideas, products and trend reports for women in photography. PIX also includes features, beauty and fashion tips and much more!”

Whoa, PIX, let me stop you right there.

So, this little promotion landed in my friend’s inbox recently and not surprisingly she found it pretty laughable. I guess if you’re signed up to the same newsletters as her, you received it too. But here’s why I’m bothering with this little bit of inbox fluff: it’s stereotyping language and outlooks like the above that put female photographers into a limiting and uncomfortable little box, and also reinforce the divide between male and female photographers in ways that are limiting to us all.

Let’s break it down:

First off, this is a ‘lifesyle’ magazine so it has to be considered within the context of encouraging the reader to buy products in order to imitate advertised styles. Of course, these kind of publications exist for photographers already – churning out hundreds of glossy images of state of the art lenses, camera bags and lighting sets for the gadget-heads to fawn over.

Full disclosure here: I’m already pretty uncomfortable with this fetishisation of camera equipment. It strikes me as Capitalist society’s way of turning you into a consumer of what you enjoy rather than an author, artist or creator. Consumers are quiet, lazy and easily placated – all they need is a little expendable income for the next lens and they won’t trouble you by creating challenging images. Artists, authors and creators are troublesome – they question things, they make something new, by their very nature they don’t fully buy into the consumerist deal, indeed, they keep undermining it. Creators reserve the right to become outraged and make a noise about it, consumers have already signed on the dotted line. The lusting over equipment, beyond having a camera that does the job you want it to, is a distraction from the real issue: What are your images trying to say?

The female sex has always been bombarded with the idea of accessorisation. Strip away the jolly pictures of girls clutching handbags and women brandishing diamonds, and you tap into an undercurrent that says: “Without objects you are not a whole woman, accessorise yourself to be adequate.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I like beautiful things too, I even go to the shop and buy them sometimes. I’m not trying to claim I’ve totally edged myself out of this consumerist contract, but what I am saying is, I value my life, my actions and the things I create by a different standard than material accessorises.

So here is PIX –  an advertisers’ dream of an overlap on the Ven diagram of consumerism:

Photographers! You need the latest equipment to become professional! You will never create beautiful and successful images without the new ultra-hard-wearing-frost-proof-flood-proof-satchel-style-camera-bag-in-azure. You are literally a failure without it!

+

Women! You need the latest make-up/handbag/shoes/dress/hairstyle etc. etc. in order to be a REAL woman. How will the world recognise your wonderful womanhood if you do not wear the latest super-gloss-high-cream-age-defying-lipstick-in-plum? You are practically an ugly man/ ‘lesbian’ without it and no person (read ‘man’) will ever love you!

= PIX

They’ve walked a tough tightrope to anchor these two bastions of self-loathing inducing advertising together, but they’ve just about done it.

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Hence, PIX, reckons, my fellow photographing females, that you’re pretty ‘artsy’. Oh how CUTE. I love this use of the diminutive. Because we all know that women – or should I say ‘girls’? – are just so adorably artsy sometimes. You know, with those big cameras in their little hands. Girls aren’t artists after all, that would be far too grown-up and important, they’re ‘artsy’ and creative. To this end, Pix recommends you build a lamp shade out of cupcake papers…

Er, what? Dear professional photographers, is a cupcake paper lantern a priority for you? No, no it isn’t. You might enjoy crafts, there is nothing wrong with that at all, but I resent the implication that because I am a) female and b) a photographer I have everything in common with all the other female photographers and that we all like making paper lanterns – because photography and crafts are so totally the same thing. After all, in both cases all we are really doing is fiddling around with pretty things to make more pretty things.

On this note, PIX also has a feature on lens ‘skins’ for the professional female photographer who wants to look chic on a shoot. These lens covers seems to be mostly based around animal print – Omg! you could coordinate with your shoes! Look no further, they also have a spread on flat shoes for when you’re on the job. These shoes all look very nice but none of them look like they would be suitable for running whilst in a warzone, or even offer adequate arch support.

There is nothing wrong with colour coordination ladies and gentlemen, what I am trying to get at is that I find it insulting that a magazine that claims to be the first magazine for female photographers is suggesting that a professional photographer’s priority is pretty accessories simply because she identifies as a woman. This magazine does not serve womanhood and it does not serve the photographic profession. PIX says women ‘love to snap’ photos. Is that really what we are doing – just snapping away, frivolously, like a child cramming fairy cakes into her mouth at a Birthday party? (1) Is this the extent of women’s contribution to Photography: Some snaps and some well-coordinated lenses? No it’s not. We let this lazy stuff wash over us because there is just so much of it, but we shouldn’t and we certainly shouldn’t imbibe it.

******

These stereotypes run deeper in more subtle ways: PIX also features a piece on photographing babies. There is nothing ignoble about photographing babies, and it strikes me as a skilful ability to possess. However, I question whether a male identifying photography magazine would run such a piece, and therefore I think it should make us question the ways in which we categorise male and female photographers and the qualities of male and female photography. I’ve often heard it casually banded around that women photographers have an advantage because they are able to become more intimate with their subjects and gain their trust, especially if those subjects are children. This may be true on some level but I think it should be recognised that this truth is born of a cultural set of values that, whilst they seem to flatter women, also limit them, and limit men. Why shouldn’t a man photograph children well? Why do we indulge in the belief that he will find it more awkward and be more easily suspect than a woman?

The implied other side of this coin is that women will find it harder to deal with other forms of photography – typically, the real ‘hard’ stuff of war photography – just by the fact of our gender. Once again, I want it to be clear that I am not making value judgements: I do not believe war photography to be somehow more real or more serious than images of families, but I do recognise that in many professional circles, such a value judgement is made and that female photographers frequently fall down on the wrong side of it. The implication is: Yes, you can probably do the nice, ‘intimate’ stuff a bit better, but you can’t really play with the Big Boys out on the battlefield or in the refugee zone. I think the primacy of the war photographer is well over blown, but I’ll be damned if I allow anyone’s gender to restrict them from access to that role and the respect they would receive for it.  Equally, it’s sad that it is repeatedly suggested that men somehow have a distance from children or from intimate stories and this massively undervalues the many intimate and tender stories male photographers have produced.

PIX is a sadly missed opportunity because I would love to see a magazine that discussed issues of gender in relation to photographic practice and highlighted the fact that women are still under-represented in many fields of photography, and looked for a way to even that score. Whilst they’re there, they could also deconstruct some of the prejudices surrounding the male photographer and the female photographer. They might highlight the way women have played a role in the media of our age and the prejudice these women still face – Arab Spring anyone? Perhaps they could even make sure to expand their focus beyond heteronormtivity – radical, I know. Perhaps they could have the scope to include both family focused pieces and a Global outlook.

With Pix magazine I guess what we see is the Yin to the Yang of Macho War Photographer: she’s the family minded, well accessorised, small business running, working mum. She’s good at making clients feel relaxed and matching her handbags to her shoes. Just as Mr. out-in-the-field-with-the-massive-lenses-and-the-Big-Guns is a sad stereotype for male photographers to follow, so too is PIX’s Female Photographer a limiting role. Surely there should be more to being a photographer then decorated lenses – whether that decoration consist of zebra stripes or camouflage print?

This post originally published on the Duckrabbit Blog 

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See Jezebel’s lowdown on PIX here.

(1)     Fairy cakes, or ‘cupcakes’ as they have become to be known, are a whole other crap-cluster of repressed sexualities and gendered consumerism and probably indicate some underlying social-psychic brain rot. Good thoughts on that here.

These Breasts are Getting Some Attention

So, my piece about Femen, the Ukranian ‘topless’ protest group, has been up for a couple of months now. And you know what, hits on my blog have shot up. This strikes me as an interesting parallel to Femen’s own method of presentation and protest: using their bodies to draw attention to injustice and gender inequality. When I wrote my piece, and put Herbaut’s portrait of activist, Alexandra Shevchenko, at the top of the page, I was trying to make a useful analysis of the image, reflecting on whether the exposure of the female body can help or hinder a cause. Strangely enough, I wasn’t thinking about internet search hits – but that’s what I got. Loads of them over the last Quarter – along the lines of:

  • naked amazons (38)
  • naked women protesters (7)
  • naked woman breasts (4)
  • playing breasts (4) [Not sure what playing breasts would look like? I’m imagining one breast throwing a ball to the other… no?]
  • femen girls (3) [Something about the term ‘girls’ makes this search particularly creepy and makes me think the searcher(s) missed out on what Femen stand for – womanhood, strength.]
  • real women undressing game (3)
  • super hot naked women showing exposed tits (3) [I quite like the tautology of this one.]
  • female breasts are bigger than ever (2) [Are they indeed?]
  • woman stripped naked and bound (2) 
  • photo of nude breasts on body of young female (2) [Particularly strange – ‘young female’? – almost as if women are a different species. Also like that the breasts are specifically ‘on the body’, you know, just in case you get pics of ones that have fallen off…?]
  • man grabbing woman’s breast (4)
  • beach voyeur woman naked (2)
  • arab woman covered naked (2)
  • egypt girls naked breast (2)
  • half exposed breast clothes (2)
  • female dominant breasts (2)
  • exquisite breasts (2)
  • erotic women body (2)
  • naked tribal women (2)
  • tattooed female bodies naked (2)
  • breasts photography (2)

Well, you get the idea, they go on for ages… many many more, all orientated around the words ‘naked’ and ‘breasts’ and some of them mentioning race or the term ‘tribal’. Although each of these terms aren’t representing that many visits, it’s the sheer number of variations – each one constituting about a couple of hits – that surprised me. Obviously, I have been naive about the power of breasts on the internet.

So, to all those people (and here I’m gonna go with mostly heterosexaul men – shoot me down if you seriously think I’m wrong) – to all those guys who just typed in ‘breast’ and ‘exposed’ and whatever racial / physical profile you fancied taking an ogle at today I want to say a big: HELLO THERE! And to let you know, there are some thoughts about breasts, bodies and women on this blog so please have a read. Unfortunately for you, I have to also tell you, that this is not a porn site.

I’m not someone who believes pornography should be censored – I don’t think it’s intrinsically ‘wrong’. I think there’s some pretty bad imbalances of power within the dominant industry and I find it altogether unappealing and some of it thoroughly disturbing. Culturally; I have big problems, morally; no. But that is for another time, I just want to point out that I find it kind of sad and amusing that these are the hits landing up on the shores of my blog.

All those guys who just rocked up here with a couple of breasts in mind, I would like to ask you, do you read anything on here? Do you just get to the picture of Schevchenko and stop scrolling? I ask because I think it might be an interesting test. As Femen hope to make people aware of injustice and the discrimination women face by exposing their torsos – and indeed they have received a lot of coverage for it – I want to know if their picture on my site communicated any greater message than ‘breasts!’ (or as one searcher quaintly put it, ‘naked boobies’) ? It strikes me as a parallel and related case to Femen’s own position. It also strikes me that images are so much beyond any given person’s control that it seems unlikely that Herbaut’s portrait has reliably conveyed Femen’s message to the world. I’m sure it exists, well detached from context, in many corners of the internet. Even with the context I have provided, it seems that plenty of people are discovering the image without the desire to discover what it might be about.

I don’t claim to have answers to this problem. I would just like to say, that the exposure of the female body is a knife-edge that cuts between power and submission. I don’t know if anyone, at this cultural moment, can fully reverse the symbolism that surrounds the female body and names its exposure as vulnerable, weak and obscene. I expect that very few of the people looking for breasts on my blog scrolled down the page and read anything about Femen and what they stand for and why I think they are subversive. I still think it’s important to try to reverse this limiting symbolism though. I still think that maybe one odd person might have read a little bit about something they weren’t looking for after they hit ‘boobs’ into the search bar. Call me a dreamer, but I don’t see that we’ll get a chance at reshaping images around sex, femaleness and power if we give up on trying to start a conversation with the average male, heterosexual porn consumer.

So, I look forward to welcoming more of them onto my site now that I’ve got all the key search terms up on the front page.

Image Search Hit for ‘non-topless woman’.

Naked Courage: WPP and The New Amazons [Cross-post]

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This photo is bound to grab attention, as breasts often do, and FEMEN protesters are clearly playing to that dynamic. However, this photo provides more of a complex presentation of the exposed female torso and one that proves interesting when considering the wider politics of the relentless sexualisation of female bodies whether they be veiled, exposed or neither.

When female breasts are so commonly fetishised in public imagery in ways that seek out the titillation of exposure – in Britain for example, tabloid paper, The Sun, prints a topless woman on page 3 every day- can any one act of protest actually hope to subvert the misogyny and objectification inherent in such an ‘exposure’?

Here’s how Shevchenko and by proxy, Herbaut, attempt to do so:

  • The Stance:  Shevchenko’s pose, with the raised fist, speaks of her mission to teach women to be more assertive.  Shevchenko’s pose, with the raised fist, speaks of her mission to teach women to be more assertive. The figure of the ‘Amazonian’ is a central reference FEMEN utilizes. If the identification is to the “other,” suggesting the marginalization these women feel, it also points to ‘Amazonians,’ in the cultural imagination, as a matriarchal tribe made up of fearsome and fearless women. On the other hand, is it a case of gender politics being careless with racial stereotypes and identification?
  • The Tattoo:  The garland of roses tattooed onto Shevchenko’s side, which depict the headdress she is wearing, act as the perfect sign for the paradox that this act of nudity as protest embodies. The tattoo is both a sign of bodily harm – being an inked in scar – and of strength, or resistance to pain. It shows the way in which her cause is so essential to her it is mapped onto her body and also the way in which her body is her cause. It’s an act done by someone with a clear idea that the visual presentation of her own body is key to her message.
  • The Headdress: Of course the headdress is a reference to the tribal and Amazonian identification. It also hints at the theatrical nature of protest, the way in which the protester takes on a special public identity and performs choreographed acts. This garland of roses, and the brightly coloured ribbons, also suggest femininity, something which the group are keen to use and display rather than deny as some feminist groups in the past have done. It’s the turning around of signs – femininity is seen to equal weakness and vulnerability, but here Shevchenko and FEMEN demand that it equal strength. What could be the crown of a beauty queen is willed to equal the headdress of a tribal warrior.
  • The Location: Herbaut’s choice of location does much to illustrate the group’s context. Shevchenko is depicted in open grassland on the edge of what seems to be a cluster of Soviet style apartment blocks. This speaks of marginalisation as well as the groups Ukrainian and urban environment. The grassy field upon which Shevchenko stands is another clever double symbol representing as it does both marginalisation and the open space of pastoral freedom which is also indicated by the flowered headdress. It reveals a dream of an Eden, a renewed innocence directed at and by the female body, which at the same time is drawn out of a full awareness of what that body means to mainstream culture and how it is exploited.

What this portrait tells us is that much of the time image makers and image consumers view the female body as either exposed or hidden and this is a hot topic (I mean, see all the worry over the fact that the woman in the Winning photo is wearing a burkha). Whether veiled or on display, it becomes clear that these two opposites in fact put the female body within the same continuum as something inescapably defined by sexuality in a way that male bodies are not. (It is worth remembering that if a man walked down the street topless he would not get arrested, and neither would he attract much extra attention at a protest). With this doubly innocent and knowing revelation of the female torso, I think Shevchenko is asking us to realise that the female body is also at times neither exposed nor hidden – it is the human form and as such represents identity, physicality and power.

Whether every audience can be sophisticated enough to understand the turning around of signs; the ways in which ‘weak’ is made ‘powerful’, ‘victim’ is made ‘fighter’, is a difficult matter. FEMEN certainly consider it a risk worth taking in order to finally draw attention to the problems women face in their society. This photograph as a photographic object must undergo the same difficult process of interpretation – is it a kind of pornography or a protest item that has raised the awareness of FEMEN’s cause? It is highly reliant on context. But in a world where the female body is so often used by others, especially through visual media, it is a statement that the members of FEMEN demand to be able to use their own bodies as tools of visual representation to further the cause of women’s equality and welfare. A body to protect a body is a courageous act.

This article originally published on BagNews where it was edited and adapted for the site > Here.

Also, regarding this topic it is well worth checking out Karrin  Anderson’s piece for BagNews : Photo of Woman Stripped by Egyptian Military: Not Shamed, Not a Victim