In Defence of This Year’s World Press Photo: An Image that is Complex and Conflicting.

Already the World Press Photo of the Year 2012 is causing controversy. Critics are upset with the use of the Pietà. Not only are they saying, “Not again”, they are also noting that Christian imagery is being forced upon Arabic & Isalmic content. And so they should.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Of course, the Pietà is there, of course it causes problems, but what about the other narratives and styles the photograph contains? There is something more unusual about the image. It has a different sensibility to the Renaissance style that people are claiming it to have.
                                                                                                                                                                       First of all, the Christian imagery may be a clash with the content, but it doesn’t drag with it the rest of the baggage you would associate with religified images of suffering. The bare style, the off-centred framing of the pair: they stop this suffering becoming glorious or romantic. There’s something loose about it. This makes it stand out against other pieta-based images like this .
                                                                                                                                                                      To add to this contrast, the aesthetic does not strike me as Renaissance. It seems modernist. It has a dreamlike, surreal quality that speaks of an inner psychology rupturing through to the surface. The faces, swallowed by darkness, the strangeness of the white-gloved hands, the muscular shapes of the jaw and arms: all add to an aesthetic that is more current and more interesting. The angles and shadows are almost cubist. It reminds me of a Francis Bacon portrait in it’s twisting expressiveness.
                                                                                                                                                                  So what does the image tell us about the news story to which it pertains – which, at its widest, is the Arab Spring? First of all, this is clearly a personal image for a wider political context. The personal can often be reductive. Critics are anxious about the stereotypical presentation of the ‘Arab Woman’ – burkha clad, offering comfort to the man. The tension of this stereotype is there. This is indeed not a shot of the ways in which women engaged in and drove the revolution on the ground. On the other hand, the woman looks strong, her grip is fierce. She defines the man’s body. He is an exposed body, she is a force. This is an unusual dynamic and one which makes powerful the woman. Her grip conveys much about the bonds that tie people together and must be essential in retaining an identity in the middle of turmoil, trauma and revolution.
                                                                                                                                                                             So is this slice of the personal reductive? I don’t think so. It’s an insight, a gripping and gripped moment. The body is political ground, and I do not think it is distressing or inaccurate to see these bodies as symbols of a wider national struggle. They have not become dislocated in ways that are glorifying or mystifying. These bodies mean something both about a presented moment and a wider movement and they do so in a conflicting and complex way. Not all is resolved about the identities of the figures but much is communicated. For me, this is an image that conjures up the struggles of gender and of the revolution. The caring role appears not as weak or passive: it is vital and powerful, but all is a sinuous strain on a bodily level and a societal level.
                                                                                                                                                                       When we can recognise that the caring role does not have to be the secondary position, we can see that this image says more than the typical.
                                                                                                                                                                       Of course I am not talking here of the politics of Photography Competitions, or what qualifies an images as ‘better’ than all the other images. I would merely like to say that this image has relevance and power, and that although on the first level it could be said to fall into stereotypes and willed Western prejudices, I think there are more subtle levels upon which to view this image.  To see the other side of the argument, you can read this excellent piece . It’s worth considering all sides, and I am still intrigued to learn and think more.
                                                                                                                                                              Update: You can see some of my ideas and some other interesting points in this conversational piece on BagNews.

Abject Poverty / Object Poverty

Presenting poverty is difficult, as is presenting suffering in general. To expose someone to the lens, and then to the wider world, in a moment of struggle or pain or fear, must be justified by some purpose, some greater act of goodness. Otherwise it is simply a kind of voyeurism – a static piece of rubber-necking. I think this is a well-recognised problem that all photojournalist with any claim to integrity must struggle with – so I don’t expect to break any ground by bringing it up right here. No, this piece is simply to offer a neat little example – a coincidental chain of images – which made me think about the problems of showing poverty and which also throws up some other knotty little issues that turn out to be pretty big fat major issues that run within the practise and concept of documentary photography.

Don McCullin, Jean, Whitechapel, London, c 1980

Last week I went to see Don McCullin’s retrospective at Tate Britain. It’s a muted and interesting display occupying only one room (I’m told the McCullin exhibit at the Imperial War Museum is more impressive). I found myself struggling with McCullin’s images of homeless people and remarked to my friends that I believed these portraits had to be viewed with some nod towards historical context. By this I meant that I suspected these portraits were something more remarkable at the time of their production (60s – 80s) than in 2012. To be clear, I mean the fact of their existence was more remarkable, rather than the aesthetic of the image. The aesthetic is still incredible: eyes stare or defer, skin is rendered in smoky greys, coats and shadows are as heavy and black as charcoal on a canvas. But treating the dispossessed with a painter’s reverence must’ve been a bigger statement then than it might be now. I’m not saying it’s right that social issues should be reduced to fighting out whether or not their image has become cliché – but I am saying that it does, sadly, happen.  The fact that a pressing social issue can become ‘cliché’ is a disturbing problem and one which artists interested in social change must inevitably grapple with and seek out new strategies against.

Don McCullin, Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London 1969

I think the cliché is probably born of three sets of circumstance: that of the socially concerned photographer, that of the homeless person, and the bitter fact that homelessness is a problem that is ongoing and needs ever renewed address. The photographer’s desire to deal with the issues of poverty in his/her vicinity coupled with the accessibility of people who have nowhere else to go and who therefore continually offer their image, seems to make it quite likely that ‘the homeless’ will become a subject for the concerned photographer. Throw in the draw of some loose change being handed over in return for a snap and the potential for the image to be made is even greater. It is the economic imbalance, the fact that one person has private space and can protect his/her visibility and that the other has very limited access to private space and protection of his/her visibility, that worries me and makes me think that deeper problems might sometimes underlie the small social event of photographer photographing homeless person.

The other thing that made me uncomfortable was that these photos made feel useless. I did not understand why I was being asked to consume them as objects on a gallery wall. Were these art objects or a campaign? Both? Or maybe, evidence of a past campaign that now takes on the form of art? Or perhaps, evidence of McCullin himself, of his actions within the world, of his type of photography? The narrative these pictures propose are troubling to me – am I learning about McCullin (who afterall, is the subject of the exhibition), am I learning about these homeless people (who may be long dead, or totally altered from the image on the wall), am I learning about homelessness in general?  In any case, what can I hope to achieve as witness to their suffering? Suffering which is at least thirty years out of date. It’s a funny bind because the fact that these images figure a past makes me think that this suffering is ancient and unchangeable. This encourages one to turn the images into an art object, a piece of imagery. But that suffering is still there, however old, and to dislocate the art of the image from the suffering of the person shown seems usurious and inhumane.  Indeed it comes down to this: Am I witnessing a social problem or am I consuming an image? And how reconcilable are these two cases?

All these questions and feelings resurfaced again a few days later when I saw this spread in The Guardian’s Weekend Magazine (of the 21st of January):

A number of things struck me – first of all the attractiveness of the grid layout and the density of portraits across the two pages. I find this layout intriguing, it makes me want to study each image and draw comparisons between them.  The highly detailed and dense quality of each image is interesting as well, if a bit over-glossed – creases, eyelashes and scratches are all rendered with a metallic precision.  Then, I noticed that there were no captions, no stories for any or each of these faces. At first this intrigued me even more – I began to ask questions of the faces, I began to worry about their histories, I began to notice the difference between them. But then I also began to wonder where the stories were and whether it was fair to present these faces, especially in such an aesthetically pleasing way, if the complex issues that lay behind each person’s predicament were excluded.

On one hand, I welcomed this as a new strategy: it got me interested; it got me asking myself questions. On the other hand that line of questioning ended in me wondering what the purpose or intended effect of putting these images in a weekend magazine without their stories was. There is a hint of idealisation about it, of romantic storytelling: “…they are also beautiful. A woman with exquisite cheekbones; an elderly man who resembles a medieval sage…”. I find too much romanticism unhelpful to social causes.  Once we enter a romantic narrative we also broach the reasons and feelings that motivate us to continue writing the narrative.  It was this sentence especially that I found most excluding and difficult: “…their weathered skin and intense gazes tell of the hardship of life on the streets perhaps better than the subjects could themselves.”. The face becomes a visual object to tell a tale, rather than the first presentation of a whole and complex human being with a whole and complex story. I think these faces do tell us a lot, but is it enough for a project that seeks to develop an intimacy with homeless people and to break down the everyday barriers that allow us to walk on by, to then reduce that story only to the face? I might be closer to the face of another than I have been before, but I’m also being asked to take that image, and that person, at ‘face-value’ and this erects a new kind of barrier.


My thoughts here were very much developed in response to The Guardian’s presentation of the images. It is interesting to see Time’s presentation of the same images on their LightBox site:

In fact, on LightBox, some of my worries and questions were answered. The explanation of Jeffries’ practice and the fact that he has used his work to raise funds for the homeless helps to make the status of these images a bit more clear. Also, the photographs on LightBox have captions – only location and date – but it makes a big difference to the meaning of the image. It makes this person locatable and historical thereby giving them a context which illustrates their situation in social terms. Jeffries says: “I’m stepping into their world. Everyone else walks by like the homeless are invisible. I’m stepping through the fear, in the hope that people will realize these people are just like me and you.” Of course, art cannot always be measured by what the artist claims it to be, however this does reaffirm my initial feeling towards the images – that they attempt a kind of intimacy that subverts the non-homeless person’s average interaction with the homeless person.

Well, this goes to show how much an editorial can construct, construe and influence meaning.

This piece now on the Duckrabbit blog here.

Images of Sexual Violence (1): Saying Things Kept Silent, Showing Things Kept Hidden.

This article is the first in a series about images of Sexual Violence in photography, photojournalism, documentary and visual art. My own piece, You Did This To Yourself ( figures a response to the issues and examples I raise here.  

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is a story about a young black girl in 1960s America who is sexually abused by her father. It’s beautifully written and painful to read – speaking fearlessly about the realities of poverty, race and gender. It unearths the causes of victimhood and the silence which surrounds and supports the on-going occurrence of sexual violence. How to word something that is kept silent? How to show something that is kept hidden? Morrison writes:

“The novelty, I thought, would be in having this story of female violation revealed from the vantage point of the victims or could-be-victims of rape – the persons no one inquired of (certainly not in 1965); the girls themselves. And since the victim does not have the vocabulary to understand the violence or its context, gullible, vulnerable girlfriends, looking back as the knowing adults they pretended to be in the beginning, would have to do that for her, and would have to fill those silences with their own reflective lives. Thus, the opening provides the stroke that announces something more than a secret shared, but a silence broken, a void filled, an unspeakable thing spoken at last.”

Two things strike me as important here and may prove important in regards to other stories of sexual violence in other mediums:

  1. That bringing words and images to the unspoken and unseen event is a kind of healing and overcoming. Morrison says that with the realising of the story of sexual abuse ‘a void is filled’, a need is met. Similarly, the silence appears as a kind of menacing spell, a thing to be ‘broken’. The relief provided by this break is clear in ‘spoken at last’ – this has been something needed and anticipated for a long time.
  2. That the victim herself does not necessarily have the words: ‘the victim does not have the vocabulary to understand the violence or its context’. This is not to say, the victim is incapable of ever having the vocabulary, but rather her position as victim is defined by not having the words or a voice to speak against what is happening to her.

This makes it clear that to fight against the creation of victims of sexual violence, words and images must be given to those victims with which they can begin to address and describe their suffering and those who cause it. As it will become clear, these words and images are hard to provide or develop in a culture which still struggles to see the complex, various and ubiquitous nature of sexual violence.

In light of this, and to draw our attention to photojournalism, Ariella Azoulay’s essay, “Has Anyone Ever Seen a Photograph of Rape?” sets out an argument for the sheer lack of imagery of sexual violence in the canon of iconic photojournalism (1). Azoulay argues, whilst photographers have brought into the public arena images of many kinds of suffering – genocide, mutilation, violent warfare etc. – images of rape, an act which occurs in much the same context as the other atrocities, are largely absent. This labelling of the blind-spot proves to reveal not only that photographers have mostly failed at documenting rape when it occurs amongst other atrocities (typically during wartime), but their techniques of documenting rape during peacetime are also highly restricted and restricting. This blind-spot, in Azoulay’s analysis, goes on to be seen not just as an historical failure to vision, but also an ongoing inability to envision, born of the inadequacy of social discourses which still cannot recognise the reality of rape.

Azoulay’s questions are then, Why is it we cannot ‘show’ rape in the way that we can show other kinds of torture and bodily suffering? Hint: this might say more about the viewer than the actual event itself. And also – In what ways do these lack of images damage those who might need them – i.e. victims, potential victims and the wider society?

These questions will be explored later. As a first example, ‘Project Unbreakable‘ by Grace Brown is an interesting place to start:

It attempts to do the same thing that Morrison does with her novel, to fill ‘the void’ of silence and bring words and imagery to that which has been kept un-worded and hidden. People who have suffered abuse hold up the words of their abusers, words that were used to silence them. It is one simple gesture of resistance, of refuting the silence that has been put upon them. The phrases are short but they provide a small window into the complex world of abuse and sexual violence. That opening image, ‘I love you’, is especially powerful because it marks the importance of context and the complicated nature of abuse. They signal the way in which abuse can be non-violent – something that must be recognised if these cases are going to reach justice. They also indicate what the victim must struggle with: What if abuse is presented as love? What if you don’t know enough about love to be able to say this abuse is not love? That is certainly the case for Pecola, the abused girl in Morrison’s novel.

Perhaps the technique is a familiar one – photographs of people holding up signs with their personal stories or position on has been used in many other contexts and protests – but here is takes on a special resonance because these are words that have been characterised by the fact that they occur in private. Their power has been because of secrecy, because the abuser persuaded the abusee to never tell, because the abuser invoked shame and fear in the abusee. These signs are an act of placing the shame back on the abuser, of making the public witness what goes on in private. It is one simple way to take the words and turn them around.

The images also make clear, in case there could ever be any doubt, that choosing what to show – the very act of representation – is a fiercely political act. The format and style of that act of showing can make or break the message. These truths are especially raw in the context of a little seen and little understood phenomena which needs vision and recognition in order to overcome its occurrence.

This piece now on the Duckrabbit blog here.


You can read more about Brown’s project here:

You can see the ongoing tumblr blog of Brown’s project here:

(1) See : Azoulay, A.  The Civil Contract of Photography, 2008, New York: Zone Books.

Many Images, One View.

Many images, One View – a look at photojournalism and documentary photography inspired by Chimamanda Adichie’s speech ‘The Danger of a Single Story’.                                                                                                                                                           

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I think there is something rotten at the heart of much contemporary photojournalistic practice. I tried to put this off, I tried to admire those who had been to the toughest places, taken the toughest photos – things I knew I could never do. It was easier to self-criticise rather than raise my objections in the face of those who have shown determination and bravery in difficult situations. That is, until I realised that it wasn’t that I couldn’t do these things, it was that I didn’t think it would help anyone in any significant way if I did. And I think it’s to do with the often privileged photographer who tells the story and the underprivileged subject who must submit to the story. I see image after image produced by these privileged photographers who do not fully realise the great gulf that their privilege creates between them and their subject – no matter the sympathy with which they undertake their work – and despite the fact that there are so many thousands of pictures, I see only one view; only one story.  Of course, critics have written in great depth about the power of the gaze and what it does to its subject, but I do think it’s worth locating this stance within photojournalism once again, and I think Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful and fierce speech about stories would be a good way to do that – because after all, photojournalism is about stories; telling stories, showing stories (1). Adichie essentially argues this: Stories have the power to persuade and define, and if the same story about someone or some groups of people you don’t know and will never meet is told again and again and again you are going to believe that that is the only story they can ever be a part of; that story becomes their whole identity. (Link to speech at the beginning of this article.)
Adichie describes how she first met the single and repeated story about Africa and about Africans that those in the West are told:
“I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked be me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position towards me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.”

Adichie’s speech focuses upon literature, which is of course an important vessel for those limited and limiting stories which come to dominate discourse with the Western perspective. However, I’d also like to ask, what role did photojournalism play in Adichie’s roommate’s perception? Where did she get her ideas about Africa as a total and ongoing ‘catastrophe’

Photojournalism is largely responsible for the image that loomed so large in Adichie’s roommate’s mind that she could not conceive of an African as her equal.  As Adichie says, her roommate ‘felt sorry’ for her ‘even before she saw’ her.  One story, one image had obscured her vision of Adichie far beyond Adichie’s power to ever claim her actual image and identity back.Layer upon layer of imagery has depicted Africa (as if it were one country and not a huge continent) as an ongoing catastrophe involving famine, aids, poverty and helplessness. Similarly, we are surrounded by a swarm of images of Indian’s living in slums, drinking polluted water and so on. It is important to maintain a balanced view here: I am not stating that these images should not be sought out and should not be shown. It is vitally important that aid agencies and other charities and NGOs have images to move their supporters and to raise awareness. It is important that injustice is witnessed as this is the first step towards tackling it. However, it is also important that there are other images, not only to show the diversity of existence so that one nation or ethnic group are not repeatedly typecast but also for the very ends of the images of catastrophe – if we are to act against injustice and suffering we must feel there is an alternative for the subjects. The ongoing catastrophe of Africa, the ongoing helplessness of ‘Africans’, makes the Western viewer feel helpless as we see that our efforts mean nothing. Dangerously, we can begin to ascribe essential qualities to these apparently helpless Africans, we begin to read into them the spectre of famine, the lack of resources, the complete dislocation from the modern (read Western) world.  Ultimately, it puts the West in the normative position: we are the modern world, we are informed, we should try to help – and the ‘third world’ other into the deviant position: they are behind, they are uneducated, they can’t do anything to help themselves. The West can then either look to this pathetic cousin with sympathy or choose to turn away, or worse, blame that cousin for its problems. Images that were meant to bring out our common humanity have divided us, and with this overpowering single story remaining so central in our vision it is increasingly difficult to challenge that division.

To take an example, we might regard Tom Stoddart’s widely acclaimed images of famine in Sudan. Now once again, I must stress that I am not criticising these images themselves, but I am asking, ‘Where are the other images?’ and, ‘Is there not something amiss in the fact that a photojournalist’s career is frequently built upon revealing horrror and suffering again and again?’, ‘Doesn’t it become overwhelming?’. Take a look at this image of emaciated people running for air-dropped food supplies: It’s hellish and huge and hopeless, the mass of people obscure the horizon and race to take the whole frame. They are seemingly endless and at such a distance they are multiple and indistinguishable.

Tom Stoddart, Sudan, 1998.

There are of course a variety of structures and frames in Stoddart’s story of the famine, but my argument is that this image is one that not only provides visual information for the local moment depicted, but one that also acts as a metaphor for the emotional and visual impact of the whole series.  As Stoddart says, these pictures are “sad and necessary”, but he also urges the viewer not to feel ‘sorry’ but to feel ‘angry’. This is where I struggle: I want to feel angry but I just feel horrified. I see ongoing, all-subsuming catastrophe, I see a whole world of hopeless suffering entitled ‘Africa’, and I don’t know who has caused it. It seems apocalyptic and Biblical in scale – something handed down from a much higher power than myself and against which I cannot even hope to stand. Stoddart’s own words reveal the troubling enormity and vague identity of the enemy: “mankind’s greed, intolerance, prejudice, inhumanity, lust for political power, and sheer stupidity”(2). Perhaps if there were other images in my vocabulary about Sudan and about other countries in the North-Eastern area of Africa, told by other voices, told from many different perspectives, I would be able to question these images, analyse them and see them for what they were in an appropriate context. Rather than seeing terrible and blasted ‘Africa’ I would have African comparisons with which to understand this tragedy, with which to see that this isn’t the way Africa has to be; that this really is a specific tragedy that deserves specific action and that it is not the massive, ongoing, unstoppable reality of ‘Africa’.
It is also the case that it is not enough to make a one off ‘happy’ image to challenge the images of despair. I’m not suggesting that Stoddart should go out looking for some upbeat images after having shot the horror of the famine. Instead, we need a far-reaching, insightful variety of stories and a way to consistently bring them to a Global audience. Many of the ‘happy’ images of Africa and India and other ‘third world’ countries enter into the same power structures that depict these people as a homogenous mass. By these ‘happy’ pictures I am thinking of the images of poverty which are supposedly meant to subvert our assumptions about the impoverished other – the kind of images that people coo over saying ‘But look at their brightly coloured clothes,’ or ‘Look at how well they dance,’ or ‘Look at how cute that smiling kid is’- as if we should not have expected any of these features to exist in a continent as massive and various as Africa. In both cases, the West patronises and continues with the ongoing infantilising of ‘Africans’ which is rooted in the Colonial narrative and used to justify all kinds of control, interference and dominance. As Adichie reminds us, Rudyard Kipling called the African “half devil, half child” and this dichotomy still defines such imagery and stories today.
The problem is one of scale. Adichie summarises both the importance of recognising the power of the story and how this relates to issues of scale when she talks about the Igbo word, nkali:
“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali”. It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependant on power.”
Her definition, ‘to be greater than another’ is key – greater means both better and bigger. It is the scale of the imagery that is damaging – the vast amount of catastrophic images that come to represent ‘Africa’ relative to the tiny pile of alternatives.  It also the scale of coverage, the power and size of the platform for these catastrophic images compared to the minimal platforms offered to other voices. Photojournalists may defend their position as ‘storyteller’ by pointing out that they have the greater access to an audience, they have better skills and better equipment, they have a bigger platform, but all of these things are symptoms of the disease of power inequality rather than the solutions. The photojournalist as the storyteller, even as he/she claims to be merely representing the story of an otherwise unheard other, is asserting him/herself as bigger and better than that other. The photojournalist has access to the platform the story needs and he/she essentially ventriloquizes the voices of vulnerable people in order to tell and retell the same overwhelming story of catastrophe. Perhaps this story would not be told if the photojournalist were not present, but on the other hand, perhaps this story is not fully told because of the photojournalist’s overshadowing presence.
As an example and metaphor we can look at Mike Well’s image, winner or World Press Photo of the Year 1980, which is often referred to as ‘Uganda’.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Mike Wells, Uganda, 1980.

Here the agony of scale is evident – not just in the immediate moment where a starving child’s hand is held by and compared with a fleshy white Missionary’s hand – but also in the grander meaning and resonance of this image. Both sides of the awkward paradox are illustrated: that the photojournalist enables the representation of an injustice and that the photojournalist overshadows the representation of an injustice. This image is tense with comparison: black/white, starved/well-fed, weak/strong, child/adult. The image relies upon comparison and division to make it’s argument – it’s very strategy is about division, and not about togetherness or common humanity, despite the half-attempted holding of hands between black and white that echoes anti-racist symbolism from America. Although the image makes a gesture towards unification, in fact it then reasserts the divide even more powerfully in the painful and totalising contrasts that it presents. These contrasts are made more powerful, and more dangerous, because they are ones that enter into the long-running narratives, discourses and symbols that surround the West’s patronising and narrow view of ‘Africa’: that ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ are somehow childish, frail and hellish compared to white Westerners . Once again, I stress, I am not saying this is a ‘bad’ image, what I am saying is its effect is dangerous, as much as it might be powerful, in a context where the Western viewer has few alternative points of reference for the country that is apparently depicted. The commonly used title of the photo, ‘Uganda’, raises this issue in all its totalising inaccuracy. The dislocation of hands from specific bodies – we cannot see a face with which to more specifically identify the two people – further universalises this image. It is an image that in both construction and title claims to speak for a whole nation, a kind of eternal truth, bigger than the two people whose hands are featured. It demands a grand scale in order to present something that is intrinsic, that is beyond the local image, and that ultimately adds to those Colonial narratives which infantilise and belittle Africans. In the absence of other imagery, in the absence of labels and identities through which to view this image as a specific tragedy, it dwarfs a complex idea of Uganda or Africa just as the white hand dwarfs the black. Although the fleshy white hand helps us to understand the suffering of the black hand, it also condemns that black hand to a contrast the photo asserts as universal. In the same way, the photojournalist helps us to understand suffering, but he/she also labels his/her subject as the ‘other’ who eternally suffers when other imagery is absent.

Perhaps an alternative is that the privileged photographers, writers and editors of the West need to pay some penance to this problem of scale. A group of people who recognise the value of stories within their own lives should surely wish to support and facilitate that value within the lives of others. If photojournalists truly wish to help people tell their stories – why don’t they do just that? For every image from which they make money that reaffirms the catastrophe of Africa, or the slum-life of India or the gang warfare of Columbia, perhaps story-telling professionals should donate a little bit of money to organisations that help disadvantaged people to tell their own stories and to move beyond images of helplessness. A storyteller’s equivalent of ‘carbon offsetting’. Like carbon offsetting, there is the argument that what is needed is a fundamental shift in perspective and behaviour, rather than token gestures, but also a bit like carbon offsetting, when opinion and practice is slow to change, some routine recognition of the imbalance is better than nothing and might actually foster that long-term shift in mentality. As these many stories told by many people reach new and bigger audiences with sponsorship and access to the platforms that major photographers and editors hold, perhaps we would see a new multi-view emerge in strength. Adichie’s Farafina Trust is one such an organisation that seeks to enable people to tell stories rather than tell the stories for them:
“My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a non-profit called Farafina Trust. And we have big dreams of building libraries and refurbishing libraries that already exist, and providing books for state schools that don’t have anything in their libraries, also of organising lots and lots of workshops, in reading and writing, for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories.”
She concludes by clarifying the importance of facilitating these many stories:
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
If storytelling professionals can then use their access to platform and audience – their advantage of greater scale – to disseminate and publicise other people’s stories, then the hugeness of the one image might be broken down into an overture made of many images, many views. In the context of many perspectives, each image can take on its own specific meaning and not have to submit to the larger meanings forced upon it by the photographer who may unwittingly enter it into a condemning, Colonial narrative. 
1) See C.A.Lutz and J.L.Collins, “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes”, 1991. And Berger’s Ways of Seeing, 1972. And also P. Phelan who writes, “The combination of psychic hope and political-historical inequality makes the contemporary encounter between self and other a meeting of profound romance and deep violence.” (p.4)  in Unmarked, 1993.
2) From Stoddart’s ‘iWITNESS’ site:

Essay: ‘I feel that the photograph either creates my body or mortifies it.’ (Barthes, Camera Lucida.) Muybridge’s Images of Women : the creation of feminine fantasy and the mortification of female reality in the origins of photography.


Barthes’ tropes, ‘create’ and ‘mortify’, offer much to the understanding of how the photograph impacts upon the individual body which is its subject, and the bodies which are implied by the subject. Barthes relates these terms to the argument that ‘the photograph is the advent of myself as other,’(Barthes,1980, 12). Barthes’ words are potent because they recognise the damage, in both symbolic and actual terms, that can be inflicted upon this ‘other’ subject through the repeated creation of an ideal or a monstrous figure. The awkward recreation of the self by the photograph was acutely felt by its early subjects. Walter Benjamin describes the early photographer’s studio as ‘a place between execution and representation, between torture chamber and throne room.’ (Benjamin, 1985, 247). Barthes adds to the picture by describing the pseudo-surgical apparatus of the studio photographer which ‘supported and maintained the body in its passage to immobility.’ (1980, 14). Thus in both theory and practice the early days of photography contained an element of dislocating and disturbing bodily recreation that could either elevate or humiliate the subject. In this way, starting with Barthe’s terms, a series of binaries emerge which speak of thought surrounding early photography and which have sustained and developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries: create/mortify, representation/execution, throne/torture chamber. In short, pleasure/pain, or, more generally life/death. Much work has been done to examine the role of children as early subjects who well fit these antithetic structures, representing both youth and the unstoppable passing of time and so death.1 The photograph for these early consumers hovers achingly between youth captured and youth lost, especially in the case of the popular memento mori photograph. I would like to explore the antitheses which surround 19th century photography not through the figure of the child subject, but through the female subject. The Christian framework in which these 19th century photographers (mostly male) functioned, prepared them to see the female body along the same binaries that had begun to grow out of photographic practice: the female body was desire that led to sin and death. Thus the female body provides an interesting and appropriate metaphor for which to explore the social functions of 19th century photography, as one that occupies the same creative / mortifying space as the studio and the photograph itself. In particular, I will focus upon Muybridge’s representation of women in his work Animal Location, a project which promised to examine even more closely reality through photography and so presents a case to examine the powerful ideologies posed by that, apparently, innocent reality. I will explore the way the photograph can be said to create the subject of woman in the context of the science-spectacle of his photographic endeavour, and the ways in which this recreation can constitute a damage upon the subject. 

In his work, Animal Locomotion, Edweard Muybridge proposes a seemingly scientific study of the female type, amongst many other types. This dealing in types is common to Victorian patterns of thinking, but his particular treatment of the women in these studies, and the aesthetics that he applies to their images, erode at the proposed objectivity and scientific stance of the work.2 Indeed, this speaks much of the interesting cross-over of science and spectacle which fostered the early decades of photographic technology.3 As Keller writes, the cultural climate surrounding Muybridge’s work ‘demanded the real as spectacle’ (2010, 217). This paradox presents some interesting questions but it must also be understood that neither term is discreet. In fact, I would argue, that the ‘real’ of the female body had long been subject to spectacle because of its physically hidden and yet, artistically visible status. Female bodies in the cultural discourse were the stuff of fantasy and myth. Irigary summarises this territory that the female body occupied and the new objectivity that was to be applied to an already non-reality:

 ‘Woman having been misinterpreted, forgotten, variously frozen in show cases, rolled up in metaphors, buried beneath carefully stylized figures, raised up in different idealities, would now become the ‘object’ to be investigated.’ (Irigary, 1985, 144).

 It becomes clear that any proposed study of the female form begins in a troubled and blurred state, probably not recognised by the photographer-scientist who sees as natural the images of women around him and further naturalises those images by presenting the truth through scientific examination of physical movement. These real women, apparently, really support all the fantasy women who have preceded them. There is a wonderful self-defeating contradiction in many of the images which suggest as much. For example, plate 143, entitled, ‘Descending stairs, a cup and saucer in right hand.’, features a model wearing a semi-transparent gown (Brookman, 2010, 298). This gauze defeats the stated scientific purpose of the photograph and makes the measuring board in the background redundant because it blurs the outline of the female form and therefore prevents any proposed measurement. On the other hand, it does not actually cover the woman or hide her naked body from the viewer, in a way that might have suggested the sacrificing of completely accurate scientific discovery to the modesty of the woman pictured. It can only be there as part of an erotic fantasy of the feminine. It supports neither science nor modesty, and exists to tantalise the viewer and to provide him with half-glimpses of both a spectacular science and sex. In fact, it compounds the two as the woman’s body appears as the elusive object of scientific discovery, always threatening to escape the delicate technology and seducing the photographer and the viewer into further queries, discoveries and explorations. The territory of the female body becomes metonymic for scientific discovery and in this way, such discoveries are charged with longing and a desire to see more in ways that are not objective in any sense.

Furthermore, this compounding of the female body and scientific discovery can be seen in the very origins of Muybridge’s project, which suggests that science did not lead to feminine fantasy but that in fact the two concepts occur and develop symbiotically. Whilst Williams, who analyses these images and the fantasies they suppose in her book Hardcore, is comfortable with the idea that scientific discovery turned into a desire to discover the erotic; ‘What began as a scientific impulse to record the “truth” of the body quickly became a powerful fantasy.’ (1999, 41), I would argue that the origins of the project are more complex and intertwined than she supposes. At no point is it clear that scientific discovery is the certain intention of Muybridge’s project, especially when we consider his history as a showman and entertainer. I would argue instead that he provides an increasingly popular scientific aesthetic to a spectacular project which works hard to seduce and titillate the viewer, rather than to add to a body of scientific works. In this way, Muybridge dangerously, and knowingly, purports to tell the truth of women whilst only adding to a long discourse of image fantasies, because this is what his audiences, both male and female, expect and hope to see. His figuring of objective identity is never intended to be such but to appear as such. As Keller says of this scientific gloss, ‘[The photographs] were regularly reordered and otherwise manipulated, resulting in merely the appearance of scientific objectivity.’(Keller, 2010, 224). Such a manoeuvre towards the scientific aesthetic seems likely of a man conscious enough of his public image to alter his name into more unusual forms throughout his life.4 Muybridge’s project managed to create a theatrical show that did not give away its status as fantasy and yet retained the allure of the fantastical, as a reporter for the Photographic News in 1882 makes clear: ‘A new world of sights and wonder was, indeed, opened by photography, which was not less astounding because it was truth itself.’(quoted in Braun, 2010, 226). This claim to truth obscures the theatrical and makes the images rendered by Muybridge particularly powerful and more exciting in the audiences’ minds. William’s link between Muybridge’s work and the 20th century pornographic film holds true under such a dynamic, which, as she argues, offer a similar model of the viewing of sexual pleasure: the pornographic film seeks to show performed sexual pleasure in a way that makes it appear to be authentic and therefore heightens the pleasure of the viewer. Muybridge’s clever application of the scientific status can be seen in the changing titles of plate 73 (Brookman, 2010, 296). In Muybridge’s notebook the images of a naked woman running with her arm covering her face and her hand covering her genitals, is entitled ‘Ashamed’. However, when presented in Animal Locomotion it takes on the title ‘Turning around in surprise and running away.’5 Thus, Muybridge foregrounds the kinetic content and disguises the emotional content of the photograph, but still that emotional content remains. The new title doesn’t seem to describe what is happening in the series – the model’s face is obscured and so we cannot even see a look of surprise, and why the model would need to cover her face and her genitals in order to run, turn and be surprised is unclear. Although we are told that this is merely a chain of actions, we feel that the model is ashamed or something similar, and this is a powerful erotic image which pushes against the surface of scientific objectivity until it ruptures it altogether. This allows the viewer to posit their desire to see as explicitly intellectual and only covertly sexual. Thus the comfort of the viewer is repeatedly privileged and the identity of the woman is repeatedly sacrificed to a fantasy of the feminine. The more truth about the woman these photographs claim to tell, the more they submit her to a fantasy that is nothing of her own making.  

In this way, this fantasy of the feminine prioritises a heterosexual male scientist-voyeur. Indeed, some of Muybridge’s images of women play out the power dynamics of seeing, being seen and exposure in order to further seduce the viewer into a narrative of sexual difference. It has been argued by Williams that these photos construct the notion that Berger describes as, ‘men act and women appear’ (Berger, 1997, 47). Indeed, in some of the photos the women appear to be moving very little. Plate 428 (Brookman, 2010, 281), entitled ‘Inspecting a Slave; White’, presents the case of the exhibition of exhibition in the name of objective inspection or assessment. The series shows one naked woman undressing another woman. This image illustrates a fantasy based around the power games of seeing and being seen which has been further developed by the new motion capturing technology. The woman who is already undressed, seems to be in the powerful position in the drama as she disrobes the other woman, who is presumably the white slave. The act of disrobing another suggests her power over her subject whilst also revealing her powerlessness in relation to the photographer and viewer, who remain clothed in both a literal sense and by the safe divide of lens, camera and projection screen. Muybridge’s audiences no longer have to look at the female figure with the ‘naked eye’, instead the new technology has enhanced the viewer’s position in two ways: one, he is now, as he was when looking at photographs before, free from examination or confrontation when looking, and secondly, it is promised that he will see even more than is available to the naked eye. In this way his sight has become more pervasive and less accountable and therefore more powerful, especially in relation to the subject who has only naked eyes and a naked body and is unable to counter his glance. Thus with this plate, Muybridge exhibits the fantasy of undressing and inspecting those in a less powerful position in a way that makes reference to the viewer’s own position and desire as scientist-voyeur. He has presented us with the spectacle of spectacle as scientific investigation of the body all under the auspices of scientific pursuit of the objective truth. The two female bodies are offered up to the hidden viewer in the same way that the ‘slave’s’ body is offered to the free woman of the drama. Each is examined and seen without chance for objection. The slave has no grounds upon which to resist her master’s inspection and similarly the female form has no grounds to resist inspection and re-viewing by any given viewer once the image is captured in the photograph. Although this is also partly true of any one of Muybridge’s subjects who have agreed to be photographed, male or female, I would argue that the social context of unequal gender structures and the genderised positions of viewer (male) and view (female), alongside the exhibition of the act of inspection, provides a powerful commentary upon the roles defined by the photograph. This imagery and the dynamic that surrounds it, poses the voyeur as powerful, and the exposed, both bodily and photographically, as weak. As can be seen by the break down of scientific purpose in many of his images of women, these roles are most clearly defined and polarised when they are gendered.

In conclusion, Barthes’ terms ‘create’ and ‘mortify’ are useful tropes with which to approach an understanding of the female subject in Muybridge’s work and may also prove useful in regards to other 19th century photographic projects. They can be used to illuminate the political, social and artistic position of the female subject but this understanding must be located within a complex artistic-scientific context. Such a careful location reveals much about the developing status of photography in the 19th century. It can be seen that in some cases, the status of the new medium of photography makes a claim towards the scientific, as opposed to the artful. This claim to reality is key in understanding the particular power of the photograph to create and/or mortify the subject. Whilst Muybridge’s work has the persuasive power of art, it also appears to have the highly-esteemed status of empirical evidence – as Smith says: “The camera will always lie, and the magical status of its deception is different from that of previous mediums.” (Smith, 1998, 4.) This lie should be understood to mean the ‘truth’ of sexual difference in this case, and as such renders the subject far more vulnerable to the ideological discourse surrounding her body. It is also important to understand that this scientific status is not absolute but rather a manipulative piece of theatrical play which excites the viewer and promises to deliver to him or her a sight previously unseen. The scientific desire and the sexual desire to see have been compounded around the body of the female subject in a theatre of science that blurs and combines terms and aesthetics. As such, the photographed science of the woman, is both a symptom and engine for the image discourses which propagated the double-sword of idealisation and enfeeblement. Women were in very real terms stifled and abandoned by this discourse surrounding their bodies which perpetuated their status as property of the patriarch, restricted them to the private sphere and afforded them a narrower range of rights than men. Thus the woman is maintained as subject of but never actor within the public sphere and it is telling that in Muybridge’s photos where we should see the action of his female subjects, instead we see pose. Muybridge’s project stages the unequal dynamic between man and woman, which is epitomised in the unequal dynamic between male photographer and female subject. This staging of inequality may also be true, in varying ways, for other ‘others’ that are exhibited in his work, as Phelan says, ‘…historical inequality makes the contemporary encounter between self and other a meeting of profound romance and deep violence.’ (Phelan, 1993, 4). It is this ‘profound romance’ and ‘deep violence’ which is oddly coupled in these photos of women. Whilst the life of the subject appears to have been captured by the photographer, in fact she has been submitted to a limiting image discourse that pertains to a very real damage upon her body as it is positioned within society.

All writing and research by Madeleine Corcoran, 2011.


1 I am thinking especially of Mavor’s work regarding Lewis Caroll’s photographs of children in her book Pleasures Taken.

2 Muybridge’s project also deals wit’h the types of ‘working class man’, ‘young athlete’, ‘black man’, ‘child’, those with illness or disability and co. In each case, the apparently universal subject is handled in a variety of ways and ideologies are put forward about each. Thus, although I wish to examine his depiction of the female type, because it provides a case with which to examine the position of photography and the photographer in Muybridg’e context, I do not wish to suggest that women above all others were subject to the restrictive ideology of type. Indeed, a similar study could be made about many of these ‘others’ – those with dark skin, or those from the working classes, for example – which play a key role in the developing understanding of the social function of a photograph at the time.

3 As discussed by J Pollard in her lecture ‘The Photographer as the Recorder’ at London College of Communication, 19/1/2011

4 See Braun, 2010, 272.

5 As noted by Ibid. 275.


Primary Texts
Brookman, P. (2010) Eadward Muybridge, London: Tate Publishing.
(1984) The Male and Female Figure in Motion: 60 Classic Photographic Sequences, New York: Dover Publications.
Secondary Texts
Azoulay, A. (2008) The Civil Contract Of Photography, New York: Zone Books.
Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, London: Vintage.
Benjamin, W. (1931) “A Small History of Photography”, in One Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Jephcot,E. & Shorter,K.  (1985), London: Verso, pp.240-57.
Braun, M. “Animal Locomotion”, pp.272 – 283 in Brookman, P. (2010) Eadward Muybridge, London: Tate Publishin
Irigary, L. (trans.1985) Speculum of the Other Woman, New York: Cornell University Press, available from <
snum=2&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false>  [Accessed 13h April 2011]
Keller, C. (2010) “Magnificent Entertainment: The Spectacular Edweard Muybridge”, pp. 217–228 in Brookman, P. (2010) Eadward Muybridge, London: Tate Publishing.
Mavor, C. (1996) Pleasure Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, London: I.B.Tauris
Phelan, P. (1993) Unmarked: The Politics of Performance,London: Routledge.
Smith, L. (1998) The Politics of Focus: Women, children and nineteenth-century photography, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, London: Routledge.
         – Lutz & Collins, 1993, “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The            Example of National Geographic.” pp.354-374.
       – Sontag, S. 2003, “Photography within the humanities.” pp.59 – 66
Williams, L. (1999) Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible, Berkley CAL: California University Press.