Tag Archives: body

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.

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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’.

There must be something in the water

With many many thanks to Ruby.