Reflecting on Gaze

Systemic Structure of Gaze and its Impact on my Practice
Figure 1. opening spread from the March 2013 ‘National Geographic Traveller’ magazine (Hill & Warrick, 2013).

Many of the texts that we are asked to read have been written pre-Nineties and can be considered in the context of this, however they raise a number of questions of how the dominant male gaze has been established and positioned and should be challenged now. Writers such as Lutz and Collins look at the intersection of gaze (Lutz & Collins, 1991), exampling National Geographic magazine’s problematic approach to representation and gazing at other cultures through the lens if the white European, which was not acknowledged by the publication until the issue of a formal apology 27 years later (Goldberg, 2018). Having created work for the travel spin off National Geographic Traveller (Fig. 1), I question whether I am also guilty of perpetuating a type of colonial gaze with a view of the ‘other’ and the promise of exoticism for a Western audience as the lure of being paid to photograph superseded the awareness for people and culture.

Questions of how we gaze go back even further and overlap questions of representation, with Barthes discussing the view of female novelists in ‘Novels and Children’  (Barthes, 1993, pp. 50-52), which discusses the case of Elle magazine’s introduction of female writes as mothers first and novelists second (1993, p. 50), where their male counterparts are only considered for their literary achievements: “Elle says to women: you are worth just as much as men; and to men: your women will never be anything but women. Man at first seems absent from this double parturition; children and novels alike seem to come by themselves, and to women alone” (1993, p. 51). Barthes wrote this in 1957, which must beg the question of what has realistically changed.

Interestingly for Barthes, there is a predilection to use male pronouns when referring to the photographer, and the person (or for Barthes, the artist, the writer), so even when raising the point of female representation in Elle magazine, Barthes will move on to referring to the next person as he, him. You might be forgiven in thinking that as these are translations from Barthes native French language, which is very gendered by its structure, consisting of masculine and feminine words. However, this in itself could be considered part of a societal construct that puts maleness on a pedestal and everything else aspiring to it, albeit harder to break as a culturally established form of communication.

Barthes is not alone, Walter Benjamin notes: “in principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artefacts could always be imitated by men” (Benjamin, 1968, p. 218), emphasis on the man-made and men, and although the writing of Benjamin is also a translation from German to English in this instance, this writing will have a fundamental impact of those who read the text. Thankfully, Susan Sontag does not rely on this and primarily refers to ‘the photographer’ (Sontag, 1977, p. 117) in her text, which although is a useful neutrality, the assumption could still be of the male, especially given the dominance of the white male photographer. For Barthes and Benjamin and the contextual sphere of influence that they occupied together with other white male writers, and indeed photographers; the photographer is male.

This perhaps is not the total causal reason for the dominance of the patriarchal gaze, however the impact is in creating the systemic baseline in which we gaze. Man traditionally refers to ‘everything’ and can mean both genders: ‘man-kind,’ ‘man-made,’ as in humans, and made by humans for humans, whereas women are distinct and clearly defined in referring to the female, but not male. Men can be generic in the default sense, no need to be highlighted, they​*​ exist. Women are specific and can be singled out. If we are reading that maleness is the default position then the gaze in which we view the world should be that everything else is adherent to it, and subservient to its wills, whims and desires.

Continually being told that the default position is man is massively undermining, as Hannah Starkey points out “How can you be what you cannot see” (Starkey, 2019) as it is crucial that you can see yourself in the role that you aspire to, and specifically for Starkey if you cannot see yourself in the world then why would you aspire to, so it crucial women see other women occupying these roles. For me, it is easy to see myself in the role of the photographer as many of the photographers that I have viewed, the writers that I read, all look and sound as I do. I have to recognise that my gaze has been learned from consuming these texts and other cultural signifiers, potentially built on this air of authority granted to me by all of the men that have preceded. Through reading and seeing this vision of the male photographer, I have had no reason to question it. Which was the case when I photographed for travel and lifestyle with little consideration for how the people were being viewed; it was exciting to be paid to photograph such places.

Figure 2. Portraits from ‘Peterborough Curling Club’ (Hill, 2019).

Within my current practice I have always felt that the most engaging photographic narratives are most effective when they have people as part of the series (fig. 2). I am intrigued by them, I want to gaze at them, which makes me a voyeur. I photograph the things that I am unable to engage with normally and use my camera as a way of entering into these spaces that I would never usually go, in the same way Sontag writes of the camera being the passport that removes any inhibitions (Sontag, 1977, p. 4), I use it to train my gaze onto what intrigues me. I find that photographing strangers is one of the most difficult things to do, yet I am compelled to do it as I am aware that these almost always are the strength of the narrative (Fig. 3). The reciprocal gaze of the subject is something that I have aimed to control in the creation of my work and is what drives it. Many of the subjects I photograph look away and off camera, which I have discussed previously that it reduces the confrontation between the subject and the reader, allowing a wider interpretation of the image (see post). However, feedback on this approach has been that maybe I do this too often. Perhaps it is not the confrontation between subject and reader that is confrontational, but it is in the tension between me and the subject that truly reflects my gaze in the images that I create. My aim in my current practice has been to reduce the ‘otherness’ of the subject in the images through a more collaborative approach, in a sense a shared gaze, one of the author and that of the subject.

Figure 3. Billy Suldisha outside a local barber shop. (Hill, 2020).

Linking back to the example of how male pronouns support the established systems of a learned gaze, I don’t feel I view the world in this way, especially now having more of an awareness of the constructed language that may have impacted on this. However, if I am saying that the people in my work are to make sense of the narrative, then I am objectifying them to a certain extent, even if they are complicit in the creating of my portraits, the reader is not and can create their own reading from a respective gaze. As we have discussed before, no image is neutral, so no gaze can be neutral. When I am gazing, I am comparing myself and a kind of measuring myself against the subject in some way. Not to say that I am considering myself better than, I only want to view the differences in order to better understand them, in an empathetical sense. I hope that my gaze is one of empathy, however I am unsure if I am successful in this hope, which where the importance of a proper dialogue and collaboration is vital to remain aware of how learned behaviour might continue to have an impact.

Footnotes

  1. ​*​
    During a draft of this text, I first wrote ‘we’ instead of ‘they.’ ‘We’ referring to men, because I was writing the post as a male, this was my default response to refer in the first person, whether or not this was an error of which person I should have been writing the text in, it is interesting to recognise this learned behaviour. Only after proof reading the text did I realise that I should perhaps use ‘they.’ It is an ingrained response that continues to shape the discussion. Interestingly, in the introduction presentation to week 5, Jesse notes “Man has always looked” (Alexander, 2020) which perhaps is purposefully done to highlight the perspective of the default male position.
Bibliography

Alexander, J., 2020. Week 5 Introduction: Gazing at Photographs, Falmouth: Falmouth University.

Barthes, R., 1993. Mythologies. 1st Vintage Edition ed. London: Vintage.

Benjamin, W., 1968. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Translation ed. New York: Random House.

Goldberg, S., 2018. For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It. [Online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/from-the-editor-race-racism-history/ [Accessed 3 February 2019].

Hill, P., 2019. Peterborough Curling Club. [Photographs] (N/A).

Hill, P., 2020. Billy Suldisha outside a local Barber Shop. [Photo] (N/A).

Hill, P. & Warrick, H., 2013. Free Spirit. National Geographic Traveller, 1 March, pp. 92-93.

Lutz, C. & Collins, J., 1991. The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic. Visual Anthropology Review, 7(1), pp. 134-149.

Sontag, S., 1977. On Photography. London: Penguin.

Starkey, H., 2019. A Small Voice: Conversations With Photographers EP102: Hannah Starkey [Interview] (4 April 2019).

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