The other day, I stopped in at a free flash photography class in a Manhattan camera store. More than flash, I learned about how not to treat the people I photograph. Here’s a telling moment from the class:
Photography Instructor: Shoot her from here.
Model: Shoot me?
Photographer: Yes, shoot you. We’re both going to. The two us are going to shoot you at the same time.
Student photographer: Nervous laugh.
Photographer: Okay. Let’s go. To model. Don’t screw up.
Photo turns out okay, not what the instructor was going for.
Photographer: Self effacingly to audience. In studio photography, if something goes wrong, blame the model!
The instructor was the artistic director for the store. His tone was tongue in cheek, as if he knew what he was saying was creepy and he was being ironic about it—no big deal, guys.
I walked out on the class. I meandered through the store, casting around for way I could have interrupted the dynamic in the class. I didn’t think of anything that useful. I’ll interrupt the dynamic with my career, instead.
What is that dynamic? It’s condescension. More fundamentally, it’s men using women to create images of men’s choosing.
The issue is pervasive. Over a year ago, a friend hired me to take studio portraits of her. The owner of the studio, a man, helped us set up. “Beautiful model,” he said to us both, referring to my friend. I hadn’t thought of my friend in terms of modeling: she is beautiful, but she was my client. She was also someone to address directly, not in the third person.
The issue goes right to the bone: when I’ve talked candidly about photos with women, they say, “I look fat, I look crazy, I look tired, I have ‘resting bitch face,’“ and so on.
To be sure, women aren’t the only ones who have hangups about being photographed, but particular histories—such as media, family expectations, office cultures, school cultures, and the field of history itself—stand in the way of achieving a photographic experience outside of the ideology of photos by and for men.
And indeed, as much as photographs have the power to enforce damning narratives, they have the power to disrupt those narratives and liberate their subjects as well as their viewers.
In their long fight for the right to vote, suffragettes carefully curated their appearances. Photographs captured the women’s “poise” and “daintiness,” insulating the activists from being caricatured as anti-feminine eccentrics. The pictures worked; the suffragettes wielded them in their activist arsenal and got the vote, and the images remain iconic today.
Decades before the suffragettes were captured on film, abolitionist Frederick Douglass went to pains to render his images on silver. Exploiting the new daguerreotype process, Douglass became the most photographed 19th century American. Not the “most photographed 19th century black man in America,” but the most photographed American, period. Douglass lectured on the importance of photography to counter the glut of contemporary racist stereotypes that followed the official end of slavery. Douglass’s images evolved over time, notes Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Douglass’s multiplicity in his portraits was his “ultimate claim to being fully and equally and complexly human.”
Interventions proliferate today. Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series tells an intimate story about love, family, politics, race and, ultimately, flying the cage, without ever leaving the kitchen. Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial images clothe homoeroticism in sumptuous light. Cindy Sherman romps through visual culture, creating portraits of different people (mostly women) on her own body. Sherman’s warped images leave the suffragettes’ poise and daintiness crumpled in the hamper, but, as with Douglass, her multiplicity asserts her personhood beyond doubt.
“The image is intimate to me,” observes Ana DuVernay, director of Selma, in conversation with her cinematographer Bradford Young. “We use the term’s our mind’s eye for a reason. The images that we consume, and that we take in, can nourish us, and they can malnourish us. They become part of our DNA in some way.”
I aspire to take photographs that allow such complexity, and thus to contribute to shifting cultural tides and individuals’ senses of expanded possibilities.
Indeed, I have had the privelege to see photography free up my clients in their own lives. One client said people had told her she was beautiful all her life, but the process and the photos made her believe it for the first time. Another client got to create images of defiance in our shoot, rather than of congeniality; she might not use these images professionally, but she’s got them for herself, and she says she now knows better how she wants to show up in the world. And many clients bring in personal elements that seem offbeat or inappropriate at first but end up being strong elements in their final pieces.
What supports a liberating portrait process? How can photographers work across lines of power and privilege to create liberating portraits? I’ll take up this question next week, in Framing the Shoot, Part 2.
Sean O'Hagan. “Ladies first: Christina Broom's pioneering portraits of suffragettes.” The Guardian. June 19, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/19/christina-broom-portraits-suffragettes-photography
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Frederick Douglass’s Camera Obscura.” Aperture magazine’s summer 2016 issue, Vision and Justice.
Ana DuVernay and Bradford Young. “Black Lives, Silver Screen.” Aperture magazine’s summer 2016 issue, Vision and Justice.