Archive for the ‘Gender and Representation’ tag
Olivia Arthur’s photobook Jeddah Diary is a fascinating insight into the role of women in Saudi society. Photographed over a period of two years, Arthur reveals aspects of this culture which usually remain hidden from the West and indeed within Saudi Arabia as well. In that regard, the first image immediately sets the tone for the rest of the book. It shows a huge wall built next to a swimming pool of a private property. In the accompanying text Arthur writes: ‘The first thing I saw in Saudi were the big empty roads and houses with impossibly high walls. Everything seemed to be happening somewhere else, out of sight, behind closed doors.’ In the book Arthur thus metaphorically climbed behind this wall to depict lives that would otherwise remain out of sight.
In the first instance, Arthur photographs women, sometimes by themselves, sometimes in a group with other women who mostly wear variations of the abaya, the black cloth that covers the body, and the hijab which covers the face. In these photographs, their individuality is signified by various fashion accessories that are visible: sunglasses, handbags, or perhaps the shoes. The marginalized role of women is dramatically symbolized in a photograph that shows the packaging of an inflatable swimming pool. The package design, aimed at a Western market, depicts a white middle class couple happily playing with their children. Yet on the shelf of a Saudi store, the woman (bikini-clad one must assume) has been painted over with thick black paint. The recent scandal in which all women featured in an Ikea catalogue were digitally erased is part of this complex discourse.
Beneath the veneer of strict laws that seek to socially and physically separate men and women, Arthur equally represents a culture that creatively adapts to these laws. As the accompanying text explains, one photograph shows the digits of a phone number flashing in the window of a car. Whenever the male driver passes a car driven by a woman, the digits light up, encouraging total strangers to call the number and meet up. Behind the tall walls of private properties, Arthur is thus witness to parties and social gatherings were women wear Western-style clothes for a night out, dance and socialize with their friends from both genders. The colourful lights from a disco ball and the bare legs of a woman dancing stand in complete contrast to the mythical conception that these things do not exist in this culture.
Arthur’s role as photographer becomes that of an agent: switching between a medium format and a small format camera (depending on the accessibility of the subject), she frequents exclusive parties, girls’ bedrooms, social gatherings or private beaches. Inasmuch as Arthur reveals elements that would otherwise remain hidden, she is extremely careful in protecting people’s identities. While photographing sometimes-spontaneous reactions and perhaps revealing a little too much of a subject’s face, a number of photographs are actually re-photographed at a slight angle.
Similar to Jorma Puranen’s series Shadows and Reflections, the light reflecting on the surface of the re-photographed print neatly disguises the female subject’s face. Yet here the subjects are not hidden or metaphorically painted over, but rather, their physical presence and their individualistic identify constitute the very subject of the photograph. III Originally published on photomonitor.co.uk.
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This American Apparel ad, alongside several other similarly suggestive ads from their website, has recently been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority ASA in the United Kingdom. In this blog post I am not arguing whether or not this ban is justified, but rather, I want to analyse the reasons for the ban itself. In a statement, the ASA explained their decision as following:
“We considered that in the particular context of images which featured nudity and sexually provocative poses, there was a voyeuristic and ‘amateurish’ quality to the images which served to heighten the impression that the ads were exploitative of women and inappropriately sexualised young women.”
Important here is the word ‘amateurish’ – purposefully put into quotation marks to underline the potential vagueness of the term. So what exactly makes the images in the American Apparel campaign ‘amateurish’? Rejecting the ASA complaint, an American Apparel spokesperson supplied a useful starting point for this question by arguing that the subjects in the photographs are ‘real, non-airbrushed, everyday people’. American Apparel’s casual response to the ASA complaint neatly disguises the fact that the subjects in the photographs are not merely ‘people’, but they are women, young women, carefully selected (and thus not ‘everyday’ by definition) to suit a brand identity. Despite this inherent contradiction, American Apparel’s statement that the women in the photographs are real and non-airbrushed directly corresponds with ASA’s assessment that the images are ‘amateurish’. In other words, the perceived realness of the female subjects is one of the determining factors in creating images that are deemed ‘amateurish’.
American Apparel quite openly plays with this notion of the amateur since the subject in the photographs is an amateur model as opposed to a professional model. The ads themselves seek to support this narrative by including text such as ‘Meet Steffi’. Notably, unlike the Campbells, Schiffers, or Evangelistas of the past, ‘Steffi’ has no last name, further signifying her status as amateur plucked from a crowd of ‘everyday people’. The bland and seemingly ill-considered location, the unmade bed (perhaps in a hotel room), even the cables from a bedside lamp all contribute to the perception that the images are amateurish. Lastly, the way the photographs were taken – namely with a direct flash light perhaps mounted on a point and shoot camera and seemingly accidental framing – further signify the amateurishness in the image. ASA’s assessment that the images appear exploitative and voyeuristic is provoked by the patriarchal vantage point of the photograph – the male photographer pointing down the camera and thus dominating over the female subject. Here, the downward gaze functions as a metaphor for sexual domination. Looking at all these variables in the photograph, I would argue that rather than the subject signifying the ‘amateurish’, it is the way that the photographs were taken that contribute to this perception the most. In other words, it is not primarily the subjects in the American Apparel ads that are amateurish, but the photographs.
Establishing this important distinction between amateurish subjects and amateurish photographs helps to understand why specifically these American Apparel ads were banned by the ASA. Take for example the recent shoe campaign by the British pop singer Cheryl Cole. Similar to the American Apparel ads, the position of Cole’s exposed legs, the hands in between her legs, and her gaze back to the camera are all sexually suggestive. Yet the fact that Cole’s campaign was not banned (and I am sure that there are many similar campaigns that also have not been banned) relates less to the gesture, position or the state of undress of the subject, than it relates to the setting, format and technique of the photograph. Unlike the American Apparel ads, the shoe campaign was photographed in a studio, under controlled lighting with professional grade equipment. For the lack of a better term, it’s a professional photograph.
As a consequence of this logic, it must be deduced that professional looking photographs – no matter how exploitative, voyeuristic or sexually suggestive they may be – are less likely banned. The assumed professionalism and perfection of commercial photography thus appears to legitimise the sexualisation of women (as well as men). The more perfect (and therefore less real) the photograph, the more sexual the context of the photograph can be.
Yet there is, I believe, another reason why Cheryl Cole’s ad is unlikely going to raise eyebrows with the ASA and the majority of the public. As the shoes make up a central part of the image, the photograph clearly reads as an ad for shoes (if not fashion as a whole). So in addition to professional-looking and therefore non-amateur photography, images with a clearly decipherable commercial agenda appear to be more legitimate. This clarity about the commercial intent of the brand is completely absent in the American Apparel ad: although the viewer knows it’s an ad for clothing, the photograph could easily be a snapshot in a private photo album or a men’s magazine. The ambiguity of what exactly the photograph seeks to promote thus filters into a number of other ambiguities apparent in the photographs: the ambiguous age of the young woman, the ambiguous reference to a sexual act as signified by the unmade bed and the ambiguous presence of a potentially exploitative and voyeuristic Other (e.g. the photographer himself). Paraphrasing the unlikely source Donald Rumsfeld, it’s these known unknowns that most likely triggered the banning of these ads.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the photographer Yurie Nagashima whose photographs of herself and her family in the nude instigated a dramatic shift in Japanese visual culture. After exhibiting her phenomenally successful Kazoku series in 1993, Nagashima continued to interrogate photographic subjects related to gender, sexuality, representation and the body.
In one photograph, she holds an onion in front of her left breast while holding her t-shirt up by her teeth. This form of visual allegory and humorous photographic intervention locates Nagashima alongside artists such as Sarah Lucas who, in one photograph, placed two fried eggs in situ of her breasts. In the case of Lucas, the reference to female fertility and reproductive organs signified by the eggs is clear. In Nagashima’s case however, the onion is more difficult to locate since it does not immediately signify either the male or the female body. Instead, the onion might refer to the trope of perfectibility: the emphasis on aesthetic perfection of fruit and vegetable that is common in Japanese department stores. The perfect watermelon, the perfect carrot, the perfect onion, is, above all, determined by its symmetrical and even visual appearance. Nagashima’s photograph appears to question, even ridicule, this paradigm closely associated with consumerism and the representation of gender. Here, I am referring to consumerism in an economic sense but also consuming food as metaphor for consuming the female body. The onion thus functions as a pun on consuming and being consumed: in contrast to the soothing milk of the mother’s breast, Nagashima purposefully chooses a vegetable known not only for it’s acidic taste, but also, for causing tears. The unpeeling of the onion, and the allegorical pain associated with it, becomes the complete antithesis to the warmth associated with the mother.
Another photograph in which she has painted her breasts in the shape of two cartoon characters suggests that Nagashima’s preferred subject is her own body. Here, the body is not a neutral canvas or a corporeal ground zero, rather, the body functions as a potentially humorous even uncontrollable form explored by the camera. The physical act of taking a self-portrait is more closely located within the realm of performance art as Nagashima interrogates a corporeal and spatial interior by turning the camera on herself. In other words, the intervention takes places in Nagashima’s personal sphere via her body, while the camera acts as documentary device. Similar to the onion photograph, the cartoon characters serve as a visual pun that also acts to defamiliarize body parts. The cartoon characters have the effect of setting the photograph off from the classical iconography of the Nude and enabling it instead to act as asignifier for specific bodily functions. The defamiliarization of body parts also acts to desexualize the body as a whole. This visual methodology is perhaps most apparent in This Time, where Nagashima makes another direct gender specific reference to a bodily function. In his concept of the ‘grotesque body’, the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin argued that references to bodily excrement can act as a powerful device to invert a hegemonic social order. The allegorical blood on the floor situates the body outside of stereotypical representations of the body in mass media, consumer culture or pornography, placing it instead within a discourse of necessity and privacy.
It is ironic that as much Nagashima explores narratives of private life in her photographs, she was herself in the meantime turned into a celebrity figure in Japan. For a period of time in the mid-1990s, newspapers, magazines, TV chat shows, and the so-called ‘wide shows’, relentlessly pursued Nagashima in hopes of featuring the up-and-coming artist in their programming. With the emergence of a number of women photographers in a relatively short time period, from 1993 until about 1996, critics referred to Nagashima as a leader of a ‘girl photography boom’. Nagashima fiercely sought to distance herself from this label and, in the process, became critical of the media attention that her work has provoked.
In as much Nagashima appears to engage in the pleasure of looking and being looked at in her photographic series Kazoku, in more recent photographs Nagashima’s gaze back to the spectator is noticeably absent. In one photograph, Nagashima’s back is literally turned towards the spectator. Viewed within the context of Nagashima’s resistance towards the increasing media attention, this gesture signifies her growing desire to be left unmediated. Even if this photograph relates to Nagashima turning away from the camera, from representation, from our gaze, she is still using her body to communicate this message. By performing to the camera, by deconstructing socially constructed gender identities, and by becoming object as much as subject of her photographs, the many bodies of Yurie Nagashima have reset the parameters of photographic discourse in her native Japan.
Please also read my post The Family Photos of Yurie Nagashima.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.