Some reflections on representation

In my day job I have rather reluctantly found myself teaching on a course entitled ‘Global Cinema and Visual Culture – Looking and Subjectivity’ – not my specialist field at all, though I find some of the issues extremely interesting.

The first session I took was based on an essay by Homi Bhabha, which appeared at first to be saying interesting things about stereotypes and imagery, but on more thorough reading, was mostly vacuous waffle (an extremely generous statement!  I have found certain older texts by Bhabha interesting and useful, but this essay is certainly not in that category).

Thankfully, the second and third sessions are proving to be much more stimulating, and involve more substantive theoretical texts.  The themes are broadly centred on gender, sexuality and race, and are welcome new approaches to this subject material for me (Jackie Stacey and Jane Gaines being the main authors involved).  In this context, I’m also ‘teaching’ three films: All About Eve, Desperately Seeking Susan and Mahogany (a first for me, since I’ve never taught film, and actually agree entirely with Stephanie, my 2009 muse (see below!) and brilliant film-scholar friend who derides many academics’ desire to ‘teach’ film just because they enjoy watching films – my excuse is that I had no choice in the matter!).

What this long-winded introduction is leading to is a comment about how interesting I have found it to compare and think about issues relating to films/movies and the way in which these are represented, and the connection to photography and the way in which it is represented – it reminds me of a recent discussion I have been part of.  I sell my art through RedBubble, which is also an artistic ‘community’ – artists can comment on each other’s work, and there are diverse interest groups.  I recently joined a new group, called ‘Religious Architecture’.  A common pattern for many groups is to have little symbols (called avatars on RB) to mark when an image has been ‘featured’ each week.  This new group created a challenge to decide on a new avatar for this purpose.  Now I am no good at creating this kind of icon/avatar, and know it. But all of the entries in the competition bar one were of Christian churches – at the time I wasn’t sure what this last image was.  So I raised this as a concern, and questions of representation and interpretation ensued in a way I had not expected.  You can read the full forum discussion here.

What amazed me was the unreflective nature of so many of the comments.  Understandings that for me are part of the norm – that everything is political, that all images have an ideological context etc. – and that are with me almost every time I squeeze a shutter, appeared to be completely absent for most of the other correspondents, as exemplified in comments such as:

  • ‘This is a simple group of artists.’
  • ‘I am here to show my art, not to get into a religious argument because I might offend someone because I am a white protestant.’ and later: ‘You should realise that Redbubble is an ART site, and not a platform for dismissing other peoples cultures, religions, and beliefs.’ (not, of course, that I was doing the latter – quite the contrary!  It is worth looking at some of the symbolism on this person’s RedBubble home page for more clues about his attitude to such issues…)
  • ‘I don’t think most of us are thinking that deeply on the subject…’
  • and so on.

In the context of this short exchange, I was amazed that several very naive views on the place of art in society emerged: the idea that art can exist in an ahistorical and apolitical context is surely not that widespread, or am I just very out of touch with the vast majority of people?!  Even if not everyone would articulate it in this way: don’t people realise that all images are always linked to questions of gender, politics, identity, race etc., and are contingent upon historical circumstances?  For example, the image I had just submitted to this group was of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and there are clear political and religious elements to such a photograph, not least since the mosque itself and the vantage point I used to photograph it are in illegally occupied Palestinian territories held by Israel since 1967 in contravention of international law; Israel restricts Muslim access to worship, and forbids many Palestinian Muslims from exercising their right to pray there.  How can my image be properly appreciated for what it is without reflecting on the political and religious circumstances that surround it?

Stephanie in the garden

Stephanie in the garden

Or take this image of Stephanie from last summer, on which I have recently been carrying out some post-production work.  This photograph is undoubtedly about voyeurism, the male gaze and even quite overtly, sex… Stephanie’s closed eyes, her pursed lips, her naked shoulders, the tight necklace (actually a bracelet!), the playing with her hair, and her stretching are all elements in an explicitly sexualised pose, emphasised in various ways by the way in which the photograph has been taken and then processed.  These elements reflect a certain dynamic between the model and the photographer: there is undoubtedly a sexual tension here, and although this was obviously ‘just’ a photograph, there is an awareness of all the complications that result from such an approach.  You, the viewer, act as voyeur with me, her photographer, as Stephanie exposes more of herself than she might normally do – questions of responsibility, ownership, permission etc. arise (see also this posting).  I have been hesitant about making this image public for precisely these reasons, and have only done so after showing it to her.  Yes, she likes it, and yes, she is happy for it to be made public, but it is still a revealing image, one that communicates gender and sexual identity issues in a very overt way, as well as telling us something about the trust and openness in the relationship between photographer and model.  Awareness of and reflection upon such issues is something I take for granted, but clearly, if the sample of photographers commenting on this RedBubble page is anything to go by, I am in a minority.

And yet, the place of conscious reflection on imagery, whether in a film such as All About Eve or in still photographs such as the two I have mentioned here, is so vital to appreciating and comprehending what we think we see.  There is much that can be read into and derived from an understanding of the signifiers in an image, and to ignore this is not only to perpetuate ignorance, but also to deprive oneself of the further delights that an image is offering the viewer.  Sometimes this will jump out at you (as with the image of Stephanie – partial nudity, sex!), and sometimes it will require context and interpretation (as with the Mosque – occupied beauty).  Not only is such an understanding conducive to assisting in the appreciation of the image and the values it represents in the first place, but it also gives us insights into the photographer, her or his subject, the approach, the relationship between photographer and model, and so on.  And this, in turn, is about being aware of our own place in the world as conscious human beings.

I find it sad – and even rather frightening – that awareness of such issues does not seem to be important to some who engage with photography and artistic creation in a serious way.