Monday, 26 August 2013

Whose gaze is it anyway?

These are photos taken in a swimming pool undergoing repair work in a university in Germany. Though the subject matter is, in a sense, unimportant to me. Behind these photos lies a lifetime's interest of interacting with places using the medium of photography. Often I am alone, and often in places unfamiliar to myself. I have in the past photographed alone in abandoned factories. So when I read about the rape of a young female photographer in Mumbai who had an assignment in an abandoned warehouse ( accompanied by a male journalist) it deeply shocked me and gave me pause for thought.

When I was studying photography at the age of 18, one of the first books I read was by art critic John Berger called "Ways of Seeing".

In it I read,

“To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space."

And then

"men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at"

As a young photographer this paragraph, which can be viewed here in full, greatly affected me. It seemed then that the act of viewing was nothing else then than the exercise of power, which was the natural domain of men. And where did that leave me as a woman with a camera? Just to take the camera in my hands and focus and frame was a subversive act in itself.

When I went onto study at degree level, the male tutor passed comment that it was an unusual theme (urban photography) for a female photographer to undertake. It was as if as a woman I needed an explanation for a practice which would be unquestioned if I were a man.

I never take the freedom I have to take photographs and to walk where I want to for granted, though sometimes I have felt nervous on my own. In fact, although I would like to be objective and neutral in the way only a male photographer is allowed to be, I think that there are themes in some of my photographs of boundaries, trespass and me, as a woman, negotiating urban spaces.

The area in which the young photojournalist was, is exactly the sort of place I go to to take photographs. An urban area undergoing change, whether for economic or social reasons, the buildings, empty,or in transition. Something is to come, but what? And what does the space signify in its present state? Within these spaces there can also lie the tension of society. Perhaps a neighbourhood is undergoing transformation. Perhaps people are marginalised and forgotten in this process. What results is an area that has lost its equilibrium, albeit temporarily. Or sometimes it can be a place of greater freedom and possibilities, being out of the economic loop and ready to be exploited by artists.

I feel that I am writing but in my thoughts I have come to a cul de sac, a dead end. Another woman's freedom to work in public space has been demolished, and will have to be carefully rebuilt, if it can be rebuilt at all. What that means for other women in that country and women everywhere is that our freedom is continually being redrawn, physically, and in our minds. Sometimes the loss of freedom within our minds is the most insidious and it comes in the form of fear. For me these two things are connected: the space in which we move and the freedom we have to think.

If you take a look at the guardian news film report of the aftermath of the incident, you may notice that women are completely absent. A policeman stands in front of foliage, to his side red ticker-tape marked "do not cross"demarcates the scene of the crime. Then it moves to an interview with the state junior minister (male), then switches to a police commissioner(male), surrounded by a large group of police (all male). Even the advert that precedes it, about male hair loss shows a group of males, playing football, playing pool. Men are all pervasive in this film. They are acting: sorting things out, watching over something, looking enraged and enjoying their own freedom, which seems perverse given the circumstances.

Despite this observation, I feel that women have gone along way to appropriate their own image and gain control of it in the media since the time in which John Berger wrote his seminal book.

In the same paragraph John Berger wrote:

"She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. ."

In fact, these days how many people can say that they are not continually accompanied by an image of themselves, whether it is on Twitter, or some other social networking site or on a blog like this? Today, it is not just women who "appear" for the gaze of the other, but men too. Therefore in some ways many of us have become, if we follow John Berger's logic, "female".

Nevertheless, we still have to come to the depressing conclusion that the media is for the most part still aimed at the male gaze, which is why is it so important to employ, encourage and empower the women who work within it, with the hope that this may one day change.

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