Make a quick illustrated list of the ways that you might be in a more privileged position than those whom you have already photographed. This isn’t to make you feel guilty but it is a way into thinking about something vital in portraiture – the power relationship.
Violence and nurturing
One of the first photography books I was given as I began to take an interest was a Christmas present in 2010 from my son called The Recording Eye (1960) by Helmut and Alison Gernshem. There is something slightly frightening in the title’s phrase which triggers thoughts of cyborgs. I wonder what went through my young son’s mind when he first heard those words. Marianne Hirsh fills a considerable amount of type-space in Family Frames (1997) referring to Lacan’s mirror stage, to looking and seeing, the gaze and pondering the effect of a maternal eye that is interrupted with a mechanical one. She reflects on Laura Mulvey’s Visual and Narrative Cinema and identifies how active looking renders a subject objectified (156). Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1971) is packed with metaphors that link the camera and photography to dangerous pursuits such as hunting, a sublimation of the gun, soft murder (15), colonialisation (42) and she uses the word annihilates (41) to describe its power to cut through moral and social norms. Sontag explores the “inadvertent authority of the camera’s results” which suggest a very tenuous relation to knowing” (115) and it is this authority that is somehow extended to the photographer. If one refers back to Otto Fenichel’s thoughts about scoptophilic instinct and identification (1999, 327) looking is equated with devouring, sadistic incorporation, and even magical gestures, i.e. compelling another to imitate or follow.
Returning to a maternal gaze, another reading, perhaps less violent than the one above. Winnicot, Hirsh tells us, revisited Lacan’s theories and suggests “development depends on being seen, on being mirrored in such a way growth can occur.” In What Mothers Do Especially when it Looks Like Nothing by psychologist Noami Stadlen we are told babies “study their adults minutely” (106) and anyone fortunate enough to have had a positive relationship with their baby should recall simply sitting and staring into each other’s eyes for ages as laundry and washing pile up outside the dyad’s reality. I don’t wish to romanticise mothering because I am aware that not all mothers experience this, that even those who do are faced with plenty of other less idealistic moments, and it should not be assumed as a given. However, for those who do experience this state, it’s a very powerful process and babies who for any number of reason fail to have that sort of connection with a parent, part of which is delivered through the act of seeing and looking is in significant danger of not thriving. This is not to say that blind mothers cannot also have a rich and rewarding relationship. We, humans, have several senses and when one is lacking another will compensate. However, while we might interpret seeing and looking as a sadistic activity, it also contributes to an immensely nourishing pattern of behaviour.
So when we think of the camera and photography as an essentially aggressive activity, we are failing to consider it through alternative lenses. (Pardon the pun!) There is no reason all of the above can’t be true at the same time. (I am more and more convinced that it is better for us to grapple with life’s complexity, rather than attempting to distill everything into a neat and tidy story which falls into an easily identifiable right, wrong, bad, good way of comprehending phenomena).
Power, empowerment, vacuums of power
As evidenced in the current political shenanigans, a lack of power is not necessarily a helpful state to exist with. As a parent, I know only too well that one needs power to maintain a semblance of calm and routine. As a citizen, I would be horrified if there was a lack of power from the state protecting my family and me, even though at times the structural powers that I exist within, that provide the boundaries which make me feel safe are frustrating and irritating. I hate receiving parking fines and wish the powers that be would find another way to keep our council’s coffers funded but then I may not like any alternatives they come up with. I also know that those powers do not make everyone feel safe and there are sections of our society who feel positively threatened by the same apparatus. Nevertheless, conservatives who wish for the state to remain small and to keep its ‘intrusive nose’ out of their business with ‘red tape’ eschew state power. And socialist minded people invite greater levels in various degrees. Perhaps it is not power that is the problem. It is the abuse of power that one needs to be wary of. As a photographer, I know that my clients are far happier when I display some degree of power and authority because without it they may not have much confidence in my abilities. As a portrait photographer, I must hold on to my power (which is actually really hard for me to do) but in an ideal world, I must not abuse it, which is what various high-profile makers of visual culture are accused of doing recently. If we consider both interpretations from above about the role of looking and gazing, then we might begin to believe that the camera can be an empowering tool whoever uses it, i.e. the photographer or the subject. The reason I discussed all this is because I do not like the suggestion that somehow having power is bad or wrong. Especially as a female photographer who is also a single mother and was brought up to be cute, pretty and nice, and felt disempowered for most of her life. I will not disown or undervalue my power, nor will I plant it in the same space as those who abuse theirs. If one wanted to, we might use the term ‘patriarchal power’, and it is hard to deny the evidence pointing towards a great deal of violence towards the other in its history. Do not view my power through that lens. The power I have tried since becoming a mother to cultivate (not always easy) aims to be empowering and restorative and to propagate, independent, secure people. I absolutely take that into my photography as much as I can (again not always easy) and it doesn’t matter who I’m photographing. When I look at Shirley Baker’s work I think she was doing the same thing.
Yes, I’m white but I’m also a woman, a single mother, no longer a homeowner in a culture that barely tolerates such things. I’m privileged and challenged in equal measure. I do not wish to dismiss the huge injustices people of colour or sexual and gender difference experience, and appreciate where in the scheme of things I am situated. I understand I must tread carefully in certain areas and stay entirely out of others. But I also see that what is under-valued in our society about my status gives me certain advantages too.
I have written about my relationship regarding status and privilege to the people in Calais and Dunkirk at length, examining our colonial legacy, and linked to it in the intro of this blog. I photograph children often, there and elsewhere, and as I said, take what I have learned as a mother into the activity. I equate bringing up my children to holding them in my gently opened palm. I do not squeeze my hand shut or grip them tightly, and they can move freely. They have room to grow and jump off whenever they wish, and it is always open so they can leap back on when they need to. I try to approach every subject in the same way. It’s who I am and it may not work with everyone but I guess that’s why some portraits are better than others.
Gernsheim, H. (1960). The Recording Eye. 1st ed. Norwich: Jarrold & Sons.
Hirsch, M. (1997). Family frames. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p.103.
Sontag, S. (1971). On photography. 4th ed. London: Penguin Books.
Fenichel, Otto (1999). Visual culture. Ed. Evans, J. and Hall, S. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University, pp.324-6.
Stadlen, N. (2004). What Mothers do Especially When it Looks Like Nothing. London: Paitkus.