Excercise 2.6 Reflection​ Who’s got the power?

Working with one (willing!) subject in a simple ‘studio’ set-up, give yourself five minutes ‘in-control’, take your portraits from any angle, lit in any way, without interference. After five minutes, reverse ‘control’ and allow the subject to dictate exactly how they wish their portrait to be taken – and what to delete. Compare the two resulting sets of images in a dialogue with your subject, be candid about what you were looking for and what they wanted from their half of the shoot.

I’m going to do something slightly different. Before discussing the work and sharing some images I’ll explain my reasons (and since this is an exercise rather than a formal essay, not in entirely academic language):

I felt here like I was being asked to do exactly what I aim to do in my work wherever possible (it isn’t always) anyway. There are exceptions and I will discuss these.  That said, I am also aware that at times in our lives we might welcome another person taking control. I suppose this is really about how one imagines power relations to operate. Let me go back to Patricia Evans’ descriptions of two realities which I have mentioned before, one where you can only conceive of power over the other – a master-slave dialectic in which someone is always going to be either or; and a more evolved paradigm where you exist with personal power which is, in her words, about ‘mutuality and co-creation’. (2012, p27) It is tempting to think of the second paradigm as a fairy tale, one which ignores human nature, and I wish I knew enough history, psychology, biology or philosophy to be able to really begin to argue and critique these ideas more robustly – but the second reality is, without doubt, the one I aim for, the one that makes sense to me. Evans’ also describes how some people can envisage such a reality but do not have the confidence to live it, and I am likely to have been someone who fits that description. In life, I have not always been able to access, feel or express much of a sense of controlled or functioning inner power. I am concerned about how this course seems designed to prevent me from aiming for the second paradigm because the emphasis is always on the first and that it is designed to make me apologise for who I am when I have really done quite enough of that in life already.

In some ways (but not all), I was bought up or am perhaps genetically predisposed (or a mixture of both) to toe the line as far as is possible (except where it would be really useful, like managing finances!). I don’t like being ‘in trouble’ – I feel the primary other is always there ready to tell me off and make me feel rubbish about myself. I suspect being that way hinders me and stops me from being a more impactful or ‘louder’ photographer. A mixture of fear of upsetting people and due respect for others certainly prevents me from sharing images or publicising my work as I might. That’s not to say I have not upset people in the past and presumably will do in the future too – but consequently, I know that posting an image of someone which makes them feel horrible makes me feel shit.  Once I shared images of my mother looking less than glamorous for TAOP A5 and she was very upset, understandably. I felt absolutely dreadful about it. Even back then though I would tend to check with paying clients before sharing any images on social media as I know people simply don’t feel comfortable or might not like the way they look at a certain angle. I rarely share work that I haven’t discussed with the subject, or at the very least with a representative, and when I post a blog with images from an event, I tend to tell the person who hired me to let everyone who features know they can get in touch if they would prefer me to remove something. One notable exception is the series of images I have made with Honor, a young dancer, for Oxford House, Nexus. I will discuss this more when I submit the work for A2.

What’s more, I would NEVER ever want to put someone in danger and that prevents me from sharing certain images, which I’ve taken in refugee camps, perhaps quite rightly. I am constantly questioning my role as a photographer for Just Shelter, the charitable organisation I accompany and document. And I have stopped one-time volunteers from using their phones to take photographs when there, potentially pissing off people who assume they ought to have more power than me. I am acutely aware of white privilege, western superiority complex and colonial violence as discussed previously in 2.5 and many other places online. I am also aware that the power structures we’re addressing here go far beyond the question of sharing images online and begin at the way subject and photographer relate.

But, I do really worry that all this stepping back from potential trouble, upset, or offense probably risks making me a bit of an ‘anaemic’ photographer.

Street Photography

I’m not the sort of person who would rush up to extremely wealthy people shopping in or near Harrods to photograph them, flash at the ready, wide angled to emphasise weirdness. (But then neither is Dougie Wallace anymore as he reportedly got fed up of being chased down the road and told to delete the images; hence the focus on dogs instead.)  Saying that I do use my phone to take street photography of people I have never met, and won’t ever meet to get permission from, although less and less nowadays. But that is not to say I wouldn’t in the future – my phone was cracked and struggling to work very well so street photography was becoming more and more of a challenge. In addition, I was bored senseless by my own photographs and felt they looked like so many others on Instagram so have backed away for that reason too. However, as discussed elsewhere I have been trying to work out how to negotiate the ethics of photographing strangers and briefly discussed this with Michael Millimore recently when he posted a blog that looked at some of these issues for his documentary module. Street photographers have always been intrusive and annoying – but sometimes we need to embrace this side of ourselves and in some circumstances, sneaky, dishonest and overtly questionable tactics might lead to interesting work as Sophie Calle and Natasha Caruana have demonstrated for instance. What’s more, it’s actually very interesting for future generations to see candid shots, and it not only tells a story about the subject but potentially also about the photographer or society where such photography is possible. Somebody will do it, perhaps somebody should be doing it too, whether or not it’s me who’s doing it is the question I should try to answer.

Returning to the original task, I chose to share some work that demonstrated my approach which where possible or necessary or appropriate is all about negotiation and shared responsibility. It’s all about shared power and mutuality which is what this exercise is aiming to make us consider – as well, of course, the history of violence and aggression white westerners have subjected the rest of the world to, in particular via the use of photography. I have linked to an excellent article that discusses this violence and I will talk about why I’m trying to separate it from general discussions of power itself in another post.


Evans, P. (1996). The verbally abusive relationship. 1st ed. Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Media Corporation, p.Amazon Kindle 9%.


Millimore, M. 2017 https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/62395190/posts/1653149198 (accessed 10/11/2017)



Exercise 2.5 Privilege​ & Power

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.




Excercise 2.3 Further thoughts

Last night after I posted my response to 2.3 I read the following which says clearly what few are spelling out. “What if,” asks the poster on Twitter, “the content of Hollywood films is part of the problem?” (Jstor, 2017) At last, I thought to myself, someone has begun to touch on the bleedin’ obvious!

It’s a useful article which I might have quoted from if I’d seen it in time.

Research: The Floating Signifier, a post by photographer, Andrew Jackson

I came across Andrew Jackson’s incredibly helpful post on bel hooks. “As a writer, she chose the pseudonym, bell hooks, in tribute to her mother and great-grandmother. She decided not to capitalize her new name to place focus on her work rather than her name, on her ideas rather than her personality.” (BlackPat.org)

Jackson shared a recorded talk by hooks which explores the impact of popular culture in our collective realties. She questions the way narratives are shaped in order to perpetuate patriarchy, white supremacy,  violence, societal and individual collusion, as well as an oversimplification of complexity in the way we understand and respond. She espouses critical thought, and suggests it can be transformative for people.

Finding this video at this time is serendipitous; it will be extremely useful  when writing about exercises in the rest of section 2 and particularly 2.3, which asks us to look at how ideology is everywhere. I have over the last couple of years become extremely interested in the way popular culture operates so I am looking forward to writing about this. I am also fascinated by the way in which ideology is transmitted via various cultural mechanisms, including popular culture but certainly not limited to that aspect alone. It really is everywhere , as it would be – it contributes to the material we use to construct our interfaces, objective and subjective, that allow us to exist in the world.

Exercise 2.3
Ideology – its there you just need to recognise it… Look again at your national press and starting from a position touted as ‘common sensical’ look for images and texts that promote a view that could be misleading. An ideal starting point would be the series of national polls carried out by Ipsos Mori in 2013-14 and discussed here – http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/oct/29/todays-key-fact-you-are-probably- wrong-about-almost-everything


Refs. accessed 24 October 2017