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.
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)