In looking at the photographic gaze and my own practice, I doubt I can do better than to quote Richard Misrach:
… all art reflects one’s politics, whether consciously or otherwise. Certainly, some images are more overtly political than others. Sometimes the politics are layered, problematic, and very complex. Being a white, male, American artist affects or skews my perspective on everything I do from the outset. The best I can do is try to keep this self-consciousness at the forefront while I work, and not assume that the “truths” I discover are objective or universal (Harris 2015).
Substitute English for American and that sums it up. However, what really matters here, I think, are the ethics of one’s position and the intent of one’s practice.
To begin with, I am not that interested in scopophilia and voyeurism (Mulvey 1975) though it is important to be aware of them. I like the visual and take pleasure in it, probably more than most people. That is why I enjoy photography.
I think this manifests in two ways in my practice.
First, I can easily get lost in the dreamy details of a scene and end up chasing those alone. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this but it can lead to rather weak images which rely entirely on abstract expression and from which thought, intent, a punctum is missing or at least insufficient. This course is helping to correct that. The following image and its dreamy bokeh would be an example
Second, my ethics are fairly straightforward. I am photographing in urban environments where it is very important not to invade other people’s privacy, or frighten or antagonise them, or remove their dignity or stereotype them by portraying them photographically in inappropriate ways. In a culturally diverse city like Oxford where people come from all over the world, this can be a tough challenge. That said, however, I am no saint and I am perfectly capable of being opportunistic.
For example, I made this image of an ‘uncurtained’ interior in the first module of this course.
Is this voyeuristic? It is tending that way and it certainly would be were there people in the picture. However, had there been people in the frame then I would not have made the photograph. Privacy would have been invaded. That said, I am now avoiding images like this and am concentrating instead on what the outside of people’s residences says. I am trying to concentrate a little more on the uncanny, the spooky and the surreal – the approach that has been called the ‘beautiful mysterious’, the title of a book on William Eggleston. (Abadie 2019) So the following image represents for me, now, a more ethically informed gaze:
Another question here is the degree to which I control or express power through my practice. I certainly do, though I am trying to do this in particular ways. Two examples:
First, one intent of my practice is showing the other side of Oxford in contrast to its public image as a prosperous and elite university town. Therefore I am not showing the formal, postcard views of grand buildings but I am trying to show what those buildings may be saying from other angles. And what they may be saying is raw power, questionable money, elitism and an indifference to those who live among them. That portrayal is an intent, a deliberate choice. So here is my gaze upon a prestigious new building, the Blavatnik School of Government, shown from a less usual angle.
The second example is photographing people. I have done very little of this because generally – so far – my practice has not been about it, though that may change. Portrait photography is a big challenge for me in terms of ethics, power and control.
I am comfortable with the following image – though I don’t think it is a particularly good one – because I asked the subject’s permission. The image was made with consent. He is someone I have chatted to on and off for many years.
I would like to take a more considered and formal portrait of this person with better lighting. This will require getting to know him a little better. The question of manipulation – because I want something, a portrait photograph – arises. I imagine this question must arise every time a portrait photograph is taken and I don’t think there is any easy answer. All I can do is be aware of the situation as outlined above by Richard Misrach and of the importance of respecting the other person’s dignity.
There is also a subject that is likely to arise with almost any urban photography at night: homelessness. I can and do have an uncompromising gaze on the power relations of a society that allows it to happen, but I am simply not prepared to show the homeless directly. It strikes me as unethical and exploitative. There are many ways of approaching this subject indirectly, of which the practices of Martha Rosler and Leif Claesson are two examples. So the following image is my gaze on this difficult matter. It focuses on the signifiers not the signified:
So overall what is my gaze? Somewhat sceptical, critical and dyspeptic, I think, at least when examining power relations in society – but I hope reasonably fair. Is easily, too easily, drawn to the merely visual and spooky, perhaps, but then this is often where the poetry lies. Finally, do I assume that my way of showing Oxford is the only way or universally true? Of course not. It is just one person’s view, nothing more.
ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.
HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].
MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3) [online]. Available at: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/visual_pleasure_and_narrative_cinema(printversion).html [accessed 25 February 2020].
Figures 1-6. Mark CREAN. 2019-20. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.