Strike a Pose? You Wish.

By Martyna Mawjeska 

Think about the images of women you see every day. Have a look at the spam folder in your inbox and all the advertising messages containing pictures of girls. Before you run to the wine aisle in Tesco, stop at the magazine section and take a quick scan of the covers showing female celebrities. (Well, you may skip the Adele cover of the Rolling Stone.). I’m sure you’ve thought about the contemporary images of women before, but it won’t hurt to think again. And do note: a vast majority are photographs. If all the sexualised, objectifying images of women today are photographs, does it mean the camera is women’s enemy? Worse still, if so many girls’ selfies seem to be no better, does it mean commercial photographers have somehow managed to convince women to use the camera for self-harm? Possibly. It may be that all females inevitably fall prey to the evil device. But in terms of art, one thing that distinguishes photography from other media is how democratic it is and has been. Julia Margaret Cameron, to begin with, was one of the first masters of photography. Can you imagine the history of photography without Germaine Krull, Dorothea Lange, or Diane Arbus? I certainly cannot. Just as I can’t imagine discussing photography without thinking about what Susan Sontag had to say about it. In her writings on the impact of the camera on the modern society, Sontag didn’t delve into the work of women photographers or explore photographic images of women specifically, but she did establish several functions the photograph can perform. This is one of them:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

Now, this quote can be easily taken to support my initial observation about the camera as a weapon against women. One could argue that, upon being shot by the camera, woman – undeniably more often than man – is transformed into an object, an object to be sold and consumed. But as ubiquitous as this phenomenon is, this is not the only way to read Sontag’s proposition of the camera as a weapon. I want to show a few examples of how women artists fight back by employing the violence of the photographic device to their own ends, and they do so in various ways.

Example one: Laurie Anderson, who unashamedly shot (photographically, of course) the catcallers pestering her on the streets of New York. Indeed, even the title of the resulting series of photographs, Fully Automated Nikon, points to the idea of the camera as a gun.

Anderson’s series is brilliantly pungent and extremely powerful in its simplicity. Yet to treat the camera as women’s weapon does not necessarily mean demonising men. In fact, photographs that support the feminist cause do not have to include or refer to men at all. Traditional portrait photography, too, can be a means of combating inequality and exclusion: the pictures of women artists taken by Barbara Yoshida may be regarded as an assertion of the importance of those artists, especially in the face of the enormous mass of photographic portraits of male artists like Picasso or Dalí. Although the format of the photos is usually similar, each artist is shown in her characteristic work environment. They may all be women artists, but each produces unique art that cannot be simply subsumed under the umbrella of “female” art. Significantly, these women artists are photographed by a woman artist – this is not an act of capturing, or “shooting” the sitter, but rather an encounter, an intimate moment, a visual conversation. Yoshida’s camera is not aimed at anyone in particular, it actually celebrates its target. Nor is it her camera only a feminist weapon since Yoshida set out to photograph female artists from all around the world, including those that are often underrepresented in the Western art-historical discourse. 

Yoshida’s photographs suggest that the camera can operate as a non-violent weapon for women artists to fight the sexism and elitism of the art world. However, I’ve recently stumbled on a very young artist, who confirms that, when held by a female photographer, the camera can also counter the misrepresentation and objectification of all photographed women. The young Zora Sicher’s photographs of her female friends counter the prevalent media image of young women. I hope you too can sense their unusual sensitivity and the almost palpable bond of understanding between the artist and the sitter that they exude. The girls Sicher portrays seem both delicate and strong, proud and approachable, but, most importantly, they seem to be – much like the artists in Yoshida’s portraits – consciously participating in the process of image-making. It is as though they were aware of the destructive potential that the camera holds against them and were actively pushing against it.