Saturday, May 21, 2011

Photographing While Female

Last month, I posted several pictures I had taken one day. My picture-taking on that occasion was split in three: some photos of the beach and rocks in the morning, then a few in town, followed by a return to the beach. Events that day led me to think more about gender and the arts.

It seems that feminist thinking about photography - and the arts in general - has largely focused (hee) on the content of photographic images, the objectification of women, and participation in general, neglecting to some extent the actual practice of photographing as art and documentation. (I may be wrong and this ground is well covered, in which case I’d appreciate references.)

Photographing is generally seen as an empowering means of self-expression and political action. That idea is the basis for projects around the world in which poor, marginalized people are provided cameras and encouraged to document their lives and experiences. (It’s interesting that the artistic aspect is often, but not always, downplayed in favor of the allegedly more empowering documentary and participation elements. I doubt this is a good thing.)

And it is empowering, especially for women – generally encouraged to be looked at rather than to look. And fun. I love the feel and sound of the camera. I enjoy composing shots and trying to manipulate the machine to get the results I’m looking for, examining things of interest to me and creating an image to share. It’s discovery, and it feels powerful. It differs from writing in that the act of photographing itself is an active engagement with the world.

And that was how I felt as I returned, a spring in my step, from the first leg of my local excursion in early April. Of course, that required some psychological editing. Since a lot of what I do is broadly “nature” photography (and another large part consists of sites that are abandoned in the off season), taking pictures often involves being alone in some semi-remote and semi-isolated places. If I turn down a small path or head out onto some rocks, I’m vigilant about who might be watching or trailing and mentally mark potential escape routes. I’ve been followed before* and I’m wary of any men in the area, but know that the sort of hyperawareness I would usually practice in the circumstances is impossible to maintain since I'm concentrating on taking pictures.

Midday, I went into town to run some errands and snap a few pictures at a local park. It was about to rain, and I hoped to get a few "atmospheric" shots in. I was composing one just as the first drops began to fall when a truck with two men swerved into the lot and circled close around me. I jolted, and when I looked up I saw the driver’s face. It was that smile – not so much threatening as mischievously predatory. All I could do was look startled and climb quickly into my car.

Here’s the picture I was taking:

As an image, it’s pretty bland,** but I have a visceral response to it. What’s most amazing is that I forgot all about the event while I reveled in the rest of the afternoon. Cropped it out of my memory. It wasn’t until that evening, when I read this comment about harassment, that I recalled what had happened.

The irony is that photography is often regarded, and not inaccurately, as an art that erases iself, misleadingly presenting the image as objective, unmediated reality. This is true, but what’s also erased is the experience of the picture-taker. Discussion of the practical challenges and dangers of photographing in relation to gender, race, and class seems rare (again, references would be most appreciated). Of course, I’d also love to hear from other people about their own experiences.

* I’ve also met nice people who’ve approached me to ask sincere, if sometimes condescending (“Is it a project for school?”), questions.

** I think this, from the next day, is much more interesting :):


  1. you're right that experiences of photographers often get erased. And not just women photographers. Non-whites, especially middle-eastern-looking people, who do architecture and city-scape photography aren't artists, tourists, or journalists; they're potential terrorists.

  2. Jadehawk's comment reminded me of that bizarre incident in the UK when the police tried to prevent tourists from taking pictures of bus stations.

  3. I can relate so much to what you write here. In fact, I posted about an experience that spooked me on my blog. I might link it rather than retype it, but it's strange to think about.

    I like photography for that reason among others. I hated modeling so much. I don't think of myself as making things beautiful, but rather I am attempting to capture little moments to share some aspect of my internal world as it responds to the things I see around me. It's much like the idea of the hand in painting. When you think of it in terms of "the gaze" though this is powerful for women. I've found a lot more peace in photography than in anything else because of this. I don't have to justify it, and I don't care to sell it or market it. Rather, I can look at my pictures and know that I've acknowledged my own seeing.

    I don't know this from a feminist perspective, but some of the biggest contributers to contemporary art photography have been women. Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Dianne Arbus, Candida Hoffer, etc.

    Photography, being fairly recent, has been more open to women.

    This looks interesting by the way (I haven't read it)

  4. Jadehawk's comment reminded me of that bizarre incident in the UK when the police tried to prevent tourists from taking pictures of bus stations.

    That's ridiculous.


    This looks interesting by the way (I haven't read it)

    It does! Thanks for the link.