Some Thoughts on the Politics of Portrait Photography
This text is an adaptation of a talk I presented at Photofusion on Thursday 5 July 2018. My presentation accompanied the exhibition Growing Concerns, comprising the work of visual artist Almudena Romero.
As part of an event entitled Decolonial and empowering approaches to photography, I was invited to speak on the general politics of portrait photography, on portrait photography from a decolonial perspective, as well as on participatory photography projects. I was approached because of my background in visual anthropology and knowledge of the history of European photography. Now these are quite substantial topics. One can dedicate an entire presentation to each and every one of them, and still not quite do them justice. So I started thinking about how to best structure my talk and how to reference all of the above.
What I wanted to do at first was to give a presentation with a solid beginning, middle, and end. A presentation running in a straight line from to A to B. A presentation leading to an obvious conclusion. This desire – what I would like to call a linear desire – is what stopped me from making any progress with my presentation. So instead I opted to take the audience onto a journey, wandering from one place to the next. I chose to do this, because I believe that this strategy would help the audience to think about portrait photography, and the politics of portrait photography, in a different way. My argument follows below.
“Let us begin with looking at portrait photography. What is portrait photography exactly? I think we all have a good idea, have we not? As a result of my research for this talk, I quickly realised, however, that most books and readers on photography do not actually bother to define what portrait photography is. This book for example, The Changing Face of Portrait Photography, does not. Nor does this one: The Concise Focal Encyclopaedia of Photography.
In fact, what books like these have in common, is that they go straight into the evolution of portrait photography. And bar some minor discrepancies between them, it always goes like this. Photography was invented in 1839. Photographers then swiftly realised two things. First of all, photography offered the burgeoning middle classes an affordable way to have themselves portrayed. Portrait photography quickly became a booming business.
Secondly, photography offered scientists with a visual method for collecting data. It was used in anatomy, physiology, histology and pathology. It was employed to record the mentally ill and the physically impaired. It was put to work to capture criminals and the ‘other’. It was also applied as a way to salvage ‘disappearing tribes and customs’.
Ultimately, the goal of these types of portrait photography was to collect evidence, to furnish proof for theories concerning the body, the mind, race and criminality. It may come as no surprise, but this particular use of portrait photography in the 19th century tends to get swept underneath the carpet somewhat in the various books and readers. And whilst these particular forms of ‘scientific’ portrait photography have fortunately fallen quickly into disuse, the ‘salvage’ form of portrait photography unfortunately still persists to this day.
But to come back to the first application of portrait photography: the portrayal of the middle classes. The books and readers first pay some lip service to technological advancements which allow portraits to be taken outside studios, or on the fly, due to faster shutter speeds and so on. What follows then is a chronological summing up of the best portrait photographers from 1839 until the present day.
They often include the following photographers: Nadar, Disderi, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen, August Sander, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Annie Leibovitz, Sally Mann, Rineke Dijkstra and Thomas Ruff.
I counted them for you: fifteen male photographers and seven female. Two of the photographers are French, two Scots, three Germans, one Dutch, and an astounding twelve of them are American. You may ask yourselves, why so many Americans? There is a reason for that. It is because the first photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Beaumont Newhall, literally wrote the first book on the history of photography.
And you know what, something funny happens when these photography books get written. Time and time again, writers and researchers fall back on existing source material, largely repeat it, and perhaps slightly expand it. Which is not to say that the evolution of portrait photography as outlined above is wrong. But it is very much incomplete.
I point this out, because as a result of this tendency, portrait photography gets defined not in an objective way – or in a technical one – but by what are considered to be the best portrait photographers since 1839. The decision of who gets included in that canon is made by a relatively small group of writers, curators and researchers. And that turns the definition of portrait photography into a political one.
To quote Stuart Hall, an important cultural theorist:
“There is systematic forgetting. Those bits of history that simply drop out, which people do not regard as interesting or important, which they regard as marginal to the mainstream story … And there’s another kind of forgetting. There’s what I call ‘disavowal’.”
Because it is very easy to construct alternative histories of portrait photography if you wish to do so. One that includes African studio photographers such as Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta and James Barnor, or Turkish and Iranian photographers such as Maryam Şahinyan or Kaveh Golestan. One that includes African American photographers such as James VanderZee, Gordon Parks, Dawoud Bey, Roy DeCarava, Carrie Mae Weems, or LaToya Ruby Frazier.
One that references African photographers who have explored self-portraiture as a venue such as Zanele Muholi, Omar Victor Diop and Samuel Fosso. Or contemporary British portrait photographers such as Eileen Perrier, Franklyn Rodgers, Mahtab Hussain, Arpita Shah and Sunil Gupta to name but a very, very few. As you can see, this selection still excludes large parts of the world and large numbers of equally gifted portrait photographers.
But if I were to construct an alternative history or alternative histories, I am succumbing again to this lineal desire. I am trying to fix something that is essentially broken. And I believe this is a fault line. It is therefore time to look at portrait photography from a radically different angle.
In order to do that, I need to introduce the concept of decoloniality or decolonisation here. This is a very specific concept, a very particular academic idea. It is not so much about colonies gaining independence, which is the part that might cause confusion. It is much more a way of thinking and a way of working.
The best definition I have come across so far, is from the 2018 BeBOP catalogue. BeBOP is a recurring conference curated by Alanna Lockward from Art Labour Archives, and was recently co-hosted by Autograph. It states the following:
“Decolonisation is the process of actively rolling back coloniality. Coloniality is a violent system that frames everything outside the colonising ‘other’. Coloniality centres white, colonial, Eurocentric knowledge and temporality, positioning these as ‘given’, ‘objective’ and ‘natural’. All perceptions and experiences that do not adhere to this hierarchy are seen as ‘unscientific’ or simply ignored. Decolonisation is a process of unlearning. A way of centring that, which has been de-centred. It is a two-fold movement that exposes the marginalisation of ‘other’ bodies and experiences as well as affirming their existence.” [my emphasis]
Therefore, if we really want to look at portrait photography in a different way, we need to unlearn, to decentre, to move away from things as given, objective or natural. We need to move away from constructing these linear histories.
We also need to move away from a vision of portrait photography, where the photographer is the hero. I believe that the photographer gets positioned as the hero, because it fits with a linear vision of time. It corresponds with individual ambitions and heroic achievements, and with the idea of the uniquely talented artist, which I believe are all characteristics of a western, capitalist and colonialist society.
Because after all, portrait photography is not just about the photographer. It is in fact about the encounter between the photographer, the sitter and the viewer of the portrait. This encounter is always characterised by power dynamics, and often by violence – as we can see from the images I showed before, the ethnographic and criminological photographs by John Lamprey and Alphonse Bertillon – but it is by no means a given that the photographer comes out a winner.
To quote Ariella Azoulay – one of the most important and original thinkers on photography:
“The invention of photography, then, is not the achievement of a single person who may have isolated several chemical elements and activated them by means of a certain mechanism. Instead, the invention of photography was the creation of a new situation in which different people, in different places, can simultaneously use a black box to manufacture an image of their encounters: not an image of them, but of the encounter itself. […] It is an encounter that always and inescapably involves a measure of violence, even when the situation is one of full and explicit consent between the participant parties.” [my emphasis]
Knowing whether a photographic portrait is ‘good’ or ‘successful’ therefore depends not so much on aesthetic concerns or technical or artistic innovations, but on whether the photographer, the sitter and the viewer were aware of the power dynamics involved in the creation of the portrait.
It also depends on whether they took steps to address any power imbalances between them. Real empowerment for the sitter and the viewer is only possible, when the photographer is willing, or in some cases forced, to give up some. It is important to realise that this does not necessarily need to happen at the moment the physical photograph was taken. A case in point is photography’s #metoo moment. More and more models are currently speaking out about the abuse they have allegedly suffered at the hands of the photographer, such as Terry Richardson and Araki.
One way to resolve the issue of power imbalance between the photographer and the sitter is to collapse the two categories. This was especially pertinent for many British BAME photographers that came of age in the 1980s. Many of them worked with self-portraiture to investigate issues of race, representation and cultural identity. Autoportrait by Joy Gregory is a good example, a series of images where she reflects on fashion in relation to the self and the female black body.
To quote Stuart Hall again:
“The body/self is not photographed, but positioned, worked on. It has become a place of inscription: literally, something to be written upon and “read”; an “autograph.”’
In other words, it is a way for the sitter to keep control over how she gets portrayed.
As regards the empowerment of the viewer, there are ways to achieve this. An example of where the viewer takes back control on behalf of the sitter, is the series From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried by Carrie Mae Weems. For this series, she appropriated 19th century photographs of slaves in the American South which she found in museum and university archives. In other words, pictures similar to the ethnographic photographs by John Lamprey from the start of this presentation. In From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried Weems looks defiantly back at the photographer. She steps up to give the sitters a voice, to protect the sitters from the photographer’s violent gaze.
So let us talk a bit more about the gaze. It is often considered to be negative at best and harmful at worst. There is the obvious example of the male gaze objectifying women. There is also the imperial or post-colonial gaze, which serves to ‘other’ those who fall outside the ‘white, colonial, Eurocentric’ experience, as mentioned before in the definition of decoloniality. We can see this in the salvage photography as practiced by Edward S. Curtis, Steve McCurry and Jimmy Nelson shown earlier.
But the gaze itself actually simply refers to act of seeing and being seen. Which means that the power of looking, and especially of looking back by the sitter at the photographer, or at the viewer, or even at a third party, should not be underestimated.
In this particular image by Laurie Anderson for example, the various gazes between the sitter, the viewer, and the photographer ricochet through space and time. The men in the images leer at the photographer and catcall her, and she takes revenge by taking their picture. The viewer ends up feeling both empathetic to Anderson’s plight, but also end up feeling a little like a voyeur. This happens especially since the photographer has blocked
out the eyes of the men, in an effort to stop their gaze from hurting her, but also to offer them a token form of privacy.
But even when the photographer, the sitter and the viewer are aware of the power of the gaze and counteract its negative or harmful influence, portrait photography can still remain problematic in terms of power dynamics. This is especially the case when it regards portraits of the neurologically diverse, the physically disabled, the gender fluid and the non-binary, the elderly, the homeless, in short anyone who falls outside the ‘white, colonial, Eurocentric’ experience as mentioned before in the definition of decoloniality.
A case in point is the portrayal of refugees, especially those trying to make their way to Europe. When the European refugee crisis came to a head in 2015 with the refugee camp ‘the Jungle’ in Calais numbering close to 10.000 inhabitants, many documentary photographers and photojournalists decamped to France to photograph the refugees. While the photographers may have gone in with the noblest of intentions, they often did not consider that those refugees did not always want to be photographed.
After all, some refugees felt that they had been photographed quite enough, that having their picture taken and published again and again and again did not materially change their situation. They felt that, in fact, it might negatively impact any future asylum applications. They also felt that portraits taken of them there and then was not how they wanted to present themselves to the world, that those portraits did not show them in their best light. It is for these reasons that photographer Gideon Mendel actually stopped photographing the refugees altogether. Instead, he opted to photograph found objects left behind by the refugees as a ‘stand-in’ or alternative portrait.
But as I mentioned just now, sometimes the portraits taken do not show the sitter in the way she wants to present herself to the world. This latter point is of vital importance. Because another way to look at portrait photography in a different way, is to consider the pose of the sitter. This is an instrument available to the sitter to assert herself, to empower herself.
To quote Susanne Holschbach, an art historian specialising in photography:
“The pose allows a person to reveal something about his self-perception and his social status: the pose is at once a conscious attitude and an involuntary expression of psychic dispositions and social norms […] To pose means to show oneself as one wishes to be perceived.”
One way of empowering the sitter to pose in a way of her own choice, is through actual and open collaboration or facilitation. The work of Marcia Michael is exemplary in this regard. The resulting photographs are a call and response between herself and her mother, and both are involved in deciding when, where, and how the picture is taken, and who presses the shutter.
In the case of the Handsworth project, photographers John Reardon, Brian Homer and Derek Bishton set up a studio with a white backdrop and left it available to passersby to come in and take their picture with the help of remote shutter release. Wendy Ewald in turn has worked with children throughout the world by teaching them the basics of photography and then handing them a camera to take pictures of themselves, their friends and family.
And finally, sometimes a photographic portrait in and of itself is just not good enough. More is needed to empower the sitter, or the viewer, in relation to the photographer. Even though the saying goes ‘a picture is a 1000 words’, sometimes it pays off to let the sitter speak for herself. To speak not only directly to the photographer, but also to the viewer. Sometimes the viewer feels the need or is asked to respond in words too.
Jim Goldberg’s work is a good example. As part of his project Open See, where he documented refugees trying to get to Europe in the early to mid 2000s, he got the sitters to respond to their pictures and to note down their words onto the surface of the Polaroids themselves.
Another example is the collaboration between Milton Rogovin and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Rogovin travelled to Chile to portray labourers in the late 1960s, and asked Neruda to respond with poems inspired by the images. I am going to leave you with one of those poems here:
From Still Another Day:
Pardon me, if when I want
to tell the story of my life
it’s the land I talk about.
This is the land.
It grows in your blood
and you grow
If it dies in your blood
you die out.
Pablo Neruda, from Windows that Open Inwards.
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- Girardin, Daniel and Christian Pirker. Controversies. A Legal and Ethical History of Photography. Arles: Actes Sud/Musée de L’Elysée, 2012.
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- Holschbach, Susanne. ”The Pose: Its Troubles and Pleasures.” In Street and Studio: An Urban History of Photography, edited by Ute Eskildsen, 171-177. London: Tate Publishing, 2008.
- Lockward, Alanna. Be.BOP 2018. Coalitions Facing White Innocence. Performance, Activism and Afropean Decoloniality. Self-published.
- Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How to See the World. London: Pelican, 2014.
- Morton, Christopher, and Elizabeth Edwards (eds.) Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame. Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.
- Museum Ludwig Koeln. Photographie des 20. Jahrhunderts. Cologne, Taschen, 2017.
- Neruda, Pablo. Windows That Open Inward. Images of Chile. Buffalo: White Pine Press, 1998.
- Michael R. Peres (Ed.) The Concise Focal Encyclopedia of Photography. Oxford: Focal Press, 2008.
- Pinney, Christopher and Nicholas Peterson. Photography’s Other Histories. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
- Thomas Perich, Shannon. The Changing Face of Portrait Photography: From Daguerreotype to Digital. Washington D.C.: National Museum of American History, in association with the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2011.