I wanted to write about something that has been niggling me for a while; a niggle given greater weight by the events of 2017 and the reactions that continue in 2018. What’s more, because this is a personal cause for rumination I run the risk of becoming self-indulgent. Bear with me if that’s the case, but be at liberty to share your thoughts and feedback. This ordinary middle aged man is not alone in being vexed by this; the open letter signed by French women this week, and the reaction to them in the media is a case in point.
I might have been tempted to begin with “As the father of daughters…” but I’m aware that this is seen by some in the feminist movement as indicative of a man claiming understanding of something he can never have experienced. I’m not. I share the fact as context for the fact that it’s of great importance to me that women should be able to make their way in the world without fear of sexual harassment, inequality of treatment or worse.
So I have a personal interest in feminism, and yet I suspect that for many I’m part of the problem because I love photographing women, and by its very nature photography objectifies. What’s more I enjoy the intimate process of retouching that reveals every “blemish” or “imperfection”, but straight away I’m in trouble because the language we use implies that women have to be perfect. And yet how is the retoning of a patch of blotchy skin any different from applying make up, which she might choose to do herself?
There are those who would say that that “choice” is driven by a pressure to conform with the expectations of a patriarchal society; and perhaps in that respect the glamorous visage has parallels with the niquab, though the outcomes are poles apart.
So am I objectifying women? Certainly not as sex objects. Titillation isn’t my goal. This blog is called a photogenic world because it features subjects which I consider beautiful, so in that respect I am objectifying women, by including them amongst posts about other objects; lighthouses, gargoyles, lancet arches and men. Yes I photograph men too; recently winning both categories in a ViewBug challenge about senility with two different images of men. I don’t photograph so many but there are many reasons for this.
For a start there are fewer male models operating in my patch; and some of those that are seem more driven by a desire to show their genitalia than because they have anything particularly aesthetic to share. That brings me to a second reason for their being fewer men, and here I am guilty as charged. I’m a straight guy, and therefore find it easier to detect facets of beauty in a woman than a man, and so would struggle to create a great image of a man when I don’t really know what I’m looking for. That said Michel Roux Jr is still top of my portraits wish list! (Ok, jointly with Kristin Scott Thomas).
Which brings me to nude photography; surely an exploitative pursuit where paying photographers push the boundaries of powerless models who perpetuate male fantasies? There are those who think so; remember the fuss over Emma Watson choosing to show a little flesh in Vanity Fair? It’s a contentious issue and one that has divided feminists for some time as this Guardian article demonstrates.
At the heart of this debate is imbalance of power. Tina Brown recently wrote that in all the years she knew Weinstein he never once made advances. As the editor of Vanity Fair she was free of any authority he may have held over his victims.
So let me tell you the story of a photo shoot that attended recently. The studio owner who arranged it and provided tuition on the day made all the decisions about sets, outfits, lighting and time allowed to each photographer. Strict contractual terms were signed for the benefit of photographers and host. They also decided that the model should be topless or naked for most of the looks and how she should pose. So who wielded the power? The studio owner for certain. They just happened to be called Natasha and be the model too.
This self-assured and intelligent woman, who has successfully modelled internationally for many years chose to collaborate in the production of beautiful images. Now if only I could find a male model with the same resources.
And now I’m in danger of becoming flippant. Again I’m not. I take the subject seriously, which is why this ordinary man thought it worthwhile in sharing his perspective however insignificant. It’s all part of the debate.