Week 5 Reflections – Labels and Gazes

I have been enjoying the journey of this MA course and how it has helped me to discover a new language for thinking about and talking about the world around me.  I have spent many hours reading the luminaries of photographic critical theory and trying to find relevance to my world and my work.  I have found myself far better able to examine others’ images and articulate something more than whether I liked it or not.

I have enjoyed the deconstruction of my own practice as I search for what things are essential to me and my work, though I have found this aspect perhaps the most difficult part of the course. And I think it is more difficult in part because it is a moving target and hopefully always will be to a degree.  Humans are transient beings in an ever-changing world.  I am an unfinished project that I hope is only completed when I take my last breath.  I seek to know myself and my place in the world well enough to recognise, appreciate and enjoy the subtle evolution and variations in myself and the world around me and greet them with joy.

I have been struck how these new tools in my kit bag have found their way in and out of other aspects of my life.  For example, I have written before and speak frequently about my aversion to labels.  The following scene from Season 2 Episode 2 of the Netflix production Sense8 seemed a perfect example.  I have edited it slightly for clarity.

“I just want to understand.” 

“No, you’re not trying to understand anything because labels are the opposite of understanding.

What does courage have to do with the colour of a man’s skin” 

“Who are you?“

“Who am I? – Do you mean – where I’m from? What I one day might become? What I do? What I’ve done? What I dream? Do you mean what you see? What I’ve seen? What I fear What I one day might become? Do you mean who I love? What I’ve lost? – Do you mean what I’ve lost? “ 

“Who am I?  I guess who I am is, exactly the same as who you are; not better than, not less than. Because there is no one who has been or will ever be exactly the same as either you or me.”

Sontag wrote:

“Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it.  But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. (ed. Or as someone else has labelled it) All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.  Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.” (Sontag, 1977: 23)

When we choose to, or allow someone else to label a person, a photograph or a photographer using a broad brush we abdicate our responsibility to consider the worth of the person as an individual or the work on the specific merits of each piece.  There are not hard and fast lines and we cannot come to any real understanding if we continue to draw them or accept someone else’s drawing of them.

In another Sense8 scene from Season 2 Episode 1 illustrates the point that the reading of an image is not only largely in the hands (mind) of the viewer but serves as a window into the psyche of the viewer as his or her reading is greatly influenced by the filters, biases and cultural setting that viewer brings to the reading.

“Art is material. 

It is wed intractably to the real world, – bound by matter and matters.

– [phones beeping] – Art is political.

– [phone vibrates] Never more so than when insisting it is not.

Art is dialectic. 

It is enriched when shared and impoverished by ownership and commodification.

It is a language of seeing and being seen.[low chuckles, murmurs]

Uh, would someone care to fill me in on the joke here?

Yes.Totally.[laughter] Is this art, Mr. Fuentes? [low chuckles]

Is it art, Mr. Valles? What do you think? Why don’t you tell us what you see?

Looks like shit-packer porn.[low murmurs, chuckles]

“Shit-packer porn.” That is; That is very interesting. Yeah, because this is where the relationship between subject and object reverses. The proverbial shoe shifting to the other foot. And what was seen now reveals the seer. Because the eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want, but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, prejudice. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see, suggesting that what you, Mr. Valles, want to see is in fact shit-packer porn. [class chuckling] Whereas someone else, someone with a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions, beyond their defining biases, such a beholder might see an image of two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure, but also vulnerable. Neither aware of the camera. Both of them connected to the moment, to each other. To love. And as I have suggested before in this class art is love made public.” 

While I have been unable to find the one definitive reference that I feel reasonably sure I have seen or heard somewhere, it is safe to say that before this course this scene would have passed me by with not a second thought.  There are elements of Foucault, Berger, Brazin, Lacan, Silverman’s Screen Theory and others that are alluded to in the prior scene.

I do subscribe to the concept of the triangle of between the Subject – Photographer – Viewer, but I also believe the balance of power dynamic between them shifts during the life cycle of a photograph and is greatly influenced by contextual clues found in accompanying text, or in where the work is seen.  I also believe the power shifts predominantly to the viewer once the photograph leaves the direct control of the photographer and that regardless of the context most viewers will see only what their cultural and personal conditioning will allow them to see.

References

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.

Sense8, Season 2, Episodes 1 and 2. 2015. Netflix

 

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