Exercise. The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes

Read the article ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes:The Example of National Geographic’ by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins.

Core resources:NationalGeographic_gaze.pdf

In what ways does the idea of the gaze apply to your photography?
What are the implications of this for your practice ?

This was an interesting , if somewhat complex , article to read.

The Lutz and Collins article written in 1991 (part of a larger project) examines photographs published in the National Geographic Magazine , at the relationship between observer and observed, and the significance of the ‘gaze’. The panopticon’s design allows an observer to view without being seen , their gaze is not returned. Photography too seldom allows the observed to visually reciprocate, which in turn leads to a criss-crossing of gazes that scarcely meet.
Lutz and Collins state “the National Geographic photograph of the non-Westerner’ cannot be seen simply as a captured view of the other , but as a dynamic site at which many gazes or viewpoints intersect” (p.g 1).

Seven types of gaze are classified

1. The photographers gaze
i.e through the viewfinder
The choice of viewpoint / framing etc can alter how images will be perceived.

2. The institutional / magazine’s gaze
Editorial decisions re – layout / rejection or selection of images / accompanying text/ airbrushing/cropping / the connotation is affected by these choices.

3. The magazine readers’ gazes
Readers do not necessarily ‘read’ an image as intended and can imagine alternative realities due to learned behaviour /cultural / gender / political / differences .
Context is important too—-where the magazine is being read, is it being flicked through briefly with little consideration to the contents or being examined more studiously?
‘The readers gaze is structured by a large number of cultural elements or models , many more than simply those used to reason about racial or cultural difference’ (p.g 5)
Paradoxically National Geographic’s images , whilst allowing it’s Western audience to experience non-Western cultures , ‘can also alienate the reader via the fact that, first, they create or require a passive viewer and , second, they frame out much of what an actual viewer of the scene would see, smell , and hear , and thereby atomise and impoverish experience’ ( p.g 5)

4. The non-Western subjects’ gaze
Four gazes are identified .
Confrontational –look straight out of the frame directly at the observer
Look at someone/thing within the frame
Look at distance
Absent gaze / not look at anything

5. An explicit Western Gaze
The looking of Westerners , often framed together with locals
The Westerner , alone in the frame , is proof they were there
‘A local person in the frame is helpful. The Westerner and the other can then be directly positioned vis-a-vis each other, and the viewer can read their relationship , relative stature and natures from a large number of features of the individuals;they can be directly compared’ (p.g 9)

6.The returned gaze of the other : to see themselves as others see them
‘ The mirror and the camera each are tools of self-reflection and surveillance’ (p.g 10)
‘Historically it was first the mirror and then the camera which were the technologies thought to prove the superiority of the Westerner who invented and controls them’ (p.g 11)
‘The mirror’s placement in non-Western hands makes an “interesting” picture for Western viewers because this theme can interact with the common perception that the non-Western native remains at least somewhat child-like and cognitively immature’ ( p.g 11)
Allowing the camera to be held by the non-Western subject ‘ either the caption or other features of the picture suggest that the native’s use of the camera is amusing or quaint’ (p.g 12)

7. The academic gaze
‘This seventh kind of looking is guided by the idea that an alternative gaze is possible , one which is less dominating , more reciprocal’ (p.g 13)

To Gaze : to stare / look / observe, something all photographers do.

My own preference is to work with subjects I know , usually family members or friends , but this article has certainly made me consider in more detail the ethical dilemmas faced by documentary photographers and the complex relationship between subject , photographer, and viewer. The article highlights how the ‘gaze’ is used subjectively , something as a student of documentary photography I feel is important to remember , and one perhaps all documentarists should consider.

Psychologist Lacan believes the subject of the ‘gaze’ on realising they are observed is made aware of being treated simply as an object. On holiday a few years ago I saw an ‘interesting’ man , he appeared homeless and unkempt , I decided I must have a photograph of him . My camera with it’s long lens attached gave me the power to observe him from a distance , unseen at first , but he became aware of me and became quite threatening to the point where my husband and a friend had to intervene . I felt incredibly guilty as I knew my only reason for photographing him was because he was different , he represented ‘the other’ . He did go on to threaten another young couple with a small camera who had not been taking his picture so can only assume he had a hatred of photographers in general . After this experience I always ask , if possible, a strangers permission before taking their picture whilst this is not always practical I am more aware of the need to be as sensitive as possible.

This article HERE questions the acceptability of photographing the homeless.

References / Bibliography

‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes:The Example of National Geographic’ by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins. Core resources:NationalGeographic_gaze.pdf

Accessed 27/9/15

2 thoughts on “Exercise. The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes

  1. katarzyz

    It’s an interesting read. I read about your experience on holiday, I thought about W. Eugene Smith words “fading into the wallpaper” when he made the photo essay ‘Country Doctor’. Sometimes it seems to me that a photographer needs to become somehow invisible, but it’s just so difficult with a telephoto lens.


  2. Judy Bach Post author

    Yes your right , since that episode I rarely use that lens . I think trying to blend in is almost impossible with a DSLR. I sometimes use a smaller camera and that is much less noticeable .



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