no modest witness: considering the pornographic moment in photography

  • red1

    red1

  • red2

    red2

  • red3

    red3

  • red4

    red4

  • red5

    red5

  • red6

    red6

  • red7

    red7

The dilemma of interelationality – of looking and being looked at – bears out in my photographic project ‘The Natural Order of Things’. For over ten years, I have been taking shots of dead animals incidentally found. As death is one of the most ‘natural’ systems of all – paradoxically treated with cult and commerce in many societies – I have made a visual inventory of the intimate details of decay. As ‘strong images’, these shots confront the social taboo of looking at/in death by presenting it in its organic state. However, for my most recent sequence – of the bird – my photographic praxis was ruptured by a new context: thinking about the pornographic moment and my role in overturning the ‘organic state’ to ‘set-up’ my subject and manipulate it.

Some feminist critics identify the oppressive moment within pornography as the act of humiliation of the female subject, encoded and eroticized in the image. Woman, they argue, is contrived, helpless and animal: on all fours, her fingers to her mouth, her agency manipulated to reflect male power and control. To be sure, the vocabulary of pornography is formula – the commercial mechanism of showing everything in its most immediate and unsubtle contortions; stereotype prevails over individuality, expediency trumps quality.[1] According to Western feminists like Andrea Dworkin, within heterosexual porn – which fetishes sexist, racist, and other power systems in the crudest of ways – there is no subtle woman. She is set up to be consumed by the very act of the photograph; geared for the misogynistic ‘male gaze,’ and the male gaze only.

As an artist and an anti-capitalist, the sterile language of commercial, insipid gender-role pornography has always troubled me. I understand the ‘pornographic moment’ to be a set of formulas – a ‘logic’ based on the maximum exposure of the (sexualized) subject, underwritten by unequal power systems. The double meaning of the word ‘exposure’, translated into a photography idiom, also arouses my curiosity.

The title ‘The Natural Order of Things’ speaks of a tension within my work between being a ‘witness’ and being a ‘manipulator’, and the relationship I have with the subject of my study at that very moment (for these photos are always spontaneous and never planned – although the use of white paper to ‘isolate’ the carcass is a new act and increases my level of intervention with the subject). What does it mean when a photographer questions the very intent of her practice, her very act of taking pictures that seek to reveal something/everything? When she wonders whether the compulsion that leads her to drag and prod a body, to use a (appropriated) body, is a painful/shameful act?

I do not agree with most feminist critiques of pornography – I see, and have experienced, the practice of pornography as far more contextual and nuanced than some strands of feminist theory can allow. In line with these critiques, however, I have found myself embodying aspects of the voyeur/manipulator that have made me distinctly uncomfortable. As a photographer, I have asked questions of myself because of this: Is there something intrinsic to certain relations of looking and being looked at – whether money is involved or not – which negates ethical interactions with the ‘other’ (be it person or species)? Is there something metaphorically ‘pornographic’ about trying to ‘get the shot’, without the explicit consent or will of my subject – or, more accurately, in the very moment that they are de-subjectivized and become a token or object of something I am ‘trying to get’?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Critics such as Maryna Romanet draw attention to how Ukrainian commercial pornography first emerged from the stock characters and plots of socialist realism to surpass the ‘hygienically desexed body that served the state.’ This gives a more situated context to the aesthetics and formulas of pornography. See Maryna Romanet, “Ideologies of the Second Coming in the Ukrainian Postcolonial Playground”, in Lisa Z. Siegel (ed.), International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography 1800-2000. London: Rutgers University Press, 2005, pp. 205-231.
This article was posted in Porn and tagged .

Comments are closed.

^ top