Tuesday, July 14, 2020

On Representation

Those of you In The Know will be aware that there's a whole vague system of understanding photography around "representation" and "the politics of" which is built on the ideas of who portrays whom, and in what ways, and via what power, in media. I do not intend to dig in to that, particularly. Rather, I propose to continue to expound, like a psychotic monkey with a drum, on my current theme of "you enter the world of the photo."

Recall that my thesis is this: when you look at a photograph, at least if the photo works, you metaphorically enter the world of the picture. Your reactions are at least similar to, related to, the reactions you would have had if you had actually been there.

Consider now if there is a human figure in the frame. Let's suppose for now that the picture has a single dominant human subject.

It is in our nature to empathize with humans. We will, to some degree, see ourselves in that human subject. If we share a gender, an ethnicity, an age, if we both have or do not have a beard, if there's just something ineffable, our empathetic bond may be strengthened. The more we identify with the figure in the picture, the more we will see ourselves in them.

Which leads us to our role when we "pass through" the picture into the mirror world of the photo. To some extent we will arrive as spectators, and to some extent as characters in the scene.

Consider this blast from the past:

This is the photograph by Fabrice Monteiro which I talked about at length here: Something to Look At.

Now, I have essentially nothing in common with the model beyond being male and incredibly handsome. I empathize to a normal degree, I think, but not to any special degree.

If we imagine looking at a photo as a kind of Star Trek transporter beam, I materialize in the empty region on the right, looking at the man.

If I were a young black man, I might well find myself on arrival rather more inside, in the role of, the model and rather less outside looking in.

We arrive in the mirror world of the photo, and one of us is standing next to a man with a curious and violent looking contraption on his neck. The other of us is that man, wearing the contraption. To a degree, and metaphorically. But, to that degree, it alters the way we perceive not so much the photo itself, but the mirror world of the photo.

This is analogous to, though probably much less forceful than, "male gaze" in the original cinematic conception. In a standard Action Movie there is a male hero, a male villian, maybe some sidekicks, and a beautiful woman whose function to to be kidnapped and threatened by the villain before being rescued by the hero.

As a white male, when I watch these movies, I identify with the hero. To some small extent, I experience the movie vicariously as an exciting experience that I am having. I rescue the girl. Possibly, also, I threaten the girl. My wife, being a beautiful young woman, experiences the movie a little differently, she is the girl who is threatened, and then rescued.

Again, all of this is to a degree, and metaphorically.

Or, perhaps more correctly, our reactions to and experience of these things is subtly colored in ways that are as-if we were in the photo, or in the movie, in those various roles.

The important observation here is that there is in both cases something larger in play than simply the photo, or the movie. There is a whole world implied by the photo and by the movie, a world of our own imaginative construction. We are injected into this larger world, or if you prefer we build it around ourself. Our empathatic machinery inevitably places us in — or not in — various roles in that world.

Am I slave or free in the world of my imagining? Am I the hero, or the ingénue?

I believe the "politics of representation" starts, more or less, from here (albeit probably without as firm a footing, usually) and proceeds off into the kinds of damage that result from being persistently placed in this role or that, and that's certainly an avenue of discussion.

Be that as it may, the underlying mechanic is a separate thing and is what I am interested in here.

We are, as it were, projected into this mirror world. We make meaning from the photograph from that vantage point. We understand the photograph to an extent as if we were there, in the role(s) our empathetic machine assigns to us.

If I arrive in Monteiro's photograph as a middle aged white man, a spectator, in the empty space of the frame so neatly prepared for me, I will understand the photograph one way. If instead I arrive as the young black man with the grotesque collar, I will understand the photograph in, arguably, a radically different way.

If I, as a critic, want to understand Monteiro's photograph broadly, I probably need to be able to imagine myself as a young black man with a grotesque collar. Any attempt to understand the way a young black man will understand this picture will necessarily involve an attempt to see the photo as he sees it. He, arguably, wears the collar at one remove. The best I can do is wear it twice removed, but that is an effort I should make.

I don't think I did anything like that in my original discussion, and that was a failure on my part.

1 comment:

  1. Great essay, one of your best!

    Still think that photo needs to be cropped though.