October 2013: A sociocultural understanding of how the proliferation of photography today impacts women.
Cameras are everywhere. They’re in our pockets, in our palms, on street corners, in our faces. Photographs are everywhere. They’re on our minds and in our mindsets, up our skirts, under our skins. 10% of all of the photographs made in the entire history of photography were made in 2011. And in a recent presentation by Yahoo!, it was claimed that as many as 880 billion photos will be taken in 2014.
What has this proliferation of still and moving images meant for women? Well, let’s just say it’s complicated.
In the Mainstream
The fillip that the cheap and easy access to image making has given to the world of advertising has led to more lenses being trained on the female body than ever before. Inch by inch, photo by photo, advertising and the media are changing norms of what is acceptable—in a recent piece, Veena Sajnani, Miss India, 1970, recalls how the contestants then were photographed in swimsuits, and judges looked at pictures backstage instead of the actual swimsuit-clad girls, saving them the “embarrassment” of the parade. Today, our eyebrows rarely rise over increasingly pornified images that sexualise and objectify women: one need only look at the posters of Grand Masti to see this. Jean Killbourne’s Killing Us Softly series focuses on the impact such advertising has on the way women view ourselves, and the way men view us. According to her, the concept of ideal female beauty, absolute flawlessness achieved through makeup and Photoshop, impacts women’s self esteem. And since women’s body language in ads is usually passive and vulnerable, it propagates an unhealthy idea of ‘normal’. It changes the way men feel about the very real women in their lives, and the objectification and dismemberment of women’s bodies and passive body language creates an increasingly “toxic cultural environment” that propagates violence.
Long before Facebook became the online window to the world (it is estimated to be home to over 4% of all photos ever taken), Susan Sontag, in her 1977 work On Photography, wrote that people are developing a "chronic voyeuristic relation" to the world around them. Where once only the most important events and people got photographed, now the meaning of all events is levelled and made equal. Again, through social media, people see and present a carefully constructed ‘normal’, with beautiful selfies, fashionably posed ‘candids’ never sans make-up, and only the best, funnest photos (promptly removing or untagging any unflattering ones). It is no wonder that we, women in particular but also people in general, are upholding and comparing ourselves to an artificial idea of ‘normal’—how great we should look, how happy our lives should sound, how Bollywood our love stories should appear, how glorious our babies should seem. Research has shown that passive browsing, as opposed to active content-creation on Facebook increases envy and impacts self-esteem. In a recent review of Facebook’s effects, psychologist Beth Anderson and her colleagues argue that constant comparison, with others within ones own demographic, can lead to a resentment of both, others’ lives and the image of ourselves we feel the need to continuously maintain.
It seems that even in advertising and on social media, mainstream phenomena over which we retain a modicum of control on the eye of the camera and what we project, we end up doing women a disservice. Campaigns for media literacy, pictorial comparisons before-and-after makeup and Photoshop, uncensored celebrities’ candids (wrinkles, et al), all work towards undermining the harm mainstream images are doing to men and women’s psyches and the cultural environment.
Photography is so much more insidious and problematic where women don’t have control over their images—when they are taken or by whom, and what becomes of them. Notice how you can’t turn off the camera sound on most phones? This industry standard (and US law) was set to make it harder for voyeurs to get away with photographing unconsenting targets, like the upskirt photographs that are ever so popular.
In his art project Send Some Candids, Mumbai-based photographer Fabien Charuau trolled the internet for images of Indian women taken without their consent by the “encroaching lens” of the camera-phone. “I see how, as a regular woman, it would be difficult to live under the all-pervasive gaze and scrutiny of the Indian man. The gaze of the voyeur, direct or peering through a viewfinder, leads women to have a problematic relationship with their bodies. From an early age, it determines where they’re going to go, what they’re going to wear; they fear being molested, raped, photographed,” he says of the thousands of images he found of ordinary women doing everyday things, unwittingly pornified and titillating. A woman who found herself being filmed on a mobile phone by an x-ray technician inside the changing room of a diagnostic centre in Mumbai made headlines this August. “The images represent the often-skewed gender power structures, where men are predators, and women must forever be on guard. Taking these photographs is sexually invasive, it is a transgression.”
Worse, perhaps, is men taking photographs of themselves perpetuating sexual acts with consenting or unwilling women. Apart from personal gratification, of course, not all, but some of these pictures are circulated, and are used to blackmail the women for further sex acts or money, or to subjugate them in to silence. A few weeks ago, a 19-year-old student of Delhi University complained to the police that a friend had taken a secret video of them having sex, and was using the obscene clip to extort money from her. The perpetrators of the Shakti Mills gang rape had gotten away with it before, and expected to get away with it again, assuming that the threat to reveal photographs of her nude and violated body would ensure the victim did not seek justice. She did, and the very photographs that empowered the men will now incriminate them.
It’s important to recognise that cameras can be incredibly powerful tools in the hands of women, and in their defence. Though Sontag argues that photography fosters an attitude of passive anti-intervention, compelling the photographer to choose between documenting and reacting, in the simple act of documenting a visual truth, photographs can play a strong positive role in women’s battle against intrusion. Couple with the reach of the mainstream media, internet and social media, and you have a winner!
In mob situations, were men are on a rampage, it is not always feasible or possible to intervene when a woman is being harassed. Neither is it always possible for a woman to fight back. Creating a visual record of the crime is often the next best thing to do. A Mumbai stylist’s picture of her harassers hanging on to her auto spread on Facebook and even reached mainstream news a few weeks ago. Bystanders’ cameras captured the two NRIs getting molested on New Year’s Eve 2007 outside the Marriott; a news channel’s camera caught the 30-minute-long ordeal of a 17-year-old being group-groped outside a Guwahati pub last year. In all these cases, the visual record was incredibly helpful to the police and some of the culprits’ identities were even crowd-sourced. Our vast population and shallow internet penetration may not make crowd-sourcing identities as simple or powerful as it proved to be after the 2011 rioting in London and Vancouver, and will undermine the success of online facial recognition when it becomes a mere click away. Nonetheless, a visual record is always better than only an oral one.
Smartphones, with their intrusive cameras, can be empowering for women too, and it’s nice to see that men are now afraid. The group of incensed bikers who broke the windscreen of a couple’s car in a recent incident of road rage in Mumbai, left only when the wife tried photographing them with her cell phone. Train your camera on a stalker/flasher/creep-at-large, and watch him flee. Trust me, I’ve tried it, it works.
So far, the fear of the camera has served to exacerbate the gender divide and underscore its power structure in the public and private realms. As the beholder instead of the watched, women can stop feeling victimised by the eye of the camera, and can successfully reappropriate it as a tool of control. Take a photo. It is time.
An edited version of this article appeared in The Sunday Guardian in October 2013.