EYV 5 Exercise 5.1
Find a subject that you have an empathy with and take a sequence of shots to ‘explore the distance between you’. Add the sequence to your learning log, indicating which is your ‘select’ – your best shot. When you review the set to decide upon a ‘select’, don’t evaluate the shots just according to the idea you had when you took the photographs; instead evaluate it by what you discover within the frame.
For a very long time I have intensely disliked having my photo taken. It has made me feel unprepared, intruded upon, invaded, intimidated and disempowered. Yes, I really don’t like it! This has (not surprisingly) been a vicious circle, as the tension and defensiveness that these feelings generate are visible in the resulting images, which then don’t correspond to my internal sense of myself and do not (from my viewpoint) represent who or what I am. So I’m filled with dread whenever a lens is pointed in my direction. I’m fully aware that it’s absurd for a woman my age to be so fragile and vain, and it embarrasses me that I am, so when I embarked upon the OCA photography course I decided it was also time to tackle my photo phobia. When I read the brief for this exercise I realised that it was an opportunity to make a start on this – a chance to introduce myself as photographer to myself as subject, and explore the distance between us.
I used a remote control to operate my camera, and as I clicked I thought about the idea that in my role as the subject of the photographs I was not passive but – as Ariella Azoulay (2012) puts it – a joint “signatory” in a cooperative venture. Looking at it this way immediately reduced my feeling of disempowerment, and made me begin to feel more comfortable about the idea of connecting and communicating with the camera. I started to realise that my usual reluctance to do so, and my feeling that there’s something false and fake about doing so, has been part of the problem. Thinking of my subject self as an active contributor in creating the image made me feel that I actually ought to engage with the camera. I gradually found that instead of not knowing where to look and just wishing it were all over, I was able to bring myself to look towards the camera and eventually directly at the lens, and to allow myself to connect with it energetically instead of holding myself back as has been my habit.
The difference between the first images in the sequence of shots I took and the last ones may not be apparent to anyone but myself, but to me they are very clear. In the first ones my tension is palpable, and reveals itself in a suspicious, rather distant and slightly disapproving facial expression. If I were talking to this person I might feel that they weren’t completely listening to me, or perhaps quietly disagreeing with what I said. The person in the final few images looks a lot friendlier, more interested, and as if they might have a sense of humour. The one I have selected is not, as I had anticipated, the final one, but the third from last, and the reason I’ve chosen it is because it is in this one that the distance between myself as photographer and myself as subject seems to be smallest.
This was a cathartic exercise for me, and gave me a new understanding of my relationship with the lens side of the camera. Although I’ve always understood (though perhaps not consciously acknowledged) that the subjects of my photos are co-creators of the image, I hadn’t applied that understanding to myself when I’ve been a subject. It may take time for my new perspective on this to bed in, and I can still see a fair amount of tension and discomfort in the final images and the one I selected. I’m also aware that it made a difference that I was the photographer and had the power to decide to discard, edit or publish the images. But the exercise has presented me with a paradigm shift which I strongly suspect may have punched a hole through my dread of being photographed.
References and resources
Azoulay, A. (2012) Civil Imagination: a Political Ontology of Photography. London: Verso