I was very pleased to receive an email from student Milla Lewis, who had visited my gallery in Brighton, and discussed my work and the work of Alex Prager. Milla offered a series of thoughtful and insightful questions by email for her essay ‘How does female representation differ for men and women photographers/filmmakers?’ I very much enjoyed answering the questions, so have decided to publish her questions and my answers below.
MILLA: Your work is very similar to Alex Prager’s, especially in your ‘Blue River Falls’ series, and I was wondering what your approach to photographing women was (especially as some of your women are unclothed), compared to men. For me, as Prager employs scenarios and aesthetics from people like Hitchcock, her work almost appears to subvert that media stereotype that many of Hitchcock’s protagonists established. Even if unintentionally, the fact that she is a woman seems to alter the content. Do you agree with this interpretation, and if not, what do you believe her images suggest? Finally, do you believe that women and men do photograph women differently, even if inadvertently?
MATT: To start with the question about differing male/female representation of women, I’d say it’s interesting that you note that your perception of Alex’s work seems to alter by virtue of the fact that you know that she’s a woman. So that somehow her representation of Hitchcock’s world carries with it some sort of critique, or some other sensibility that will ultimately give those women depicted a more authentic, three-dimensional feel. It’s certainly true to say that in the movies of Hitchcock, the sexuality of women is closely allied with danger, subversion, evil, power. The female sexual allure often represents a temptation for the lead actors, as if somehow sexual women are universally corrupting. It’s a classic representation of the Madonna/Whore complex that plays a central and really damaging role in patriarchal society.
However, although only women can ultimately know what it is like to be a woman, I’d say that there’s a real danger in making an interpretation like this based on a simple notion of gender. Firstly no one woman’s experience is the same. Secondly, there are countless women who don’t identify themselves as feminists, or have no knowledge of feminism, and seem more than happy to tow the patriarchal line. This problem itself may well be product of capitalism and male dominance, but it’s a problem that persists. So unless you hear a female artist articulate feminist sensibilities about her work, it’s wrong to assume that her gender is by nature enough to ascribe subversive intention. There’s nothing to stop you reading subversion into the work, but if you’re intent on seeing the biographical aspect of the artist as important in formulating your reception, you have to be wary of making these gender assumptions.
Of course, the act of women representing women is itself a subversive act, in the sense that in cinema, photography, and television, men are substantially over-represented at the point of production. But again, this representation does not automatically carry with it an attempt to redress the balance. The work may end up consolidating aspects of patriarchy if the woman in question has no conscious intent to tackle these issues. Allied to this argument then is the notion that men can’t be feminist by nature of their gender. And again I’d say this is a very dangerous assumption to make. I can be against racism without having been a victim of it. It’s all about human empathy. People shouldn’t be excluded from battling injustice for any reason. And, for the record, I do consider myself a feminist.
With regards to reading Alex’s work, I haven’t read enough about her viewpoints on these matters to make a judgment about her intent. But the early images before the crowd scene work certainly feel very positive. The focus is just on women having adventures, and there are very few males in sight. It feels like a very female space. The women in her stories aren’t dependent on males for their deeds or misdeeds, and I think I really enjoy her images for this fact. I think another point really worth making here is that photographic representation is ultimately very limited in the intellectual sense. Without text, or dialogue, you really are appealing to someone’s intuition and unconscious and this means that you can only direct the viewer in very limited ways. I like the idea that an image or a series of images could somehow change people’s politics, but I’m really not convinced of this fact. Even photographs with texts leave me skeptical. The type of people interested in this sort of work, which I often find very dry, do tend to be those with left-wing intellectual leanings anyway. It feels very much like preaching to the converted.
With regards to my own work, specifically the nudity and the representation of women in Blue River Falls, I was certainly conscious of falling into the trap of fetishizing violence against women, despite this ultimately being a series of short stories about the destructive and obsessive nature of relationships. I made sure to include a female-female relationship in the series as well as female-on-male abuse (though recognise I haven’t covered the LGBTQIA spectrum). But it would also feel wrong not to represent male-on-female abuse as the majority factor, because it is. But again, I’m not sure how much my intent is of relevance. There are those that might get a sexual thrill from the images, those that are glad I have represented such issues, those that feel the representation is ultimately damaging, and those that don’t care either way and just like the colours, or the lighting. It’s really difficult to have any control over your work once it’s out there. I guess a positive aspect is getting asked questions like these so that you can articulate your personal viewpoints, and perhaps in the writings there’s a little more chance to inspire politically.
On the final question, you can probably guess my answer from the above. I think patriarchy does dictate the fact that this is likely; that men and women may well photograph women differently as a product of patriarchy creating and reinforcing artificial differences between genders. But I’ll make the same caveat; there are many women that will reproduce patriarchal constructs and many men who have keen feminist sentiments and are very conscious of avoiding a demeaning, or one-dimensional representation. Ultimately it’s not just about gender, it’s about political consciousness; being able to deconstruct the damaging power relations around us and really see what is going on.< Back