I have always hated having my photograph taken. These days I admit that it has a lot to do with vanity, as I always hope that I look better than it turns out I do in most of the photographs taken of me, but even as a very small child I didn’t like it. In the photo above, that’s me, hiding behind the deckchair on the left because I didn’t want to be in the picture. I was only about five or six years old at the time, so issues of vanity didn’t prevail and whatever it was that I didn’t like about it has to be something I would have been unable to articulate then but still instinctively feel today.
A few years back I had a friend who was always trying to sneak photos of me, taking them at odd moments when I wasn’t paying attention. I found it quite annoying, especially as he knew I really didn’t want to be photographed. One day he took a photo on his phone and then applied an app to it that turned my face into a kind of zombie/living dead thing – the kind of thing you see in horror movies, with half the skull showing through and eyes melting down the cheeks. I thought it was awful and even quite disturbing, but what was worse was that he posted this photo on Google+ – it’s still there as far as I know. That’s not the reason I’m no longer friends with him, but it didn’t help.
I’ve just started reading a book called PhotoTherapy Techniques by Judy Weiser, and she has this to say about photos of ourselves taken by other people:
“Photos are a good means for exploring the power dynamics in our relationships with the people who have photographed us. As each photographer ‘takes’ another person’s picture, the terms subject and object acquire additional meanings in terms of subjectification and objectification. It is interesting to consider which person’s picture signals the most truth to us about ourselves and to explore what that may signal about whose reality is the most accepted as being true (and who can therefore be trusted with the photographic equivalent of one’s self….).”
It’s the last sentence that interests me most – who can be trusted? While I don’t think I’m ever going to like my photo being taken, I have another friend whom I would trust implicitly to do the job, and indeed she has taken one of the few photos of me that I’m happy to use for online purposes. I know that the way she sees and portrays me is likely to reflect the way I see myself and want to be seen. I know she would delete any in which I looked laughable or odd or just plain terrible, and she wouldn’t dream of posting them on social media sites without my permission – in fact, it wouldn’t even occur to her.
I’ve always instinctively felt that the taking of someone’s photo by another places the weight of power in favour of the photographer. Certainly, the traditional idea of the photographer as male, with his female subject (victim?) posing according to his demands, supports this. Of course the reality is often very different and this is a heavily stereotyped version of the relationship, but something of it lingers on, especially in amateur photography magazines where articles on portraits always involve some pretty, thin, and very young female being photographed by older male photographers laden down with phallic lenses.
There are obvious feminist issues here concerning the male gaze and how that objectifies women, but that’s not where I want to go with this – the question that intrigues me is one that would apply even if the photographer were female and the subject male. What I’m interested in is whether or not the balance of power always lies with the photographer, however sensitive s/he is, and how much of that understanding hides behind the reluctance of many of us to have our photograph ‘taken’?