Looking Back

What does it mean to be looked at? In the past week, I’ve encountered two very different but somehow intimately related accounts exploring this question. The first is a project that has recently been circulating around the blogosphere: Philadelphia-based photographer Hannah Price’s portraits of men who have catcalled her. I find this project fascinating – and not only because I feel some kind of intrinsic connection to its location in Philadelphia (I’ve been feeling rather nostalgic for my former city of residence). The other account - which I encountered only this morning while reading the Sunday New York Times (a ceaseless repository of blogging inspiration) -was an article by Jenna Wortham on the “selfie.” I had been looking for a way to write about Price’s portraits; pairing them with Wortham’s article provided such an occasion. Both accounts, though undoubtedly distinctive, nevertheless ask us to reconsider what it means to be the object of a gaze. I couldn’t help but think of Laura Mulvey’s by now well-known 1975 article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, writes of a “pleasure of looking” or “fascination with the human form” – to take the title of the article’s second section. In doing so, she relays cinema’s “scopophila,” the idea that “there are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation there is pleasure in being looked at.” She further invokes Freud’s notion that scopophilia has to do “with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.” Both Price and Wortham concern themselves, on some level, with this idea of scopophilia.

Price’s project is one in which she takes photographs of men who catcall her on the street. For Price, then, there seems to be the intractable sense that a certain scopophila – being catcalled and so “on display” for some man’s view – entails an important power dynamic. The man who is catcalling controls in that instant the image of woman; she is held, vulnerably perhaps, in his gaze as an object of visual pleasure and stimulation. Mulvey theorizes exactly this sort of gendered viewing in her article.  Writing of cinema, she notes, “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simulatenously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Women in film are transformed into erotic spectacle. Catcalling, too, as Price recognizes, can (though admittedly it may not always) proffer such an experience for women everyday – a profound sense of unease in the being “looked-at-ness.” Her project intervenes to reconfigure the dynamics of visual experience. By turning the camera around, she confronts the gaze; the role of subject and object are reversed as the men perhaps feel what it is liked to be so directly, so forcefully, looked at. Price has noted that her project is not necessarily politically charged – she is not, in any aggressive way, combatting catcalling in the way that other organizations have importantly done. Instead, I think her project is one that not only transforms the direction of looking (and so incidentally may make a catcaller think twice) but that seeks to find a point of contact between looker and look-ee. As an interview with NPR notes, Price’s project is about ambiguity, but it also seems to be about a certain leveling which is to suggest that it is one in which neither the men in the portraits nor the artist is intractably an object on display. Her project, then, is about a convergence; ultimately it is a humanizing one.

In an interesting way, the same could be said of the “selfie” as Wortham describes it. The selfie, the act of taking a picture of oneself, as Wortham suggests and many perhaps believe, tends to be derided as an act of narcissism.  Or perhaps, as Wortham also argues, taking a selfie, “feels largely performative, another way to polish public-facing images of who we are, or who we’d like to appear to be” – the ability to prepackage ways of being looked at. Indeed, the selfie makes perfect sense in an era saturated with social media in which we craft personas that are somehow constitutive of our real “identities” even if they are fully contrived (as I’ve written about before on this blog). To bring Mulvey back into discussion, however, the selfie like film (and social media, generally), “gives the spectator an illusion of looking in a private world” – another kind of voyeuristic pleasure. It, too, seems to accord with Mulvey’s understanding that, “an image constitutes the matrix of the imaginary, of recognition/misrecognition and identification, and hence of the first articulation of the “I,” of subjectivity.” And more than that, perhaps this kind of self-articulation and this voyeurism is not a bad thing. True, the selfie puts the self on display to be looked at in a way that may presuppose an imbalance of power on behalf the viewer, but perhaps it also always slightly deflates the power dynamics of being looked at, because the person in the selfie recognizes his or herself as both subject and object. Or perhaps, more basically, the selfie is simply, and rather surprisingly, about creating new forms of contact, not about the dynamics of the gaze at all, in a similar vein to Price’s project. Indeed, the power of the selfie to mitigate distance between two people is exactly the conclusion Wortham seems to reach in her article:

We are swiftly becoming accustomed to — and perhaps even starting to prefer —   online conversations and interactions that revolve around images and photos. They    are often more effective at conveying a feeling or reaction than text. Plus, we’ve become more comfortable seeing our faces on-screen, thanks to services like Snapchat, Skype, Google Hangout and FaceTime, and the exhilarating feeling of  connectedness that comes from even the briefest video conversation. Receiving a     photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of  the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.

The “human” element of vision fundamentally links both Wortham’s article and Price’s photography.

And it’s something that resonates for me quite strongly. I very rarely write about myself in any truly personal way on this blog, as I’ve always struggled in part with the feeling that blogging is already an inherently self-serving venture. Nevertheless, the idea of being looked at and this need for some kind of human element has been on my mind. Since moving to Boston, I’ve had the profound feeling of being outside of myself – personally and professionally. On the one hand, the demands of a grueling graduate school program have been slightly demoralizing and rendered me unsure of my own abilities. There is a tremendous pressure that attends the feeling of being routinely evaluated, “looked at” (even dehumanized, in some way) – in classes, through papers, etc. On another hand, I have yet to feel like I fully belong in Boston; it just doesn’t feel like home. I feel like a stranger both because I have very few friends in the city (though I’m eternally grateful for the ones I do have) and because the majority of my time here has been relegated to studying. I feel constantly uncertain and distinctly unconfident. I feel the burden of a gaze which I cannot even fully articulate – both one from the outside and one which I think I have in part created (it’s an intrinsic part of my own pessimism and perfectionism). All of this is to say, I’ve been seeking some kind of important, humanizing contact and a form of self-possession. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve found myself turning to social media more often than ever (and not only because it’s an excellent form of procrastination). I need the sense of contact with my friends and family, most of whom are rather far away. Admittedly, I’ve found myself sending an alarming number selfies via snapchat to my friends on a daily basis, in varying states of grad school disarray and despair. I want, in return, to see their faces. There is a certain and almost bewildering form of empowerment that comes with the taking of these pictures, in knowing that someone, on the other side, will be there to look. It is not some erecting of power dynamics, but again an attempt to feel more human, to feel more like myself (or at least like the self I’m presenting to the world).

I had a friend who used to say he  admired people who took selfies, a position that I  -  as someone who has ususally demurred from or felt awkward about doing so – could not understand. But in thinking about Wortham, Price and my own situation, I’m beginning to get it and I felt compelled to write about it (a second self-possession, as it were). The point is this: perhaps I, perhaps we all, need those ephemeral moments in which we are looked at and are looking at, even rendered through pictures - those brief moments of contact that help us to feel more like ourselves, more human.