MODULE 4: INFORMING CONTEXTS. WEEK 5.

What is my photographic gaze?

This is not an easy question to answer.

On the one hand, put simply, and to quote David Campany: ‘there seems to be one basic word for our relation to photographs: looking’. Of course, the word gaze implies looking – steadier and more prolonged perhaps – but something more complex is at work. Especially when one turns that gaze upon oneself as a photographer.

I think my gaze is one of active curiosity and fascination – though I suspect one could say that of a majority of photographers. Going deeper then, that gaze is made up of the following: a forensic observer seeking out the psychological resonances between himself and the world, like a form of meditation. I have questions about things that I can’t answer for myself and for which photography allows me to consider in greater detail. I want my subjects to get under my skin and, in turn, for the work to get under the skin of the viewer somehow. My photography attempts to do that through the filter of my gaze.

Whilst writing this post I came across the image below in David Campany’s book Photography and Cinema. It’s a still from the set of Gus Van Sants’ 1997 remake of Hitchcock’s spellbinding thriller Psycho (itself a form of extended gaze as it was a shot-for-shot remake of the original). The more I looked at the image the more I realised that its a great visual exemplar for my own gaze. The world seen from my perspective as photographer, gauging the events unfolding before me, framing them, observing in a considered manner; and yet what I’m witnessing is both a reality and an illusion, a fascinating event that I need to have a visual dialogue with to get answers to.

Anne Heche On the Set Of Psycho.
Christopher Doyle 1997.

After a brief reference to Alfred Hitchcock it seems pertinent to also ask what place voyeurism in my gaze?

The act of photography contains voyeuristic elements that can’t be disputed. However the definition of voyeurism is related to the watching of others for sexual pleasure or to gain gratification from their pain or distress. Without exception I have never met a photographer (myself included) who would claim that this describes them. That’s probably more of a statement about the types of photographers I know, rather than a complete picture. Yet, I can see (pardon the pun) how photography contains the voyeuristic. Photographers are observers, outside looking in, watching, no matter how open or connected we might be to a subject.

So then, it’s the intention that defines a voyeuristic stance: e.g. what level of exploitation or gratification is being fulfilled for the photographer?

The photographer Don McCullin has frequently discussed how his ‘addiction’ to photographing war and conflict became an obsession, a perversion almost, nearly destroying him in the process. Though even here, he was more than just a ‘voyeur of misery’ – there’s an overwhelming quest for humanity and compassion in his work. So the voyeur label is not simply black and white.

From a personal perspective I would not consider myself acutely voyeuristic. My work tends to be involve my subjects very closely and I prefer transparency in my approach. They know they are being photographed and they know how the images are going be used.

Having said that elements of my working methods could be deemed ‘voyeuristic’. For example, although the subject knows I’m photographing them, they don’t see what I see and what I chose to photograph in a given moment (for example, something unguarded). Does that make me a voyeur? To a certain degree. But the dialogue I’m having with myself about the subject is far from one that is about gratification or the exploitation of pain.

But even as I write this I wonder if that is the complete truth. If someone were to break down in tears before me whilst shooting I would be tempted to keep shooting. I might struggle with my conscience, but the urge would be there.

MUM HOLDS PAPA’S DYING HAND, PLYMOUTH 2019.
Copyright James Bellorini 2019.

When my father passed away a few months ago I was present with my camera and I took photographs. My intention was to record this momentous event and to somehow honour my relationship with him in one of the best ways I knew. But it cant be denied that I was also photographically fascinated by what I was witness to, painful though it was. And there is definitely something voyeuristic about the outcome. A line has been crossed, a taboo subject captured. Having said that I have found it difficult to put some of the pictures in any form of public arena, especially those that feature his face.

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES

BOOKS

Campany, D. 2008. Photography and Cinema. London, Reaktion Books.

LINKS

Owen, J. 2012. On the edge of reason: The torment of Don McCullin. The Independent 30 December (online). Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/on-the-edge-of-reason-the-torment-of-don-mccullin-8433309.html?amp#aoh=15825746742512&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com&amp_tf=From%20%251%24s