1 How the historical attitudes, both artistic and cultural, continue to influence todayâ€™s visual imagery of the deformed body
In the Beginning
Throughout history the disabled person, the cripple, the deformed mind and body has sat silently on the periphery of global society. It has only been with the development of Disability Politics and Studies, that we have an understanding of how modern day attitudes continue to formalise and enforce the oppression and marginalisation of this physiologically different group of people. The discourses and notions of body and beauty used to discuss the representation of the de-formed body in this dissertation will be from the Western perspective.
The lack of primary historical accounts of the lives led by people with disabilities is due to the societal marginalisation of this group and also to the consequences of the binary construct of being the â€œOtherâ€? - able/disabled, good/evil, aggressor/victim which has reinforced the belief of weakness and abnormality. These facts have prevented this group from having a voice within society, particularly from the political and medical perspectives.
From the tribal life of the hunter/gatherer to the elitism of the Ancients Greeks and Romans, the disabled body was defined as being of no productive use or as the incarnation of the sins of the parents. Those with disabilities, were not only de-formed by their bodies but also by the communities they lived in.
2 For both the Greek and Roman civilisations, understanding the body and its purpose became a matter for philosophical debate. Perhaps, as a further de-construction and a compartmentalising of body and soul, the great thinkers of these nations seemed to take the concept of Animism and rationalised it within their cultural format of religion. Anthony Synnott in The Body Social: Symbolism, Self, and Society (1993), discusses how various philosophies of the time put forth the dualism of the body. As Synnott states ‘… For the Cyrenaics, the mind is fine, but the body is better; for the Epicureans, the body is good, but the mind is better.’ (Synnott, 1993: 9). Despite Plato’s subscription to asceticism which resulted ‘… in the freeing and separation of soul from body’ (Synnott, 1993: 9), he believed that, along with the nurturing of the soul, the attainment of a beautiful body not only gave one social standing, but brought one closer to God. ‘In The Symposium, Plato suggests that there is a scale of perfection ranging from the love of physical beauty to a love of beautiful souls up ‘the heavenly ladder’ to the love of beautiful thoughts and ideas to, finally, the love of God who is Absolute Beauty’ (Synnott, 1993: 9).
Through history, the continued the marginalisation of people with disabilities by the hegemonic group became even more profoundly and deeply set with the formalisation of religion. The written structuralisation of the Christian Church’s tenets, rites and rituals further solidified the ‘Otherness’ of physical difference by casting out the disabled as evil, and by creating a system of pity. The dichotomy of this behaviour, in the name of religion, underpins the actualisation of the binary opposites prevalent in today’s attitudes towards disability. ‘These embodied states were seen as the result of evil spirits, the devil, witchcraft or God’s displeasure. Alternatively, such people were
3 also signified as reflecting the “suffering Christ”, and were often perceived to be of angelic or beyond-human status to be a blessing for others” (Clapton & Fitzgerald: www.ru.org/human-rights/the-history-of-disability-a-history-of-otherness.html). This is known as ‘The Religious Model of Disability; throughout the scriptures of the New Testament, it was believed that disability was curable through prayer and exorcism; the latter form of salvation was practised on those with mental health illnesses, as that was believed to be demonic possession.
With the dawning of the Enlightenment, considered by some as the move towards modernism, the intellectuals of the day - Maupertuis, Voltaire, Kant and Diderot, to name but a few - subscribed to the belief that one should learn from nature. The importance of empiricism and the rejection of the Church were also significant tenets of this era, with the philosophical basis of the age being rational thinking and reasoning. Perhaps the greatest advance of the Enlightenment was the Scientific Revolution, which the discourses of the time propounded, with all of them stating that the progress of scientific research was through the gathering of empirical evidence.
4 The Historical De-forming of the Deformed Body
During the industrial age of the Victorian era, there was an intellectual swing back to the following of religion and its tenets of spirituality and beneficence, whilst the scientific evolution progressed. The increase of scientific knowledge promulgated the Victorians to take the social and religious issues of disability to a new level. As with previous cultures, the Victorians also placed enormous value on, and commodified, the importance of being able-bodied. In this Modernist world of scientific discovery and industrialisation, a person’s value was determined by his or her ability to be financially productive within the community. Therefore, the disabled body, seen through the eyes of Modernity, and compared to the physically dominant norm, became a scientific issue to be cured, or a socially unpleasant fact to be made invisible. “Normality’, then, became determined by the ideal of the white, youthful, able, male body; and otherness to this ideal became hierarchically placed as inferiority’ (Clapton & Fitzgerald: www.ru.org/human-rights/the-history-of-disabilitya-history-of-otherness.html). The societal ‘Otherness’ and deviance of the de-formed body, was made globally visible and political by the use of photography as a form of documentation and truth.
In 1839, photography was unveiled to the world in France by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre. Previous forms of the camera were unable to produce permanent representations. During the 1820s Joseph Nicephore Niepce began experimenting with chemicals to produce a permanent image. His partnership with Daguerre resulted in the discovery of the chemical process that would aid a photographer in the
5 development of a permanent image in a short period of time: Niepce’s original attempts took eight hours for the camera to take a picture.
The ability to capture an image permanently also captured the imagination of the public. Self-described photo-historian, Mary Warner Marien in Photography: A Cultural History, illustrated the fascination with photography and its purpose as ‘… being deeply at odds with itself ...’ by the 1850s (Marien, 2006: xiv). It became apparent that a division was developing between the understanding of the technology involved and the application of this apparatus which created the view that photography could be a philosophy of creativity. As Marien states, the novelty of the tangible product ‘… was conjectured to be variously an art, a danger to art, a science, a revolutionary means of education, a mindless machine, and a threat to social order.’ (Marien, 2006: xiv). Because in the initial stages of photography the chemical processes of developing a permanent image required a long exposure time, it made sense that the subjects of the images produced were of nature. However, it can be argued that many users of the camera were reluctant to accept the ‘human agency’ involved in the taking of a photograph because of the camera’s technical objectivity, which meant, in terms of science, it ‘… integrated with Western notions of empiricism’ (Marien, 2006: 23) and played a significant role in the cultural emphasis of ‘ … photography as a natural and neutral vision’ (Marien, 2006: 23).
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, industry was progressing from the invention of technology into the mass production of manufactured goods;
6 Victorian society was becoming a capitalist economy which meant the consumption of goods was not just the privilege of the upper classes. However, supply and demand meant the manufacturing of items on a large scale required a workforce that was both obedient and docile, as proposed by professor of Art History, John Tagg. In his essay, Evidence, truth and order: a means of surveillance, Tagg discusses how the use of the camera and the cultural application of photography became one of documentation. It was used to found the ‘governmental strategy’ of ‘the establishment of a new ‘regime of truth’ and a new ‘regime of sense’ (Tagg, 1999: 244). Concurrent to the development of photography was a cultural shift towards the reforming of the individual. Publicly seen as the paternalistic beneficence of the state and the improvement of the lives of the workforce, the reality of the reforming of the late 1800s society was the categorisation and institutionalising of the working class. The availability of hospitals, schools, and decent sanitation meant a workforce that was healthy, educated enough and socially obedient to aid in the continuing success of the Empire; those that were unable to function within this institutionalised structure prostitutes, thieves and people with various types of disability - were hidden away in asylums. Tagg (1999) states the use of photography by the police, and latterly professionals within the asylum system, was a form of defining and isolating the deviant from the norm, and as a tool of governmental power and repression. ‘The seat of this capillary power was a new ‘technology’: that constellation of institutions including the hospital, the asylum, the school, the prison, the police force - whose disciplinary methods of and techniques of regulated examination produced, trained and positioned a hierarchy of docile subjects in the form required by the capitalist
7 division of labour for the orderly conduct of social and economic life.’ (Tagg, 1999: 245).
In his essay, Panopticism, Michel Foucault (1999) discusses the surveillance of society and the marginalisation of the ‘Other’ through the constructs of societal reactions to pandemic disease and the isolation of prison. Foucault discusses the measures taken to inhibit the progress of the plague within a town as the ordering of its individuals and the political regime of truth. ‘… the assignment of each individual of his ‘true’ name, his ‘true’ place, his ‘true’ body, his ‘true’ disease’ (Foucault, 1999: 62) was a necessity in order to maintain control and power, supposedly over the contagion, but ultimately of the individual. John Tagg (1999), citing Foucault, says, ‘[T]he explicit, dramatic and total power of the absolute monarch had given place to […] a diffuse and pervasive ‘microphysics of power’, operating in the smallest duties and gestures of everyday life’ (Tagg,1999: 245). Through this ordering of society, the ritual exclusion of the ‘leper’, Foucault’s metaphor for nineteenth century deviants ‘ … beggars, vagabonds, madmen, and the disorderly …’, included the physically and mentally disabled. Thus was structured the paradigm of ‘binary division and branding (mad/sane; dangerous/harmless; normal/abnormal’ (Foucault, 1999: 63) and the objectification of the physically different and socially deviant.
What was it then that photography revealed as the truth? Whose truth was being sought? And how did this form of documentation help to define our present-day attitudes towards disability? Through the metaphor of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon Foucault propounds the use of surveillance as the actualisation of the state’s power
8 over its individual citizens. The Panopticon corporealizes the concepts of ‘visible and invisible’, the seen and the unseen’; the prisoner always being seen by the guard and, therefore, behaving accordingly. However, by always being out of sight, but constantly present, the guard’s power was pervasive. Foucault’s argument is relatable to the use of photography by the police and physicians within the asylum system. Seen as the harbinger of truth and reality Tagg states that, ‘What gave photography its power to evoke a truth was not only the privilege attached to mechanical means in industrial societies, but also its mobilisation within emerging apparatuses of a new and more penetrating form of the state’, (Tagg, 1999: 245).
The camera, through human agency, was used to categorise and monitor those that fell between the constructs of the bourgeois and the working labour force; those who were defined as different from the norm. However, as identified by the many discourses on photography, the basic and inherent philosophical debate with photography and the resulting images is the issue of neutrality; ‘Like the state, the camera is never neutral. The representations it produces are highly coded, and the power it wields is never its own.’ (Tagg, 1999: 246). As the police began to employ photographers to document criminal identities and to record the physical space of a crime, physicians within asylums were also utilising this technique of documentation to categorise and define the various physical, mental and socially deviant characteristics of their inmates/ patients. Tied in with the idea that photography was ‘nature’s automatic writing’ (Marien, 2006: 23) capturing the image of a person with a disability gave photographers the opportunity to identify what they ‘perceived’ to be the signifier of deviancy. It was this perception, the visual language of the images it lived in, and the
9 greater accessibility of images to the public that formalised the social enculturation of disability as both deviant and an object of pity. Both Marien (2006) and Tagg (1999) cite the work of ‘Dr Hugh Welch Diamond, founder member of the Royal Photographic Society and resident superintendent of the female department of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum’ (Tagg, 1999: 255), to highlight the use of photography to bring to the public the visual reality of mental illness and physical disability. Dr Diamond claimed there were three purposes to the use of clinical photography: firstly, to help the patients understand their illnesses; and secondly, the photographs were ‘permanent records’, and therefore empirical evidence, for others within the medical field. Finally, Diamond viewed photography as a function of nature, which was therefore able to capture and produce a truthful representation of the connection between the visible and the invisible - the physical state of the human body and the aberrations of behaviour (Tagg 1999). With photographs of inmates’ features utilised as physiognomic evidence of an innate deviancy within the burgeoning science of medicine, further power was given to the hegemonic culture of the ‘norm’ to determine the curable from the incurable (see fig. 1 & fig. 2).
(fig. 1 - Dr Hugh Welch Diamond)
(fig. 2 - Dr Hugh Welch Diamond)
11 However, the usage of photography was not the privilege of law enforcement and medical discovery; as well as prosperous families wanting a record of their existence, Victorian society’s charitable and philanthropic groups began to utilise this technological innovation. In the initial stages charities, in particular Barnardo’s, took photographs of the children it looked after. According to John Tagg (1999), Thomas John Barnardo, as the police were doing with criminals they caught, had photographs taken of the young children in his orphanages to help identify them if they ran away or committed a crime. Barnardo took this process of apparent truth to another level by adding a new aspect to the use of photographic documentation: he used this visual representation of childhood poverty and their subsequent happiness in his homes to encourage philanthropic members of the community to donate money to his charity.
© Barnardo’s Charity
12 Above is a modern-day Barnardo’s poster which continues the founder’s trend of deliberately constructing an highly emotive message; the fact that it is constructed is now considered not only acceptable but necessary. In1877, Barnardo was charged with dishonesty and misconduct for misrepresenting the truth of the lives led by children before and after they came into his care. It had been determined that he staged the images: ‘… he tears their clothes, so as to make them appear worse than they really are. They are also taken in purely fictitious positions’ (Tagg, 1999: 259). Barnardo’s exploitation of the visual representation of a child to promote the needs of his charitable concern proves that, there was, even then, an awareness of a photograph’s power to direct the gaze and influence the emotions. Barnardo highlighted the innate fact that photographs were constructed, that the image was codified to manipulate the gaze and, that even in pictures of ‘happy families’ the absence of a quality or feature could signify the ‘Other’. The advertising and commodification of poverty, and deviancy, was the precursor to the charity posters discussed by Jessica Evans in her essay Feeble Monsters: Making up Disabled People (1999).
Photography, as used by the police, the medical society and charities, has been discussed in terms of its apparent efficacy to truthfully represent and commodify the body. Lecturer Jessica Evans continues the discourse of the use of the disabled body to endorse the feelings of superiority in the hegemonic culture, by focusing on the manner in which ‘the production of meaning and cultural value serves to sustain relations of domination and subordination’. Evans (1999) examines the structure of the posters used by present day charities to elicit sympathy, and therefore money,
13 from an unsuspecting society, and how they are based on the Victorian signification of disability. She also, unlike John Tagg, discusses the binary structure of symbolism signified in these depictions of disability.
To prove her argument that disability is symbolically laden with pity and subordination she refers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was paralysed; a fact known to a very few in his government. ‘Being President of the USA was felt to be incompatible with being physically damaged - the wheelchair is the ultimate symbol of lack of power’, (Evans, 1999: 276).
Like many discourses on the formation of class within society, Evans cites Michel Foucault’s discourse on the biological determinism of the late eighteenth century to further her argument of the societal discrimination of people with disabilities. ‘A finer and finer ‘grid of observation’ (cited in Evans, 1999: 277) is placed over the population, in order to create a whole series of ‘functional discriminations’ between different types of people, such as the wilfully idle and the involuntary unemployed’ (cited in Evans, 1999: 277). The ‘grid’ resulted in the development of institutions within which to hide and yet examine those who were not ‘healthy’ enough to contribute to the economic success of the country. It was the categorisation of people with disabilities from the hegemonic group that gave permission to those who ‘serviced these institutions’ (Evans, 1999: 277) to enforce segregation: ‘… the sick must be segregated from the healthy, the poor from the weak in order to protect the ‘national stock’.’ (Evans, 1999: 277).
14 The inextricable link between scientific progress and the portraiture of disability has had a greater impact on the discrimination of disabled bodies than any other form of societal depiction - i.e. religion and politics. It was the legitimisation of photography as the representative of visual truth and evidential fact during the late nineteenth century, coupled with the scientific discoveries being made in the medical world that finally gave visual meaning to the physical form of the ‘Other’. Jessica Evans refers to the impact of the specialisations within medicine that promulgated the belief in the power of photography, ‘… the doctrine of physiognomy had pre-eminence as it claimed that a casual relationship existed between characteristics from facial expression to the physical features of the face.’ (Evans, 1999: 278).
In no other visual medium have the signifiers of disability, as structured by the study of physiognomy, reinforced the belief of hegemonic domination more than within the visual structure of the charity poster. It is this use of imagery to plea for funding that continues the duality of existence for the disabled person: one, as an object of pity and ridicule and two, as the ‘Other’. The duality of meaning is achieved, as Evans describes, by ‘… the legacy of physiognomic photography [but] combines it with the mythological narratives of a pre- Enlightenment age of monsters.’ (Evans, 1999: 278).
As with the pictures of ‘poor orphaned’ children created and visualised by Thomas John Barnardo, there is a deliberate codification of the disabled person in a charity poster. Although never formally discussed by today’s charities, the very apparent reasoning behind the codification of the disability for a charitable cause is simply due to the need to commodify the disabled form; how else can a charity pique the
15 curiosity and pity of the able-bodied community enough to give them money? Charities must make money in order to survive and to continue their work of enabling the disabled, but in order to do so the disability must become a business and as such, according to Evans they are ‘… constructed as a particular kind of people, are subject to a process of image specialisation and as such their image can be constituted as a transaction in the public sphere.’ (Evans, 1999: 279). Continuing with the original format of photography documenting truth, the charity poster is differentiated from those constructed by the advertising world. Not for them the glossy, colourful and sexy images that promote make-up, lingerie and alcohol, but more often than not the black and white colouring of verisimilitude, within which is ‘… embedded the British tradition of philanthropic paternalism.’ (Evans, 1999: 279).
What began as an empirical search for the truth in the connection between the physical features and the inner workings of a person with a disability, has now become the visual stereotyping that is associated with being different and marginalised. The visual language that lives within these posters, be they in colour or black and white, utilises the technology of today to emphasise the differences between the able-bodied and the disabled, and ‘confirms the assumptions’ the viewer has of being disabled. This use of technology blurs the lines of the binary opposition paradigm because it obscures the truth of the body viewed. In the following description Evans illuminates the process of codifying disability in a charity poster, by using the example of ‘models’ with Downs’ Syndrome: ‘… they are photographed with a wide-angle lens which when used in close up projects lips, noses and hands forwards into the viewer’s space. The use of top lighting from a small source casts
16 deep shadows into their eyes and under their chins and emphasises the creases in their clothes. […] the wide-angle lens creates the effect used in expressionist or gothic horror films.’ (Evans, 1999: 281).
Although, it is well documented that the visual structure of the body contained in the frame has been manipulated to project that which the constructionist deems as important viewing e.g. breasts, legs, lips and eyes, it would seem that the representation of the de-formed must be real; Evans debates the public’s understanding of the use the ‘paradigms of the signifying toolkit’ when photographing people with disabilities. As a viewing audience, we do not question the use of models to promote a product, and yet we are unable to see that models are used for charity posters. She states that by believing the bodies in a charity poster to be ‘real’ we are falling ‘… into the trap of thinking that we can have a direct experience of the truth and find evidence for it in a photograph.’ (Evans, 1999: pg 282).
With the blanket acceptance of an image ‘truth’ however, we are more able to detach ourselves emotionally from the myriad of possible ‘realities’. It is this distancing, embodying Sigmund Freud’s concept of projection, which Jessica Evans cites. The basis of this theory posits that we, the viewer, reject or deny those emotions and qualities within ourselves that we find uncomfortable and transfer them to another being, generally one that symbolises those qualities (Evans, 1999: 283). It could be argued that by doing so, we are unconsciously denying the essence of the ‘Other’ that inherently lies inside each individual.
17 Medical Fact or Cultural Paradigm: Are Today’s Attitudes towards Disability Modernist or Postmodernist?
In order to understand the definition of disability in what has been described as a postmodernist society, we need to understand the theory of postmodernism. We also need to understand the use of language and its impact on the representation of disability. By understanding the abstract concepts of postmodernism it becomes easier to establish, within the present-day context of photography and film, whether the representation of the de-formed body is anchored in the individual’s experience or in the hegemonic group’s universal understanding of disability.
As previously discussed the scientific discoveries of the post-Enlightenment era engaged the thinkers and innovators of the Victorian age to view the human body, in particular the disabled, and its productivity through the results of scientific investigation. The premise that all within this new epoch of truth and certainty was classifiable gave rise to the belief that the body was either curable or beyond salvation.
This type of classification was used later, in terms of Marxist anti-capitalist theory, to define the body by its physical ability to work. Paul Abberley (1998), disabled writer and sociologist, stated in his essay The Spectre at the Feast: Disabled People and Social Theory, that Marxism was drawn upon to define disability, and in particular, impairment of the workforce, thus: ‘Nothing can have value without being an object
18 of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value (cited in Abberley 1998: 84).
By utilising photography to document the truth of the human body, these principles of medicalising and of commodifying the body consequently produced what is now referred to as the Medical Model of Disability. Paul Abberley states that the ‘… medical model, locates the source of the disability in the individual’s supposed deficiency and her or his personal incapacities when compared to ‘normal’ people.’ (Abberley, 1998: 79). The discursive construct of the Medical Model of Disability was resultant of the cultural attitudes, both medical and capitalist, which were popular during the time of Industrialisation; its structure based, in part, on the societal discourse of empiricism. According to many discussions about the work of Michel Foucault, he attempted to define the relationship between power, knowledge and discourse (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Foucault). It is by means of this deconstruction of modernist theory through Foucault’s analysis of discursive practices that we are able to view the disabling context of the Medical Model. Foucault questioned the understanding of discourse by rendering its purpose as one of control; ‘The search for knowledge does not simply uncover pre-existing ‘objects’; it actively shapes and creates them.’ (http://www.philosopher.org.uk/poststr.htm).
However, with the advent of Postmodernist and Post-structuralist thinking it is possible to view the representation of disability through a social model which defines the body in terms of the constructs of physical environment and language. The Social Model of Disability departs from the binary comparisons to ‘normalcy’ that are
19 inherent with the modernist Medical Model, apparently giving people with disabilities the power to reclaim control from the doctrines of medicine. Whereas the Medical Model promotes the concept of the individualism of the disabled and, unknowingly, the assertion of the oppression of the disabled, the Social Model defines disability through the disabling behaviour of society, thereby placing the responsibility of discrimination squarely on the shoulders of the hegemonic group. Author Mairian Corker states this fact in Disability Discourse in a Postmodern World (1998): ‘The social model of disability separates disability from impairment, and then attributes the creation of disability to the dominant socio-cultural environment.’ (Corker, 1998: 221).
Corker’s essay discusses the use of Postmodernist thinking to deconstruct the stultifying effects of the dis-abling Medical Model. The most basic definition of postmodernism is that it rejected the ‘underlying structures’ of society, in particular, the economic and psychic structures as proposed by Marx and Freud respectively; ‘… along with the supposition that such structures can be explained by all-embracing grand theories of or metanarratives’ (Corker, 1998: 223).
In terms of codifying the body, the use of Postmodernism invariably invokes the precepts of Post structuralism. It is vitally important, both within the linguistic and visual denotation of the human frame, to understand the impact of the language used to describe the physically different. The etymology of many of the words used to describe different body types are found in Ancient Greek and the English used in medical discourses. Words such as ‘disabled’, ‘cripple’, ‘spastic’ and handicapped’
20 have come to signify the debilitated form. By utilising Ferdinand de Saussure’s development of the structure of language, the hypothesis of the signifier/signified, (Hawkins, 2003) we learn that the sound of these words automatically, and particularly through the encultured of notions of disability, calls to mind derogatory, negative and oppressive images of people with disabilities. Is it possible to deconstruct these images, and through that deconstruction present a reality capable of breaking the barriers imposed by both the Western cultural and linguistic structure?
The concept of Binary Opposition - good/bad, white/black, able/disabled - is a linguistic structure that formalises the dichotomy of language. Terence Hawkins, in Structuralism and Semiotics (2003), discusses the historical path of this paradigm from Ferdinand de Saussure to Roman Jakobson, through to its deconstruction by Jacques Derrida. As stated within a web essay by Roger Jones on the paradigms of Postmodernism and Post-structuralism (http://www.philosopher.org.uk/poststr.htm), Derrida believed that ‘… language shapes us: texts create a clearing that we understand as reality’. Terence Hawkins goes on to elaborate Derrida’s deconstruction of Binary Opposition by discussing his work Differance. Derrida’s concept of Differance represented the usage of binary opposition as unequal opposites: ‘… To differ or differentiate, Derrida argues, is to defer […]: to postpone; to hold back; to propose a distinction between entities such as will enable one to refer to the other, or to be distinguished from it’. (Hawkins, 2003: 122). The basis of this argument is quite simply that the pairing of binary oppositional words is hierarchical and unequal, and that the absence of definition is as important as its presence. Therefore the binary of able/disabled proves that not only is it the opposite of disabled, but that it is imbued
21 with the hegemonic cultural belief that to be ‘able’ means that one is ‘better’ because of his or her functional and productive abilities. However, Derrida’s theories of Differance highlighted the fact that the space between Binary Oppositions could not provide an absolute truth, ‘… all texts exhibit ‘differance’: they allow multiple interpretations’ (http://www.philosopher.org.uk/poststr.htm ).
This fact shows that although our current understanding of disability is supposedly predominantly through the employment of the Social Model of Disability, it is ultimately impossible to view it as separate to the Medical Model. The deconstruction of the structure of spoken language, and therefore visual representation, cannot provide a definitive discourse that offers a linguistic format which will dissociate from the negative imagery of nouns used to described a body that is disabled by genetics and the physical environment within which it resides. In her discussion about the Postmodernism of disability Mairian Corker states simply that, ‘… new meanings do not simply replace old meanings. Meanings tend to reside alongside each other, largely because, in addition to their definitive role, they delineate the boundaries between things and people, their relationships to other things and other people - and so the process of defining is bound up in ‘matters of identity’ (Corker, 1998: 225)’. However, if old meanings reside alongside new ones and allowing for the fact that words have ‘multiple meanings’, is it possible to visually construct a representation of the body that contains an ontological sense of the disabled reality?
We know that with the scientific research of the body and the need for empirical evidence many beliefs were put forth that would make the disabled the property of
22 science and would societally mark them as less. However, the observing of those who were different was not the privilege of science and medicine, or the philanthropic; it was also a form of entertainment for the public. As with the modern day form of alternative comedy subverting the norm, so the Freak Show turned the paradigm of disability on its head.
In Robert Bogdan’s Freak Show (1998), he posits that, although it is a truism that the various disabilities on display were there to be viewed as ‘freakish’, it became obvious that the control of this blatant exhibition of physical oddity was with those who were judged too different to function in the ‘normal’ world. It was within the tangible space of the circus tent and the roaming life of the Freak Show that a world of ‘Otherness’ subverted the status of abnormality. ‘“Freak” is a frame of mind, a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people.’ (Bogdan, 1988: 3). The disabled were no longer only exhibited to expound the benefits and miraculous wonders of medical development or charity; they were no longer invisible.
Historically, and more importantly culturally, the Freak Show was, ironically, judged, as the marker of the exploitation of the disabled. Viewed through the eye of the structuralist, the imagery of society’s underbelly advocated a surprising duality: one facet was the degradation endured and the other that of fame and fortune, and a positive representation of disability. How was this possible when both the psychological and visual representations of disability were grounded in the the pity for, the fear of and the determination to cure the unnatural body?
23 Within this period of history that is now referred to as modernist is it possible that a tangible precursor to postmodernism existed within the confining walls of this fantastical world? No because, although the lines of power and control were blurred by the repositioning of the parameters of ‘viewing’, and with the ‘freaks’ subverting the gaze of the paying party, turning it from the physical body strategically placed in front of them inwards to their motives, the subversion was temporary. The freaks were still reaching for acceptance from within their space of the ‘Other’. Superficially, it appeared the dominant had become subservient, and the world of the able-bodied was now the ‘gazed upon’ and ridiculed; this, however, was not new. This Carnival form of subverting the world-view of the dominant culture had been prominent throughout Europe as a result of the plague (Foucault, 1999: 62). The exclusion of ‘freaks’ from normal society mirrors that of the lepers portrayed in Foucault’s Panopticism: ‘The leper was caught up in a practice of rejection, of exile-enclosure; he was left to his doom in a mass among which it was useless to differentiate’ (Foucault, 1999: 62).’
Within a formally structured society, there is a hierarchy: this too is true of the alternative community that was the Freak Show. Within this world of ‘oddity’, there was the classification of the ‘freaks’ which created the signification of their importance to the show. The categories were as follows: the natural born freaks monsters, Lusus naturae - which also included those ‘who developed their uniqueness later in life’ (Bogdan, 1998: 8). Those whose ethnicity made them exotic and savage, and ‘made freaks’ - people who ‘… do something to themselves that make them unusual enough for exhibit, such as getting adorned with tattoos or growing their beards or hair exceptionally long.’ (Bogdan, 1988: 8). There was also the inclusion of
24 the circus-type act, the ‘novelty act’ which included such exotic ‘arts’ as sword swallowing and snake charming.
Then there were those that faked their malformation - the ‘‘gaffed freaks’: […] the armless wonder whose arms are tucked under a tight fitting shirt, the four-legged woman whose extra legs really belong to a person hidden from the audience …’ (Bogdan, 1988: 8). Here, as with photography, is the construct of a reality, but unlike photography, because it was not one ‘moment-in-time’ stilled to a twodimensional image (signifier and signified), the ‘fake freak’ was condemned for its artifice. Their ‘normality’ would forever prevent them from reaching the heady heights of fame and financial success those with congenital disabilities had gained: ‘The born freak was publicly acknowledged has having esteem’ (Bogdan, 1988: 8).
However, the categorisation of the true and real ‘freaks’ embodies the ‘looked-atness’ of Foucault’s subjects imprisoned in Jeremy Bentham’s perfect prison (1999). The objectification of these unique bodies substantiates Foucault’s positing that the individual ‘… is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor […] He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.’ (Foucault, 1999: 65).
As with the worlds of science and charity, photography played a significant role for the Freak Show. Here was a visual representation celebrated specifically for its construct of the deformed. The performers and Freak Show owners relied on the public perception of photography as a form of documentary. Once the technical and
25 chemical processes of taking and developing a photograph had improved and guaranteed faster re-productions of the images captured, the novelty of photographs and their importance became prolific, a new hobby burgeoned within the American culture - ‘ “cartomania” a compulsion to collect photographs’ (Bogdan, 1988: 11). Photo albums appeared in family homes, and because of the novelty, as Bogdan states, every photographed had a collectible value to the individual. Parallel with the flourishing consumerism of photographs was the Freak Show as it rose through the ranks of popular entertainment.
Without the belief that photographs documented the ‘real’, the public could not be enticed to partake of the shows. So, to grab the attention and to pique the curiosity of the potential audience photographs of ‘freaks’ were doctored: this Victorian enhancing of the ‘exhibit’ is comparable to today’s practice of airbrushing celebrities and models. ‘Exhibit and managers would carefully review the proofs and give printing instructions that would enhance the image …’ (Bogdan, 1988: 13); the collusion of the ‘looked-at’ and its employer resulted in the construction of a fantasy. Bogdan goes on to cite a printing instruction found on the back of a photograph of an albino: ‘“Make half length and have the hair show as white as possible” (Bogdan, 1988: 13). Charles Eisenmann was one of the most popular photographers of freaks towards the latter end of the nineteenth century and Bogdan uses a particular set of Eisenmann’s photographs to emphasise the technique of alteration; that of an already, hirsute man. It is evident from the original photograph the gentleman was hairier than the average individual; however, when one compares it to the altered photograph it is easy to see
26 why his original state would not have been considered unique enough by himself and his manager.
© Robert Bogdan 1988
The ‘exhibits and their managers’ (Bogdan, 1988) capitalised upon the fact that science upheld the purpose of photography as documenting the truth: they also took advantage of the fact that owning photographs was an indication of an individual’s consumerist status. Representations of the Freak Show ‘curios’ taken and reproduced in their thousands, were handed out as collectibles and as publicity to a society keen to revel in its newly found consumerism. By so doing, the disabled colluded in the reproduction of their image, which, in effect, was the only real form of control they had over the construction and use of their image. The altering and accessorising of an image was completely acceptable to the members of a Freak Show. In order to survive it was necessary to have an audience, and to get an audience a little artifice was often required. Publicity posters of the time were
27 drawn and or written: the visual imagery and language were always exaggerated, offering the public what it defined as ‘freakish’, a definition that was on most occasions, far more fantastical than the reality. ‘The actual life and circumstances of those being exhibited were replaced by purposeful distortions designed to market the exhibit …’ (Bogdan, 1988: 95). Ironically, this form of ‘tampered with’ photography was accepted, unlike that of Barnardo’s orphaned children depicted within his charity posters (Evans 1999). The depictions of the ‘freaks’ could be described as art, therefore furthering the argument that the proponents of photography were divided by the purpose of this new technology: documentary or art.
Bogdan discusses the fact that the power over, and the control of, the bodies on display was not just with the owner of the Freak Show, but more with the body itself. These individuals recognised the power of curiosity, of voyeurism and their displacement from normal, able-bodied society and used it to their advantage. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, photography gave the new world of industry, science and technology the opportunity to show to its society the empiricism of its discoveries. People with disabilities were only ever visible within these discoveries as physical structures dissected in the search for the prevention of these deformities spreading. However, as has been shown, the Freak Show, the world of the ‘Other’, took control of their deformities and used them to gain, not only fame and fortune, but also a community in which they lived openly. The Freak Show, like circuses and carnivals, subverted the cultural norm to create a world where ‘freaks’ could live openly and without judgement; where they were the norm. Although this was a positive representation of the lives led by the disabled, the two worlds of being,
28 of visible and invisible, had one factor in common - the disabled person was still represented by its Showman and perceived by its audience (both of whom were ablebodied) as visually unacceptable.
(Above is a photograph of some of the cast of the 1932 film ‘Freaks’, directed and produced by Tod Browning. With the exception of the two able-bodied characters the cast was composed of real people who worked in Freak Shows. © Tod Browning)
The Freak Shows of America can be characterised as the precursor to the film industry’s representation of the de-formed body and dis-abled character. The contemporary representation of disability in both photography and film maintains its status as modernist, even in this age of Postmodernism and multiple meanings. The paradigmatic forms of postmodernist thought focuses the filmic audience on a world that is constructed from the symbolism science, technology and capitalism. Whereas
29 the premise of modernism was a reliance on the clearly defined documentation of ‘real and unreal’, ‘true and untrue’, which manifested itself in science, the medicalised body and consumerism, the basis of Postmodernism is the abstract discovery and exploration of the ontology of humanity and its relationship to the world. This form of film making forces a distance between the viewer and his/her implied connection to and mirroring of the reality and emotional subtext of the character on screen. It determines the viewer’s analysis of the self through its techniques of ambiguity and destructuralisation - we are no longer encouraged to connect to the character but to view dispassionately the ‘mere, playful representation’ of this supposed filmic reality.
This concept lies in the de-centred, dehumanised fragmented chaos of mass media, rather than within the individual, situated between the converging meanings of binary oppositional words, signs and cultures. In his essay, The Ecstasy of Communication social theorist, Jean Baudrillard (1983), defined postmodernism as a deconstruction of the individual through the development of new communication technology and the media. He contends that with the blurring of the signifier and signified, the reality of the individual has become merely symbolic. ‘… this body, our body, often appears simply superfluous, basically useless in its extension, in the multiplicity and complexity of its organs, its tissues and functions, since today everything is concentrated in the brain and in genetic codes, which alone sums up the operational definition of being.’ (Baudrillard, 1983: 129).
30 In essence Baudrillard had defined society as no longer classifying the world by the constructs of signifier and signified, but through his four stages of representation that resulted in ‘hyperreality’: ‘With hyperreality, the sign becomes more real than reality itself.’ (Stam, 2000: 305), thus the depiction of ‘true’ reality becomes the symbolic simulacra of society.
Despite the proliferation of postmodernist films, for example, Bladerunner, Pulp Fiction, and Fight Club, to name just a few, films that depict people with disabilities remain resolutely ensconced in modernism, and therefore, by association defined by the Medical Model of disability. Media consultant Paul Drake (1998), in his essay Understanding Cinematic Representations of Disability, states that despite films being endowed with copious meanings and symbolism, the narrative structure of the disabled person, in both the British and American media, is still restricted to the social confines of stereotyping: ‘… stereotypes such as the ‘noble warrior’, the ‘charity cripple’, the ‘curio’, the ‘freak’ and the ‘Pollyanna’.’ (Paul Drake, 1998: 181).
The isolating of disability in this way is not merely society’s need to pigeonhole that which it cannot comprehend and fears, but also the film industry’s purpose of embodying the cultural attitudes indicative of the era it depicts. Darke cites an example of Martin Norden’s The Cinema of Isolation in his debate on filmic disability and the roots of its imagery: ‘… he argues that following the Second World War images of impairment were more normalising and ‘rehabilitative’ owing to the high number of returning disabled veterans …,’ (Paul Drake, 1998: 182).
31 Throughout Darke’s essay is the contention that the negative construction of the disabled image is deliberate and not, as many believe, an accidental by-product of the stereotyping of disability: its representation ultimately promotes the paradigm of abnormality. This, in turn, serves to highlight the normalcy of the audiences’ life: ‘… through creating the illusion of normality out of the apparent reality of abnormality.’ (Darke, 1998: 183).
Darke, continuing with Norden’s theory that the visual representation of disability is connected to the contemporary notions of disability in the hegemonic group, posits that it is inaccurate to state that people with disabilities are rarely present in the media and that ‘… they are invisible’ (Drake, 1998: 183). He states that there are many films that feature the characterisation of disability, however, they fall in to what he categorises as the ‘Normality Genre’ (1998: 184).
Through the visual and narrative representation of binary opposites and the medicalisation of the deformed body, Darke proposes that the normality genre emphasises, through the impairment of the body, that which the hegemonic culture can relate to - normalcy. This is achieved through the disabled character’s desire, and often, heroic, attempts, to be ‘normal’, or through his or her struggle to defy the restrictions of the physical or learning disability. However, according to Darke’s research and theorising, there is a demarcation between the medical model of disability in mainstream film genres and the structure of the normality genre. The result of marginalising the disabled character in the medical model of film merely serves to ‘… reinforce the film’s normal central character’s (heroic) normalness
32 …’ (Drake, 1998: 186), by reducing the social significance of the ‘non-normal’ to mere symbolism and as a problem that needs to be overcome. However, Drake defines the difference of the normality genre to other genres as placing the impaired body in the centre of the narrative, and giving it a social importance that ultimately strives to draw attention to the ‘relative worth’ (Drake, 1998: 186) of the disabled person in terms of its ability to ‘[…] either define or validate its opposite: normality.’ (Drake, 1998: 187).
Films with disabled characters as the central narrative voice idealise the struggle of that person to cope in society, either by representing their determination to be accepted by the the norm or by accepting their fate of segregation. The Elephant Man, My Left Foot, Children of a Lesser God and Born on the Fourth of July, are just a few of the films that signify the challenges faced by people with disabilities striving to be normal. All the films cited here have at the core of their representation the character’s battle against the medicalisation of their lives; this reflects the attitudes and cultural beliefs held by the Victorians at the time of modernity that the body must either be curable or incurable; if incurable then the body is of no use. The filmic representation of the disabled body today continues to be mired in the scientific modernism of the industrial age.
Since the 1960s, the work of Diane Arbus has struck a cord with critics and viewers alike. Many of Arbus’s contemporaries viewed her as a pivotal figure in the new form of documentary photography: this use of the camera to document the ‘truth’ of identity ‘[…] became a kaleidoscope through which photographers like Garry
33 Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander looked at the world’ (Hostetler, 2000 www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ndoc/hd_ndoc.htm). The need to look at the world through the images of the de-fragmented human and with a need to distance herself from her privileged background Diane Arbus searched for a world of ‘freaks’. Diane Arbus’s discovery of the ‘freak’ was not, as the word suggests, the re-discovery of the Freak Show’s ‘curios and oddities’ but of the ‘strangeness’ of humanity. Robert Bogdan quotes Arbus’s use of the word freak, stating that it was a ‘… metaphor for estrangement, alienation, marginality, the dark side of the human experience.’ (Bogdan, 1988: 2). The culturally postmodernist aspects in her photography is defined by fellow photographer, Susan Sontag: ‘Arbus’s photographs undercut politics just as decisively, by suggesting a world in which everybody is an alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilised in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships.’ (Sontag, 1977: 33).
Sontag, describes the strength of Arbus’s documentary photographic style as one ‘derive[d] from the contrast between their lacerating subject matter and their calm, matter-of-fact attentiveness’ (Sontag, 1977: 35). In Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, and in a film documentary about her work, her daughter Doon Arbus uses recordings of her mother’s classes to give us an insight into the processes and techniques used by Arbus. It seems that she was not searching for a ‘truth of identity’ but for her subjects’ innate ‘strangeness’; she was searching for that place that lies between ‘… what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you ...’ (Arbus, 1972: Introduction); this was defined by her as the ‘gap between intention and effect’.
For Arbus, the strength of her photography, of her visual representation of the ‘Other’ she captured, was not about objectification or the search for identity, as she perceived it, but due to her fascination of the unknown. Of Arbus’s start in photography, her teacher and photographer Lisette Model said in an interview for Going Where I’ve Never Been:The Photography of Diane Arbus (1972), that ‘… this difference was a difference she wanted. It was a pre-conceived difference to be by all means, and under all circumstances, original and unique’ (Doon Arbus, 1972: USA). This need to discover the underworld of New York, was in part a desire to escape her history; and it was also a need to understand experience and even, perhaps, suffering. Arbus wrote this of her life, “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid was that I never felt adversity. I was confined in a sense of unreality’ (Sontag, 1977: 43).
According to Arbus, her techniques for capturing an image differed from the traditional, conventions of photography. For her the camera was ‘recalcitrant’ and a piece of equipment that she used to frame and expose her interest in humanity. She worked to get to know her subjects, developed a relationship with them that engendered a level of trust, although she claimed she did not attempt to identify with them on a personal level, ‘[…] it is impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s … that somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own’ (Arbus, 1972: Introduction). However, there is a quality of the ‘family snapshot’, the documenting of a personal life, that adds to the style of familiarity that lulls the viewer to take a cursory glance of the photograph; it is once the individual’s gaze has caught sight of
35 the ‘freak’ within the picture that he or she feels they are allowed to indulge in the voyeuristic gaze.
Unlike many others, Arbus was determined to engage with her subjects by encouraging them to look at her or straight into the camera, and in doing so she discovered that her subjects, and people in general, wanted the attention, they wanted to be found out. Sontag states that Arbus’s use of ‘frontality’ - facing the camera, a pose traditionally used in photographic portraiture - in some respects empowered her subjects: ‘… her subjects are often people one would not expect to surrender themselves so amiably and ingenuously to the camera.’ (Sontag, 1977: 38). This surrendering to the camera is comparable to Roland Barthes’ (1980) belief that the subject colludes with the camera and arranges itself accordingly for the picture being taken. By encouraging her subjects and by positioning herself rather than them, she was able to capture an openness and frankness that in turn forces the viewer to ‘look at’ the despair, pain and monstrousness of the ‘freak’; because she is looking, we must too.
Many critics felt Arbus’s work was both ‘ruthless’ and ‘brutal’ since she focused on those that stood outside of what is considered to be the normative being, the hegemonic group; Sontag subscribed to that belief, describing the subjects of Arbus’s work as ‘assorted monsters and borderline cases - most of them ugly’ (Sontag, 1977: 32). In amongst the ‘freaks’ photographed were those whose bodies did not conform. Arbus’s depiction of these often de-formed bodies was uncomfortable and jarring, although not medicalised. In the picture entitled Hermaphrodite and a Dog in a
36 Carnival Trailer 1970 (Arbus, 1972), Arbus captured the grotesqueness of a man dressed skimpily and with make-up; it isn’t until one looks at the title of the photograph that the realisation of the man’s physical condition sets in - he is an Hermaphrodite. The title and the subject are the denotation and connotation of the cultural coding (Barthes, 1964) of this man’s body and its place within the physical world. Interestingly, Arbus (according to the description of her technique) angled herself and the camera in order to capture the body of this Carnival performer, so that at first, we are unaware of his formed/de-formed duality - the half of the body closest to the camera is hairless, the half furthest away is not (see fig. 3).
(fig. 3) © Diane Arbus
Arbus stated of her physically unusual models that ‘Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. These people were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.’ (Arbus, 1972:
37 Introduction). Unlike the photography of the Victorian age and that of the Freak Show attractions, Diane Arbus’s representation of the disabled did not medicalise or deliberately set out to ridicule the subjects. Arbus didn’t alter her photographic process in order to ‘frame and capture’ people with disabilities, however the interpretation of these photographs have garnered strong criticism from the disabled community. British photographer David Hevey describes Arbus’s pictorial connotation of disability thus: ‘[she] read the bodily impairment of her disabled subject as a sign of disorder, even chaos …’ (Hevey, 1992: 58).
© Diane Arbus
In an essay entitled Exceeding the Frame: The Photography of Diane Arbus, Ann Millett (2004) discusses the way in which Arbus’s work has been critiqued by some within the field of Disability Studies. Arbus, according to Millet, has been celebrated
38 and criticised for her photographic structuring of ‘seeing and being seen’. She has also been criticised for the ‘enfreakment’ of people with disabilities, since to have a disability automatically, due to the hegemonic notions of the deformed, forms a division between the gaze and the subject, creating a public space within which the deformed are viewed as ‘spectacles’ (Millet, 2004: http://production.ojs.dsq-sds.org/ article/view/881/1056). Arbus’s visual representation of learning disabled subjects at an asylum is, as with all of her work, uncomfortable viewing. However, her use of the visual technique of ‘frontality’ permits the gazer to examine in detail the codification of difference. How does this differ from the viewer’s gaze at her other, non-disabled, freaks? Judith Goldman in Diane Arbus: the Gap between Intention and Effect (1974), examines the disparity: ‘Though trained not to admit it, we are fascinated by the aberrant, the violent, and the perverse. When we are assured no one is watching, we stare at cripples …’ (Goldman, 1974: http://www.jstor.org/stable/775864).
In spite of Arbus’s claim that she was searching for a quality of ‘strangeness’ in all her subjects, her photographs of the disabled in fact created a visual arena which gave the able-bodied spectator permission to stare at the spectacle, reinforcing Paul Darke’s theory of the Normality Genre, which in this instance becomes the ‘Normality Gaze’ (Darke, 1998).
Post World War II the global society had been inundated with the production of images through marketing, advertising, and technological advancement. Philosophers such as Jean Francois Lyotard and Fredric Jameson have posited extensively on the theories of postmodernist ideology and its resulting denial of the modernist structures.
39 As Frederic Jameson, in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, proffered, postmodernism was the combining of the sociological theories of a consumer, electronic and media society. Jameson used these sociological precepts to show that, ‘Such theories have the obvious ideological mission of demonstrating, to their own relief, that the new social formation in question no longer obeys the laws of classical capitalism, namely the primacy of industrial production and the omnipresence of class struggle.’ (Jameson, 1991: http://homepage.newschool.edu/~quigleyt/vcs/jameson/ jameson.html). Lyotard and Jameson, focused their analyses of postmodernism on the rejection of ‘truths’ proposed by industrialisation and science; whereas Frank Webster in his essay Information and Postmodernism, discusses this social concept with regards to its relationship to culture and its mocking of the search for established truisms (Webster, 1999).
High art, classicism and scientific empiricism were no longer en vogue; and the universality of experience and knowledge, the meta-narrative, had been denounced. Webster’s postulation that Postmodernism celebrates ‘difference: of interpretations, of values, and of styles’ and delights in ‘the superficial, in appearances, in diversity, in parody, irony and pastiche’ (Webster, 1999: 175), leads to the visual representation, the image embodying postmodernism. The representation of identity in photography and in film highlighted the relationship between symbolism and reality. The convergence of these two principles was paradoxical in nature and was the genesis of a visual language whose significance lay in the chaotic de-fragmentation of humanity.
40 Despite the progression of postmodernist thought, the photographers of the New Documentary style (Winogrand, Arbus, and Friedlander) were still grounded in the constructs of the modernist aesthetic. Although Diane Arbus claimed she had rejected the structures that represented truth in photography, her search for ‘strangeness’ meant that she was in fact still attempting to capture the reality of truth, not its symbolism. However, Arbus ‘enfreaked’ all of her subjects regardless of their race, gender and sexual orientation, regardless of whether they were physically and learning disabled.
41 Feminisim, Racialisation, Gendering and Disability: Even More ‘Other’ than the ‘Others’
The aim of this chapter is to discuss the visual representation of other marginalised groups within society, and how their experience is relative to, or dissimilar from, that of the distorted body. As with Disability, the narratives of Women and of Race are steeped in the historical structure of their present-day stereotype, with these constructs encoded within the visual image.
The definition of the ‘Other’ by gender, race and the physical productivity of the body, reinforces the prejudicial precepts of science, religion and capitalism. The paradigm and politics of gender within the visual arts do not focus solely on the biological determinism of male/female; they also focus on the societal roles ascribed to each sex and to the more abstract photographic techniques of the lighting, framing and posing of a body. Throughout this chapter, there are examples of how the captured body is represented through the ontological representation of gender.
During the 1970s, second-wave feminists began debating the visual imaging and commodification of Women and their bodies. An unravelling of the relationship between the mechanical object and the photographer highlighted the stereotyping of Women through the cultural choices made by the photographer and the purpose of the photograph. In ‘What Do People Do All Day? Class and Gender in Images of Women’ (1978-9), British photographer Jo Spence discussed the visual codification of women through the imagery of their roles in the workforce. Similar to many
42 discourses debating the constructs of a woman’s body and its relation to the cultural axioms of capitalism and psychoanalysis (Marx and Freud), Spence believed that the signification of women was discernible through the decoding of the visible and the absent - the female body as a construct of the labour force and the absence of a phallus.
By discussing the photographic imagery of women employed during the Second World War and the media stereotyping of secretaries during the late 1970s, Spence took the diverse narratives of women and pieced them together. The pictorial narrative, as proposed by Spence, follows the format of any other storytelling technique, with the notable difference of the absence of ageing and death (Spence, 2001: 130); ‘This perhaps connects with the idea of death as a deprivation (of beauty, status, life) rather than as the process.’ (Spence, 2001: 130). Despite certain positively constructed notions of gender (beauty, love and family) Spence believed that the ‘… visual indices of social class (like age, wear, illness) are eliminated, either before or during the photographic process.’ (Spence, 2001: 130). With the absence of these ‘parts’ the imagery of the female was idealised, over-emphasised, and essentially tapping into women’s natural insecurities to reach perfection (Spence, 2001).
Photographs depicting a female workforce during the Second World War were used, according to Spence to ‘conscript and coerce’ (Spence, 2001: 136) women to accept and fulfil their patriotic duty to their country. However, the pictures served a second purpose - to represent the ‘two jobs’ that women worked - that of a functioning body of the war’s labour force, and that of the feminine - the wife and mother. According to
43 Spence, once the war had ended the photographic imagery of women ‘… collapsed back into ‘one job’ when women were encouraged to re-enter the domestic sphere …’ (Spence, 2001: 137). These photographs, this ‘capitalism’ of the female body emphasised the gendering of the male/female workforce. Women served a purpose in aiding the war effort, however, their primary roles of wife and mother, and the conceptualisation of femininity negated the hegemonic group’s acceptance of women as part of the workforce.
Spence analysed the visual construct of the secretary at work. She did this, firstly by making explicit the value placed on the work of the secretary during World War II, ‘Secretaries were not thought to be doing essential war work and were encouraged to change their jobs.’ (Spence, 2001: 138). Once the image of the secretary had become the most ‘common of the new images of ‘women at work’ (Spence, 2001: 137), the visual narrative of a woman’s life became pluralistic, featuring the activities of having a home life, falling in love, going on holiday, being a wife and a mother. However, Spence maintains that the visual encoding of women continued to promote the binary opposition of women in the labour force and as figures used to commodify the notions of beauty and youth. She structured her analysis of women’s representation with the following elements: whether the emphasis was on ‘labour power or sexuality’; how the mise-en-scene of the image influenced the perception of the female - as a worker or a sexual object; and who the audience was (Spence, 2001: 138). To demonstrate her theory Spence used an advertisement depicting the well-manicured hands of a secretary at a typewriter and promoting a nail varnish product. By simply focusing on the hands, Spence stated the image ‘… stands for the ‘whole’ secretary. They actually
44 connote less a process of working […] than the ‘beauty problem’ this labour causes the split nails need enamelling to retain their beauty …’ (Spence, 2001: 138). This analysis indicated the cultural signification of beauty as inherently more important than a woman’s ability to contribute to society.
To re-gain control of the female body and to explore the political language of visual imagery and sexism, British female photographers during the 1970s began photographically deconstructing the negative advertisements that shackled women to a hegemonic notion of femininity; the photographs also explored the structures of social relationships - between genders and of women’s roles in their families. Jo Spence was instrumental in the formations of two community photographic groups the Hackney Flashers and the Polysnappers. The photographers took the structural basis of advertising posters, and subverted the inherent sexist and sexualised objectification of women by reconstructing the content of the photograph in a documentary format; the purpose of which was to publicly deconstruct the regulatory system of the hegemonic norm, which sought to segregate difference through classification and institutionalisation (Anna Gough-Yates, Understanding Women’s Magazines: www.books.google.co.uk) (see fig. 4). The Polysnappers, for example, used dolls to re-construct representations of family life (Terry Dennet, The Wounded Photographer - The Genesis of Jo Spence’s Camera Therapy: http://findarticles.com/p/ articles/mi_m2479/is_3_29/ai_80757514/pg_9/) (see fig. 5).
46 The ultimate aim of these socio-political groups was to break down the barriers of difference and to create a platform for equality, inclusion, and acceptance. The photographic statement of their political arguments resulted in an attempt to construct a new visual language that would subvert the visual codification of the glamorous, techni-coloured photography of the advertising world that specialised in objectifying and commodifying the female anatomy.
In her discourse, ‘What’s Wrong with Images of Women?’ (1977) art historian Griselda Pollock analysed the visual construct of women in advertising by comparing it to the historical language of women in paintings. With reference to advertising, like Jo Spence, Pollock used a variety of pictorial advertisements that were in the public domain at the time she wrote the essay - 1977. By using a particular gender device to further define the ‘… meanings signified by woman in images with reference, for instance to man in images.’ (Pollock, 2001: 78), she identified the gendering of photographic images: she referred to this technique as ‘male/female reversals’ (Pollock, 2001: 78).
As referent to the ‘male/female reversals’ Pollock utilised the Women’s Report (1973) photographic reversal of an advertisement entitled ‘Seven Ages of Man’; which consisted of a series of photographs, complemented with text. Of the seven posters, only one featured a female and who was nude. The Women’s Report, according to Pollock, ‘reversed’ the coding of both the visual and accompanying text by using the figure of a nude male and changing the pronoun of she to he. The original poster was ‘… soft-focussed, with smudged edges thus binding the images into the material of
47 the photograph while the reversal is shot in sharper focus and the hard edged lighting emphasises the nakedness of the male model.’ (Pollock, 2001: 79); as such, through the physical and chemical process of constructing these photographs a ‘gendering’ of the visual image occurred. Pollock stated that to deconstruct the ‘[…] particular signifier of woman as body and as sexual’ it is necessary to understand the historical constructs of codifying the body as well as the ideological representations of women.
With regards to the filmic narrative of the female form, filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey (1999) defined its gendering and sexualisation for the male gaze in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Mulvey, 1999: 381). She de-structured the components of the cinematic experience to define its main purpose of providing pleasure to the viewer and the pleasure of being viewed. As later advanced by
48 Mulvey’s detractors, the subtextual theme of her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ is of the female form providing pleasure for the heterosexual male.
Mulvey drew upon Freud’s use of Scopophilia - the pleasure in looking (Mulvey, 1999: 381), which incorporated the objectifying of a person by subjecting them to a ‘controlling and curious gaze’ (Mulvey, 1999: 381). Mulvey posited that scopophilia was the basis of filmmakers’ sexualisation of women, used to satisfy the male viewer’s gaze. The cinematic experience of sitting in a darkened space, isolated from the activity occurring on the bright screen produces a metaphorical indifference ‘… to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy.’ (Mulvey, 1999: 382).
The objectifying structure of the female body in the film narrative, according to Mulvey, served a dual purpose: the woman as the object of desire for the male on screen and for the male audience. The gaze of both men was one that, ‘… project[ed] its fantasy onto the female figure, which was styled accordingly.’ (Mulvey, 1999: 383). Mulvey stated that the creation of the ideal female fantasy meant the female inhabited her traditional role of ‘exhibitionist’, which, through the visual codification of the body, encouraged the connotation of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey, 1999: 383). She also defined the visual representation of women and the lack of a phallus as posing a psychological threat to men which, she posited, was overcame in a number of ways, notably by fetishising the female, ‘… the cult of the female star.’ (Mulvey, 1999: 386).
49 An example of the ‘cult of the female’ star was the actress Mae West. She was idolised both for her double entendres and, more obviously, for the highly sexualised and objectified representations of her body (fig. 6).
(fig. 6 - Hollywood actress Mae West)
Mulvey’s use of Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ theory (Mulvey, 1999: 382) characterised the relationship between the person on the screen and the audience member by reinforcing the individual’s recognition of components of one’s self on screen. This theory does not work when an audience is faced with the physical structure of the deformed body, since this is a body they cannot relate to, as they have no experience of it. The ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ of the person with a disability is codified for the ablebodied viewer by the absence of both normality and the cinematic codes of beauty.
50 Kobena Mercer’s essay Reading Racial Fetishism: the Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (1999), also discussed the concepts of photographic codification that distances the audience’s relationship with the model, by reinforcing the stereotypes of racial difference.
Laudatory of Mapplethorpe’s technical mastery of the camera, Mercer posited that the coding of photography - lighting, framing and the displaying of the bodies - ‘… facilitates the imaginary projection of certain racial and sexual fantasies about the black male body’. (Mercer, 1999: 436). He also stated that the ‘text’ of the photographs determined the way in which the white person read the inherent stereotyping of the black males depicted: he refered to this as ‘fixity’ - ‘… a fixed way of seeing that freezes the flux of experience …’ (Mercer, 1999: 436). The manner with which he specified the visual coding of the black male body is reminiscent of Laura Mulvey’s fetishising of the female body, in that there is ‘ … an erotic/aesthetic objectification of black male bodies into the idealised form of a homogenous type thoroughly saturated with a totality of sexual predicates.’ (Mercer, 1999: 436).
According to Mercer, Mapplethorpe’s eroticisation and objectifying of the black male body, codified the body so intently that it put out of sight the inherently human and cultural experiences of the individual and of the race; much as the charity poster has done to the disabled person. Citing the paradigm of ‘looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey 1999) he discussed how the patriarchal hegemonic group created the objectification and sexualisation of the body, due to a sense of mastery over the object, which in turn resulted in the subjugation of the whole. Mercer believed the constructed
51 sexualisation occurred because Mapplethorpe focused the lens on the ‘shiny’ black skin, and the lithe, ‘sculpted’ body (Mercer 1999). Using post-colonialism theory, Mercer argued that media stereotypes of the black male - ‘‘criminals, athletes, entertainers’ - furthers the ‘fixed’ colonial ideology of the white man’s representation of the black body and ‘[…] the ‘otherness’ it is constructed to embody.’ (Mercer, 1999: 437).
Another photographic form of ‘mastery’ by the hegemonic group is the gendering the body within the frame. This form of ‘othering’ is apparent not only in the visual coding of the female body, but also in the image representations of the disabled. For Mercer, Mapplethorpe ‘others’ and genders the black male body by ‘… ‘feminising’ [it] into a passive, decorative objet d’art.’ (Mercer, 1999: 439). The outcome is to silence the experience of the models, so the viewer is only able to connect to the sexuality of the body.
© Robert Mapplethorpe
ÂŠ Robert Mapplethorpe
ÂŠ Robert Mapplethorpe
53 Photography throughout history has been used to define the frailties and inferiority of the ‘Other’ body: e.g. the medicalising of the disabled body, and the negative gendering of the female role. Anthropometry was a form of photography, created by Alphonse Bertillon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertillon) in the late nineteenth century which was later utilised by anthropologists in the early twentieth century to quantify and classify the inferiority of the colonies; i.e. ‘… measuring the cranium of the colonised so as to show […] the inferiority of the ‘Other’. (Mercer, 1999: 440). Mercer stated that elements of this type of photography reside within the portraiture of the black males by Mapplethorpe with his invoking of the ‘primitive nature of the Negro’, and the reminiscence of the ‘African tribal mask’ in the profile of one model, connoting what Mercer describes as ‘wildness, danger, erotica’ (Mercer, 1999: 440).
Jim Pines, a senior lecturer of Media Studies, argued in his essay, The Study of Racial Images: A Structural Approach (1977), that to fully comprehend the codification of the black image, the viewer needs to be aware of the social circumstances and attitudes towards the racial ‘Other’ that are concurrent with the production of the image. For Pines, the denotation of the black image was overridden by the social and cultural interpretation (connotation) of race (Pines, 2001). To explain his theory Pines utilised the paradigm of binary opposition, in which white/black defines the inferiority of black societal status. By representing the image of a black person and his/her inherent history, the pictorial depiction articulates ‘what it is not’ - a white person (Pines, 2001: 56).
54 The imaging of the ‘Other’ results in the emphasis of absence - the absence of a penis and the absence of the racial indicators of the hegemonic group: the sexual objectification of a body is also intrinsic to the dominant culture’s power over the socially inferior. These factors are true of the visual representations of Women and Race, however they are not true of the Disabled.
Helen Meekosha (1998) debates the exclusion of women with disabilities from feminist theory in her essay Body Battles: Bodies, Gender and Disability (Meekosha, 1998); she states that disability is often referred to only in terms of ‘the Welfare State and the role of women as care givers.’ (Meekosha, 1998: 165). This view of disabled women focuses, essentially on the medical model of disability, merely viewing her as the ‘cared-for’, which ultimately strips her of her female identity. Whereas the bodies of able-bodied women are sexually objectified for the male gaze, Meekosha argues the disabled woman’s body is the object of pity, used to garner donations for charity and to advertise products (Meekosha 1998).
According to Martin Norden in, The Cinema of Isolation (1994), women with disabilities are positioned to be viewed in films as ‘… not erotic objects but as bearers of symptoms.’ (Norden, 1994: 321). The language of visual representation for the female disabled body is objectified in film, like that of her able-bodied counterpart, however, the gaze that is invoked is medical not erotic (Norden 1994); thus ensuring the disabled female cannot be defined by the social constructs of beauty and sexual attractiveness.
55 One of the many arguments about the structuring of the photographic gaze is that it simply captures a moment in time, a visual representation of ‘that which was’. The photograph its’ self is unable to expand on the circumstances surrounding the reason for which it was taken, nor can it describe the life of the person statically represented within its frame. Our understanding of the photographic message is through an instinctive and intellectual de-coding of the visual language. There are pictorial and cultural signifiers within a photograph that will direct us to perceive the content in a certain way; other times the picture is surrounded by text which tells us what we should think and how we should feel about the person modelled in the photograph. This form of codifying an image is discussed by Roland Barthes in Rhetoric of the Image (1999). He stated that by using the techniques of ‘… framing, distance, lighting, focus, speed …’ (Barthes, 1999: 40), it is the intervention of man that adds the ‘connotation’ to a photograph which has been taken by a mechanical object. However, he also questioned how the meaning of a photograph was transformed from cultural connotations to specific denotations. According to Barthes (1999) this transformation occurred when text was attached to the picture, a technique used in advertising: ‘Why? Because in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional’ (Barthes, 1999: 33).
The work of socio-political photographers throughout the 1970s was to undermine the hegemonic visual constructs of gender and race; this politicising of the oppression of the ‘Other’ continued in the sphere of Disability Politics. David Heavy (1992), prominent Disability activist and photographer, discussed in his work, The Creatures Time Forgot, the use of visual representations combined with text by charities in
56 posters used to encourage the able-bodied norm to donate time and money to their cause.
In the chapter, Part 2 Out of the Grotto (Hevey, 1992: 31), Hevey lays the responsibility of misrepresenting disability at the feet of charitable organisations. He states that by creating ‘brand awareness’, an impairment becomes a disability constructed by the visual reinforcement of society’s perception of the de-formed body: ‘Their body becomes fragmented and refocuses on the major fragment - the impairment’ (Hevey, 1992: 34). However, despite the visual construction of the poster, with the model staring straight at the viewer and crisp, clear colours (more often black and white); and the disability is the focus of the frame (e.g. physical - a wheelchair, learning disability - the facial features of a person with Down’s Syndrome). Hevey argues that it is the written text which ‘… tells the viewer how to read the image and it will appear to be an account of existing with the impairment.’ (Hevey, 1992: 34). The immutable relationship between the text and depiction is one that ‘… unites both the charity and the giver’s gaze on the impairment.’ (Hevey, 1992: 38).
All of society’s marginalised groups are united by the codifying elements of being the ‘Other’, a fact that Hevey is aware of as he compares the depiction of people with disabilities as reminiscent of images representing blacks slaves: ‘Passive and stiff and ‘done to’, the images bear a bizarre resemblance to colonial picture where ‘the blacks’ stand frozen and curious, while ‘whitey’ lounges confident and sure.’ (Hevey, 1992: 53).
57 Although Heveyâ€™s discourse on Disability imagery was an indictment of the cultural and photographic attitudes of the 1980s and 1990s, very little progress has occurred since then, and the visual representation of disability continues to be predominantly owned by charities.
The following posters are examples of how we continue to see people with disabilities today: the emphasis is on the body of the disabled person with their eyes gazing directly into the camera. The primary colours surrounding the picture (see fig. 7) indicates a child-like quality which reinforces the dependency of the de-formed on hegemonic culture; and as borne out by both Barthes (1980) and Hevey (1992), the text in the poster tells society how to read the impact of the disability on the person. What is also interesting is how the visual and textual absence of normality is so obvious it gives the viewer permission to celebrate his/her normality.
In the poster above, the aggressiveness of the subjectâ€™s facial expression paired with the text, does little to deconstruct societyâ€™s beliefs that a person with a Learning Disability has animalistic qualities. By comparing this human being to a dog, the charity is appealing to the communityâ€™s better side: everybody loves and respects their pets, surely we could do the same for someone who is considered in every way, to be inferior?
These posters by charity MENCAP (see fig. 9) attempt to give value and meaning to the personality and life of its subjects. The picture on the left, is a classic example of the binary opposition of good and bad; even the physical positioning of the bodies emphasises the superiority of the non-disabled. In the picture on the right, the text reinforces the message that without the financial assistance of the public, this child will have no opportunities to be more than his disability.
These posters (fig. 10) has been seen throughout the London Underground for sometime. They can be viewed as a positive representation of disability since the focus is on the model’s face and a de-formed body/face does not appear within the context of the poster, indicating normality. It is the vacuous eyes staring back at the able-bodied gazer that creates a version of Laura Mulvey’s ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’. However, there is no mirroring of bodies or experience, and therefore the viewer has permission to concentrate on the text to define and to pity the disabled. The blank look in the eyes and on the faces of these models gives the impression that again, without the aid of the able-bodied community, the construction of a disabled person’s life cannot commence until time and money have been donated. It is the text that ties
61 the meaning of a purposeless disabled life to the photograph. Ironically, without the visual aid of a physical disability within the poster, it is possible that able-bodied viewers are likely to believe the people featured are able-bodied models, therefore, undermining the charityâ€™s message.
62 Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
With the advancement of technology and the ever increasing production of images, communication is immediate and society has become more reliant on visual imagery to give meaning and explanation to that which it has yet to experience, whilst eagerly participating in the production of representation. In her book, On Photography (1977), photographer and essayist Susan Sontag says of image making, ‘The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems.’ (Sontag, 1977: 3). Our acceptance of being objectified by the camera lens was described by photographer Diane Arbus, who saw the camera as ‘... a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions ...’ (Sontag, 1977: 41).
Unlike the Victorians, society today now understands and accepts that techniques are used to create pictures and to create the perfect image; the effects of lighting, the positioning of the body, the use of make-up and airbrushing. The public acceptance of these creative tools has created an awareness of the assumed evidentiary quality and the construction of an image. The layperson now accepts that even the documentary and journalistic forms of photography only feature a ‘moment in time’, therefore, omitting the context of the situation captured.
The search for an inherent truth exists only insomuch as the individual understands that truth is a matter of perspective. In the theatre there is an unwritten rule that describes the audience’s acceptance of the play in which it agrees to ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, and in these times of postmodernism, the same is true of the
63 viewer’s gaze, whilst being completely aware of the fantasy involved, but not the consequences. There is a backlash to this acceptance of the play on truth, which is explained by Susan Sontag, in relation to the work of Diane Arbus; ‘... our ability to stomach this rising grotesqueness in images [...] has a stiff price. In the long run, it works out not as a liberation of but as a subtraction from the self: a pseudo-familiarity with the horrible reinforces alienation making one less able to react in real life.’ (Sontag, 1977: 41). It is this desensitising of society’s sensibilities that has given us permission to stare at and judge the bodies pictured in photographs without questioning the truth of the subject involved.
The language of photography is a curious one. The camera its self is manipulated by a person to produce a representation. The use of signifiers, the examining of social relationships, and the choices made by the photographer results in the cultural coding of a photograph, influencing what we think and feel. Visual language is also about the space between the body and the camera, that which cannot be seen, but is still defined by its absence. All of these factors, therefore, have made photographers throughout history as responsible as science and medicine in the continuing segregation of the ‘Other’.
For the general public, photography has a different meaning, it is about capturing the narratives of our lives for posterity. There is no awareness of an image’s ability to hold and show our inner ‘Otherness’ and because of the historical binary opposition of highlighting beauty or emphasising deformity, we as individuals wish to be photographed at our best. As the camera is being focused clothing and faces are
64 adjusted; women touch up their lipstick or move their hair in front of their faces to hide their supposed imperfections. We smile for the camera, we hate being caught unawares and we are determined in some way to have control over what is captured: the subject colludes with the camera to have produced an image that is an accurate representation of who we are. As Roland Barthes states in Camera Lucida (1980), ‘I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing, but [...] this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality.’ (Barthes, 1980: 11).
The language of representation is reliant on the way in which the body speaks to the camera; but the language is often one of coercion, with the body being manipulated by both the director and the subject. An example of this is the sexualisation of the female body. A woman’s back is arched and her face contorted – this could easily be a pose of sexual pleasure, of rape, or of a woman advertising a beauty product. The connotation of the image is dependent on the signifiers within: is her face showing pain? Is she clothed or unclothed? Is the lighting soft and sexual or hard and aggressive?
Anti-sexist activist John Stoltenberg, involved in the 1970s movement ‘Men against Pornography’ (1994), worked with other men to raise awareness about the fallacy and degradation of the pornographic pose, through the practical experience of the ‘Pose Workshop’. The workshop was structured to engage attendees in experiencing the physical contortions endured by women in pornographic magazines by asking the men to adopt the poses and to have others direct them to ensure an accurate
65 replication. The main aim was to emphasis how the female body was structured to sexually gratify the men buying these types of magazines, and to internalise within the workshop attendees the humiliation and degradation felt by these women. By replication the poses it became evident to Stoltenberg that ‘My face felt discordant with the physical experience of the rest of me.’ (Stoltenberg, 1994: 28). Stoltenberg goes on to discuss the reality of the pose – which he termed as ‘self-splitting’: ‘From the perspective of the camera lens – and hence male consumers’ eyes – the face and body of a woman appear as a visual unity. However, in the emotional and physical sensations of an actual human being ‘doing the pose,’ face and body feel split asunder.’ (Stoltenberg, 1994: 29). This statement is an insight into the hegemonic notions of beauty and representation; what has now been defined as beautiful is, in fact, an unrealistic commodity that is merely the manipulation and distortion of the body.
Representations of the de-formed body have been similarly ‘self-split’ and fetishised however, the commodity being sold is not beauty or sexual gratification but pity, and more recently, according to Helen Meekosha (1998), as symbols of strength, often
66 being used to advertise non-gendering products such as ‘soft drinks’ (Meekosha, 1998: 170).
The visual narratives of the disabled body are rarely structured to signify sexuality; however, some contemporary photographers are working to evolve the cultural codification of disability. Photographers such as David Hevey (Creatures Time Forgot 1994) are attempting to re-direct the gaze of the able-bodied viewer to the potential productivity of the body and the individual, and to reinforce the empowerment of having control of one’s body. Others, like David Steinberg (David Steinberg, 2005: http://www.nearbycafe.com/loveandlust/steinberg/photo/index.html) are attempting to sexualise the de-formed person. Similar to Diane Arbus, Steinberg photographs couples in the comfort of their homes and he is searching for an essence of truth by capturing a genuine intimacy on film. However, for Steinberg the ‘Erotic by Nature’ series is not a search for difference, but for similarity - sex. On his website, Steinberg, states that his interest in photographing disabled people having sex stems from the fact that there are so few visual representations, since culturally the possibility of their sexuality is ignored (David Steinberg, 2005: http://www.nearbycafe.com/loveandlust/ steinberg/photo/index.html). Although his representations are ‘pornographic’ because of the detailed sexual content, the photographic style sets it apart from the garishness of the ‘top shelf’ magazine (see fig. 12).
(fig. 12) © David Steinberg
By using black and white, soft focus and directing the gaze to the face where the subjects’ emotions are displayed, Steinberg is inviting us to relate to the sexual physicality and ecstasy of the individual. It is through this shared experience that it is hoped the viewer will be able to ‘see’ beyond the deformed body and the wheelchair; thus attempting to make the person visible and the disability invisible.
There has been an evolution in photography from the modernist structuring of the body as empirical ‘truth’ through to Diane Arbus’s search for ‘strangeness’, and to the
68 post-modernist desire to parody and de-fragment the human form, by transcending class, race and physical identity. Although the subjects of photographs continue to be both structured and objectified by inherent cultural coding and the ‘gaze’, photographers are ‘playing’ more with signifiers, representing them as symbols of many possible truths.
Visual imagery produced by contemporary photographers such as Rineke Dijkstra and Thomas Struth continues to explore the representations of bodies and their emotional narrative in relationship to physical spaces that symbolises the photographer’s search for truth.
(fig. 13) © Rineke Dijkstra 1992
Dijkstra’s images (Dijkstra, 1992: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ap90/ ho_2001.307.htm), especially those between 1992 and 1996, were structured as single
69 and group portraits. Placing this young female body (see fig. 13) in a physical expanse that depicts the elemental forces of nature, combined with adolescent awkwardness, Dijkstra has captured the contradictory essence of isolation and the confidence of a young girl on the verge of womanhood. By using dramatic light and intense colours Dijkstra has given a fairy-tale quality to the subject, despite the twisting of the body, which, lit differently would indicate deformity and otherness.
German photographer Thomas Struth focuses on portraying the family unit in surroundings that represent their class, national identity and their relationships with one another. His family portraits, similar in construct to the images of Victorian families, show the posing of the body and a stiffness of formality all for the benefit of the camera. â€˜These photographs are explorations of social dynamics, showing how people within a tightly-knit group arrange themselves in front of the camera.â€™ (http:// www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/cruelandtender/struth.htm) (see fig. 14)
(fig. 14) ÂŠ Thomas Struth
71 The Beginning of the End?
Contemporary photographers, such as Dijkstra and Struth, use the constructed representations of ‘able’ bodies and their social interaction with each other to encourage the viewer to question what it sees and how it relates to the image. The work of photographers who focus the camera on the disabled body, such Hevey and Steinberg, are based on the Social modelling of disability. These photographers are still conceptualising the deformity of a body through the paradigm of binary opposition. By being photographed having sex or being depicted as socially productive, these bodies continue to be defined by the photographers’ understanding of disability and the politics involved. They are still being ‘read’ by society as categories of what is considered normal and abnormal for the social functioning of a disabled body. The visual construction of the disabled person continues to be imbued with the historical precepts of handicapped, crippled and deformed bodies.
The negativity of the visual representation of the disabled is not due to a dearth of images, quite the opposite; it is the visual language used to depict the person that exemplifies the deformity of body and mind. Is it possible, then, to develop a new visual language that moves the social constructs of disability forward to a place less segregated? Yes, and like the bodies of women and black men, the other ‘Other’, the visual imagery of Disability needs to be owned by the disabled; it must go through the processes of politicisation and self-parody. The ‘freaks’ described by Robert Bogdan (1988) subverted the negativity of their bodies and social standing by taking control of the way in which their bodies were visually re-produced.
72 The desire to be normalised within photography must not be confused with the beliefs of the hegemonic group that all disabled people wish to be â€˜normalâ€™. The dominant norm must begin to understand and accept that the disabled person wishes to be seen as more than a deformity, as more than a charitable commodity, and as more than an object of fear and pity.
ÂŠ Pamela Mungroo 2009
Published on Aug 22, 2012
Throughout history the disabled person, the cripple, the deformed mind and body has sat silently on the periphery of global society. It has...