Exercise 4-2: The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes

Read the article ‘The photograph as an intersection of gazes: the example of National Geographic’ by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins.

In what way does the idea of the gaze apply to your photography? What are the implications of this for your practice?

Visual theory associated with the gaze is a fascinating but complex area of critical discourse and particularly relevant to the understanding of photography. In my previous course, Understanding Visual Culture. I considered the gaze (see ‘the mirror phase’, ‘looking, observation or surveillance?’, and, ‘gendering the gaze’) and because of my previous interest in this subject and the detailed analysis presented in Lutz and Collins paper, I could easily have become side tracked with this exercise. I have tried however to limit myself to the question asked and consider how the idea of the gaze applies to my own practice.

Many aspects of the notion of the gaze seemed to fit with my approach to assignment 1. Here, I attempted to produce a portfolio of images that described my local area and bypassed any prejudices I may have. I attempted to separate myself form the conscious act of picture taking by making images without looking through the viewfinder with the camera set to take pictures at intervals. The conclusion I reached as I began selecting images was that even by going to these lengths it was impossible to separate my unconscious prejudices – in the end, I decided to embrace this, and the project became about my sense of alienation with my local area.


A form of anthropology?:

As I read Lutz and Collins’ essay, I was struck by the analysis of National Geographic and how one of the purposes of the magazine is a form of anthropology. It occurred to me that I had approached photographing my local area in a similar way, as an attempt to discover what it was like to be a resident. My sense of separation meant that I felt as alien to what I saw and recorded as

a National Geographic photographer in Africa. More significant, even sinister, was my realisation that the people I photographed were presented, even selected, as other. This is a difficult ideological conclusion to reach – I had not intended to present the people I photographed this way, but their anonymity and presentation as being isolated in the frame is a result of this. Of course, there is little if no anthropological value to the photographs in themselves – nothing is learned about what it is like to live in Stanley, Co. Durham except perhaps the validation of some ‘it’s grim up North’ stereotypes.


Voyeurism and surveillance:

In my analysis of this project, I have not fully considered the implications in regard to voyeurism and surveillance. I rationalised my approach of taking photographs secretly as a way of gaining some sort of authenticity and a better representation of reality. Something I thought about at the time was how people would feel if they discovered what I was doing, to be fearful of this recognises that there is something inherently wrong and underhand about the approach – I would certainly not be happy being photographed this way myself. I briefly considered how subjects may feel about the way they are represented, and while I do not believe I have shown anyone in a deliberately negative way, the pictures can also not be termed positive as they are selected to demonstrate a preconceived point of view. As I pursued the project I was unconcerned with the ethical issues of the approach, but with the benefit of some distance in time I am more concerned about this. Is it ever okay to take photographs of someone without their knowledge and consent? As much as I want to justify doing this as some sort of attempt to gain an objective slice of reality, the truth is I would not have taken these images in the traditional sense, by holding my eye to the viewfinder and pointing the camera toward the people photographed – that is, in a open and transparent way. Despite these ethical concerns, the tension of the voyeuristic view is something that adds an extra dimension when viewing the pictures.


The returned/non-returned gaze and the right to look:

One of the ways the images are imbued with a sense of voyeurism is that the people in them do not return the cameras gaze, something which has a distancing effect and turns the subjects into two dimensional objects rather than giving a sense of the real person. The people in the images become isolated in their own worlds and as viewers we are able to look at them and apply our preconceived prejudices without being challenged with them looking back at us.

The influence of psychoanalysis:

Freud and Lacan are particularly influential in ideas about the gaze as the act of looking and how this shapes and influences us is a major consideration in their work. Part of my process for assignment 1 was to invite viewers to select and comment on the images. Fellow OCA student (who also studied UVC) Sarah-Jane Field made this interesting analysis of one of the images:


Sarah-Jane said that despite the random nature of the taking of the photograph, the result is a very formal image which offers three different views of what may essentially be the same subject – three images of women, the imaginary, the symbolic and the real plus the text ‘beauty’. I love the way this analysis points out aspects of the image I had not considered, yes, I saw how the pictures in the window juxtaposed with the real woman walking by, but I did not make the jump to how this relates to Lacan and his theories of psychanalysis. Looking at this picture now I see a cruelty I had previously discounted – the picture is all about how the woman walking past is nothing like the glamourous depictions of femininity in the adverts in the window. Is she walking towards the sign saying beauty, that is about to enter the establishment, or past it, either uninterested or unable to be part of this pressure?


Lutz, C. and Collins, J. (1991) The photograph as an intersection of gazes: the example of National Geographic. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/nationalgeographicgaze [accessed 6th June 2018]


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