British Sri Lankan author Charlotte Jansen spent three years interviewing 40 contemporary female photographers, from Juno Calypso to Zanele Muholi, for her new book Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze. The tome explores how their work examines issues of identity, femininity, sexuality and feminism, and here, Charlotte gives insight to her findings.
We all enjoy looking at pictures of women, but that simple pleasure tends to complicate our relationship with women. Until very recently, the images of women we’ve had access to have been created by men, and with men in mind. Female visibility in our visual culture has been a fallacy: we see women everywhere but we see them in a very limited way.
Photography has played a important role in women’s emancipation and liberation, as the so-called democratic medium that has developed in tandem with modern society. Throughout photography in the 20th Century, a few female photographers who have devoted their lens to depicting women have broken through to the public conscience: from Vivian Maier and Lisette Model, to Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann and Rineke Dijkstra – a legacy that has continued to grow in exciting new ways.
In the last decade, the movement of women photographing themselves and other women has gained considerable pace, thanks both to the accessibility of cameras – and technology like the front-facing camera, allowing us to control our own image even more – and ways of getting those images seen in public, through platforms like Instagram. Young photographers like Petra Collins, and activists like Zanele Muholi, are among the artists who have shown women they can take control of their own image and represent themselves – they don’t need to wait for the system to change. “It’s about claiming the spaces, taking back power, owning our voices and ourselves and our bodies, without fear of being judged,” as Muholi puts it.
Other female photographers, like Lalla Essaydi, Tonje Bøe Birkeland or Ayana Jackson, among many others, look at history, revising different aspects of the past through their art, and unveiling hidden stories that have been distorted, or concealed from our view.
The fact that more women are now taking pictures of themselves than ever before, and that we are being exposed to those images in fashion, advertising, art and photojournalism, is very significant. The female gaze was originally introduced by feminist theorists looking at cinema, but now it has a broader impact, thanks to a generation of artists, photo editors and writers who have been pushing for the idea of the female gaze to be explored.
The female gaze could be understood in many ways, but for me, it’s not only about seeing more nuanced and truthful depictions of women’s bodies, experiences and ideas, that is not directed at the heteronormative, male viewer. It’s a way of seeing the world differently, through women’s eyes. Rather than viewing the world in the masculine, vertical way we’re used to, the female gaze is fluid, and it is not something that only relates to women. Artists I met working in different countries and contexts today, from Isabelle Wenzel, to Jaimie Warren and Pinar Yolacan, do not see their work as feminine or feminist, but relate to female bodies as bodies: they can be used to express a myriad of things.
We’re still living, in 2017, in structures and systems that weren’t designed women in mind. But as we’re starting to see, from the way the working world is structured to the way laws are written, that is starting to shift as women have more power. In photography, the female gaze deserves deeper attention because it isn’t simply a trend, but an insight into this alternative world view. Photography has a huge effect on the way we think: women are now, finally, taking control.
That doesn’t mean that women don’t make beautiful, sexual, or objectifying images, either: women are just as likely to see themselves, or other women, in this way – but the question of who is profiting from a photograph and how is being overturned. “For me what’s worth discussing is the discrepancy between how we treat industry-sanctioned women and DIY women who are basically doing the same thing,” Leah Schrager told me. “If a woman is working through an institution such as a modelling agency, we revere her. Yet if she does the same things independently, in the form of ‘posing, playing, presenting’, she’s often demeaned.”
Schrager is one of 40 women I interviewed about their work for the book. The artists included are not all feminist, but they are all contributing to the female gaze today, across the different fields in which photography functions. They demand not to be seen as “women”, since that doesn’t have only one definition, and they don’t ask to be labelled only as “feminist”, but to be seen first as having something to say and to show us about the world as it appears to them – an opportunity male artists have had for centuries. Art is about creating new connections to the things around us. If we can start to interrogate these photographs of women by women differently, the female gaze will slowly reveal itself. In the meantime, Girl on Girl is a glimpse into the possibilities.
Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze is published by Laurence King.