Photo: Courtesy of Robert Sturman.
Adjectives like "objectifying" and "exploitative" get thrown around quite a bit in abstract conversations about the representation of women in media, but it's hard to pin down exactly what they mean and when they're accurately applied. Much like pornography, it's often a very subjective, "I know it when I see it" type situation. But writer and yoga enthusiast Julie JC Peters of Elephant Journal made a brave attempt at defining objectification in five easy steps. Summarized, here, for your digestion (though definitely check out her full descriptions on this post):
Faces. Facial features, and more importantly, eye contact, help the viewer to make a personal connection with a subject. If the face is obstructed in a photo, it's easier to regard the body in question as an object that serves a purpose rather than an individual with emotions and a history.
Pieces. As Peters puts it, "The less it looks like the whole animal, the easier it is to eat." If a person's physique is "chopped" by the frames of a photo, it detracts from the personhood of the subject.
Visual distance. Viewing a subject from afar, through a window or a (visible) camera lens, implies that the subject doesn't know he or she is being photographed and therefore negates his or her agency, giving power to the viewer.
Personality and context. This sounds obvious, but without providing any information or even signs of life in the presentation of a subject, he or she can basically function as a doll with no "subjective self."
Agency and ability. If the subject appears to be in control, willing, and making an active choice about the photo along with the photographer, then that's a good thing. If not, well, that's objectifying.
Why such deep thoughts, you ask? Well, Peters was reacting to a photo series by Robert Sturman called "Girl with the Ganesh Tattoo." And, yes, she found it to be problematic. The photos, we have to admit, are beautiful. But it's also one of those situations where you wonder — why does this girl have to be nude? Is this gratuitous? There are, we'd argue, a few answers to that question. First of all, artists often take interest in interesting features of nude bodies, and this tattoo definitely qualifies as that. Second of all, the shoot illustrates various yoga poses, which take on a certain, special level of nirvana when viewed without the interruption of Lululemon sports gear and swooping Nike logos. At first look, these photos remind us a lot of the annual ESPN Body Issue. But it's true that, when you inspect further, those photos have a lot of personality, and agency, and context. Then again, it's also possible that the model in Sturman's photos is in control, and accepts the way she is portrayed here. And one need only look at these satirical photos of male pinups to see that, while it might feel normal in our society, there is something very dehumanizing and patronizing about the way women are often portrayed in photography today.
That's the problem with this issue — it's a slippery slope. While we are all for pointing out subtle sexism and objectification that may otherwise go unnoticed, it's also important to remember that sometimes art is a function of and a commentary on those same things. When we apply these same rules to fashion photography, though? That's where things are bound to get tricky. We've already seen how objectifying fashion can be in this very unfortunate Elle Macpherson Intimates ad, or this wildly off-putting Dolce & Gabbana image. And that brings up an age-old question on the divide between fashion and art: Does fashion have the ability to comment on these issues, or to embrace female beauty as an artistic form? Or is that a privilege restricted to artists alone? (Elephant Journal)