Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Visibility is a Trap" - photography and panopticism

[For this post, I am providing selected passages from a larger paper titled “Visible Invisibility and the Trap of the Flash and Frame” that I have written concerning the manner in which visibility operates within the photographic work of American visual artist George Dureau. I have chosen to include segments of the paper where I explicitly worked with Foucault’s notion of ‘panopticism’ from Discipline and Punish in relation to the medium of photography in “capturing” the racial subject.]

George Dureau’s photographs provide unique grounds for analysis and critique in that the artist publicly claims to have crafted the images with the intention of transcending this traditional form of racial objectification through providing otherwise neglected subjects’ visibility. In addition, the limited available literature written about his work does little more than herald the photographs as positive and progressive, praising them for a capacity to humanize as well as glorify the black male through the use of direct gaze and neoclassical stylization of the nude body. I aim to challenge this notion however, in that while the artist does make the invisible visible by bringing the marginalized subject into the public space, at the same time his subjects are made invisible through their being reduced to (and therefore defined by) their sexuality through a coded way of seeing that draws off of and perpetuates traditional myths of the sexual black male, an echo of past American racist institutions and ideologies, and fixes the subject in a limited, context-less position of objectification and fetishization when viewed and consumed by a public audience.

As the works themselves are photographs dealing with display and consumption of images, the concept of the gaze seems to be a most suitable starting theoretical angle to take in beginning this analysis. While I do find the concept of the gaze centrally relevant to this discussion, I find it also necessary to expand its traditional notion and incorporate concepts of the visible. The notion of the gaze playing a central role in the politics of seeing and being seen has been explored in depth by many and applied to a variety of situations. Most notably, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey (1989) presents a theory of the gaze within a filmic context that differentiates between the gazes of the camera lens, the audience, and the subjects filmed and presented. The gaze operates according to the relationships between these bodies engaged in the moment of visual communication, signifying relationships of power in which the spectator is superior to the object of the gaze. Further, the gaze of the unseen spectator is realized through a heterosexual male perspective, which denies subjects of lesser social power status agency and relegates them to the status of objects.

This concept of the objectifying gaze supposes an ideal spectator, leaving the frame of the gaze conceptually limited to a single unseen viewer. However, throughout the history of interaction across racial lines in America, a politics of seeing and being seen has operated outside of intimate spaces and across state and regional borders. As such, coded ways of seeing produced cultural knowledge of the identity of the racial “other” and of his or her relation to the larger American public. We see this largely manifested in stereotype and myth retold through public images of non-white subjects. With the images representing a larger way of knowing, these coded ways of seeing cannot be understood here as produced by or limited to a single ideal spectator. Rather, the subjects within the photographs exist (having been placed by another) in the public space in which they are always potentially seen. As they exist in the public space to be gazed upon due to having been “provided” visibility, it is necessary that the images must also be addressed in larger terms of the visible.

To move beyond the gaze, I will apply Michel Foucault’s (1975) concept of the visible as expressed through his discussion of panopticism which relates systems of power and societal discipline with a particular process of observation and examination experienced through the visible. According to Foucault, a subject provided perpetual visibility “is seen, but does not see” while those in positions of power may see everything (with selectivity as to its extent or duration) while remaining invisible to he whom they view (1975, p.200). For the subject, this “visibility,” through which he is located, isolated and marked, “is a trap” (1975, p.197-200). The use of light (as related to the photographic medium) in making the subjects visible serves a disciplinary (as in regulatory) function. Through it, traditional power relations may be implemented and reinstated in the unseen viewer’s creation of knowledge about the subjects who are otherwise capable only of being “object[s] of information, never a subject in communication” (1975, p.200)

George Dureau has produced a substantial body of work notably characterized by a thematic consistency in form and subject. In the remainder of this paper, I will be focusing on two specific pieces from the artist’s larger collection, the black and white photographic portraits of John Simpson and William Hines. Both images exemplify the formal, stylistic and subject-representative choices widely found in his other work.

Dureau claims to have provided his uncommon subjects with increased value and liberation from the bonds of their marginalized and highly invisible existence by providing them with visibility. What is the nature of this visibility he provided them? First, the subjects are made visible in the very technical sense of the matter, that is, as a result of the light function within the camera which transfers the perceived form of a real physical object in the moment of the flash to produce a fixed image. By choosing these particular men as his subject- economically underprivileged black men with physical disabilities - the artist is making them visible in a way that they presumably would not have otherwise been, as portrait subjects (either chosen by an artist or of their own accord) in art photography. Secondly, he is claiming to provide them visibility by displaying the images in the public space, both in the context of the high art museum or gallery and in the reproduction of images in print or within online galleries. Within this space, the subjects experience visibility in their being seen and witnessed by a public audience through their presence within the images. Further, Dureau claims that his work supplies the subjects with increased value by making them visible as subjects in the realm of high art in way that other photographers have failed to do, challenging traditional notions of beauty and value by linking their otherwise imperfect and non-ideal (and non-white) forms with those associated with classical notions of beauty and implying that they should share a space.

The artist’s concept of visibility as liberating is problematic here however, in that while he may have strove to “satisfy [the subjects’] need to be seen,” the nature of the images as having been realized through the fixed nude (“a revealing physical and psychological strip”) and fragmented form prove rather to marginalize the men presented than empower and elevate them (Cooper, 1995, p.9). This marginalization occurs in the manner in which the subjects are fixed, frozen and fragmented within the frame of the photograph and through the exposure to the anonymous, unseen public that the photograph displayed provides them. In this way, the photograph “captur[ing]” the subject in the frame through “full lighting and the eye of a supervisor,” functions to isolate and marginalize its subject much like Foucault’s panopticon by its technique of “arranging spacial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize instantly” (Foucault, 1975, p.200). Through the photographic medium, this “visibility is a trap” within which the subject is “segmented, immobile, frozen…fixed in his place” (1975, p.195, 200). The individuals chosen by Dureau as subjects for his photographs are representative of those who exist marginally in society and outside of the expected, normative notions of human value and beauty. Their physical abnormalities and racial otherness fashion them unique in such a way that may code them deviant when held against the normative vision of a white, functioning, clothed (moral) and middle class American society within which, in their apparent difference, they are provided no acknowledgement and little space. With this consideration, the visibility that is provided by the photograph may be further understood in terms of its disciplinary function in which it “fixes, arrests or regulates movements” of the perceived deviant subjects so as to “clear up confusion” (1975, p. 219). This disciplinary arresting of movement is most apparent in the subjects’ still position within the frame. For example, Hines is shown thin and feminized but with a kind of youthful nervous insecurity in his passive stance that suggests both a capacity and restrained impulse to engage in activity. Similarly, Simpson is presented with a muscular build suggesting his athletic nature with a concentration of strength and power in his torso implying a capacity to move. While both Hines and Simpson seem to suggest having previously engaged in activity or the potential for future movement in their physical form, both are presented captured in the momentary frame by the flash of the camera as merely being and not doing.

Within the “enclosed, segmented space” of the frame in which the subjects are “inserted in a fixed place,” each is not only located according to physical space but by a marked identity (1975, p.197). The images function to marginalize the subjects further, once frozen in the framed space, by making highly visible the differences that exist between them and the viewer. By presenting his images as a space within which traditionally invisible and unwanted subjects are given focus, Dureau characterizes the photographs as a “space of exclusion” (1975, p.199). In this knowledge, viewers approach this space with a “them vs. me” binary frame that only re-enforces the notion of the included subjects as abnormal or “other” when pitted against the position in which the viewer believes his or herself to be.

The bodies do not function as slices of reality, but as fragmented “emblems of invisibility” in which their vulnerable nude forms, scarred and disfigured, highlight their otherness without providing details of their struggles or depth to their experience and identity (Lucie-Smith, 1994, p.120). Through the nature of this fragmentation, the subject then becomes inscribed with meaning- “truth”- by the spectator as guided by the framing of the image by the artist. While a connection is made between the spectator and the subject through a direct gaze, the attention placed on abstracting the figure by highlighting his differences and fragmenting his form creates the perception of too many boundaries to cross for the spectator to truly and fully know and understand the subject. The spectator becomes “caught in a gaze [he] cannot return,” dislocating the alleged identity of the subject other, and rendering that identity “problematic” and inaccessible to the spectator’s “perception” (Derrida, 1994, p.7-8). The abstraction within the images encourages this “visor effect” that likens the black male subjects to “specters,” who “watch, observe, stare at the spectators” but too remain “blind seers” (1994, p.100). The response to not being able to fully apprehend the abstracted subject in its embodied form within the photograph, nor “identify it in all certainty,” is to “fall back on its voice” (1994, p.7). As the subjects exist only as frozen bodily forms, they possess no voice but rather remain silent. When the subjects are presented only in silence, the viewer can only give the silence a “meaning it does not have, endowing it with the essence of what we would have liked such subjects to have said” (Vivian, 2004, p.175).

George Dureau is commonly lauded for honest, individualized and humanized photographic images of marginalized racial and physically-abled “others” that progressively “render visible [the] ‘invisible men’” (Mercer, 1993, p.357). It is this very visibility, however, experienced through clearly eroticized bodies, which remains centrally problematic to this claim that links representations of the black male as defined by and limited to his sexuality, an image symbolizing a racially oppressive and unjust past, with claims to reality and social progress. Is it possible to visually render the black male in such a way that artistically presents his sexuality without confining his value and identity as a human individual to that feature and function? Dureau proclaimed this as his intention, but his end product appears to have missed the mark. Instead of liberating, empowering and providing egalitarian dignity and value to the subject by bringing him into the public space, the photographs serve rather to “enclose” and “trap” the subject through a disciplined performance of power realized in the image producing process and regulated by the gaze (Foucault, 1975, p.200). This enactment of power renders the black male subject objectified as the artist utilizes the subjects’ body, calculatedly presented in such a way- through nudity, lack of social and spatial context, imposed fixity and fragmentation- that renders the human subjects mere voiceless canvases upon which the viewer-public, from a position of unseen and unenclosed privilege, superimposes meaning and consumes as truth. While George Dureau may have had “good intentions” in seeking to provide visibility to marginalized black male subjects, his photographs maintain a tradition of problematic representation based in a tradition of black male sexuality through which the subjects are objectified and rendered voiceless, thus enabling the creation/re-creation and superimposition of social knowledge through coded ways of seeing that perpetuates differential power relations on the basis of race.

Cooper, Emmanuel. 1995. Fully Exposed: the Male Nude in Photography. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. “Apparition of the Inapparent.” Specters of Marx: the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge. 125-176.

Foucault, Michel. 1975. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Random House. 195-230.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. 1994. "Minority Sexuality." Race, Sex and Gender in Contemporary Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 94-139.

Mulvey, Laura. 1989. Visual and Other Pleasures. London: Macmillian.

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