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In Defence of Portraits
On compassion, containment, and the irreducible other.
Earlier this year I wrote about Vanessa Winship’s newest book, Snow. It’s a very beautiful and contemplative work, full of white winter landscapes in Ohio. It struck me, too, as lonely, full of absences. Absence doesn’t have to be read negatively, I concluded in the piece, instead implying hibernation, interiority, possibility; but what I didn’t write is that I couldn’t help missing Winship’s portraits. Their vulnerability, their honesty, their sense of courage and exchange.
During our interview, Winship told me that her decision to exclude portraits was the direct result of a contemporary anxiety in the photography industry about the ethical status of portraiture. “I’m worried at the direction of the discourse right now. I am greatly worried by it,” she said. “There are some aspects of it that are really positive, but some are absolutely negative.” In past works, Winship has been known for the sensitivity of her portraiture, for example in her touching work Sweet Nothings, in which she aimed to give Anatolian schoolgirls “a space […] to have a moment of importance in front of a camera”, or the enigmatic portraits of American strangers she met during she dances on Jackson.
This discourse — which is not new, but which has been amplified by social media and the proliferation of university photography courses — centres around questions like: what do photographers owe the subjects of their pictures? Can a person meaningfully consent to the use of their image, not knowing exactly how, and how far, that image might be transmitted? To what extent is portraiture out-and-out exploitation? These conversations are taking place on Instagram, on Twitter, in magazines, in university seminars; and as a result Winship is not alone in feeling reticent to photograph people.
All of these questions are important, but they are strikingly uniform in their centering of the photographer’s agency as the animating factor in discussions about portraiture. The photographer takes the picture (and yes, the language we use is usually one of violence and domination: take, capture, shoot) — at the expense of the subjectivity, the voice, of the person or people photographed; and so the photographer’s agency is the variable that the discourse aims to question and control.
Suspicion of the figure of the photographer is understandable: generally speaking, we are aware of photography’s history of rapaciousness and colonialism, the structures of power and coercion that it has upheld and enforced. The contemporary practitioner is anxious not to reenact the ills of the past. It seems, however, that the horror of this long history — and keenness to disavow it — has become an expectation of pre-emptive self-recrimination, one that in some cases ultimately prevents photographers (such as Winship) from making portraits at all.
For those photographers who do still feel inclined to make portraits, the tone and intensity of these conversations can lead to nervousness and reticence, a wish to please the moral standards of the discourse before even considering the kind of work they might like to make. The result is a self-conscious reflexivity: the photographer preoccupied by the inward impulse of demonstrating themselves to be good, as opposed to photography’s more naturally outward impulse of curiosity about the world and a wish to make a record of it.
“It’s a kind of misdirected conversation, because it’s not about portraits, per se: it’s about who may portray whom,” Winship told me. “George [Georgiou, her partner] and I spent three years photographing ourselves: this is where we’re heading. Do I really want to spend my life photographing me? Is this where we’ve arrived? Am I only allowed to picture myself?”
“What writing does, what novels do, is allow for us to be able to enter the lives of others,” she continued. “It teaches us empathy. So within literature it’s acceptable to put yourself into the shoes of another, in order to understand, and to imagine another life, another person. We learn about the world in fiction in a way that we’re beginning to be forbidden in photography.”
Her comment reminded me of an essay by Zadie Smith for the New York Review of Books in 2019, in which Smith writes about the debate that has been happening in fiction, similar to our own in photography: a movement away from the realist novel of the large cast and towards the increasingly personal and autobiographical one, in part because of a newfound nervousness about speaking for identities different than one’s own. The parallels are striking: “In the process of turning from it, we’ve accused it of appropriation, colonisation, delusion, vanity, naiveté, political and moral irresponsibility,” Smith writes of fiction, a list of charges that apply precisely, too, to photography.
“The old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane,” Smith continues. This threat obtains neatly in the case of photography — because how can somebody honestly, fairly, ethically depict someone whose experience they haven’t shared? “Only those who are like us are like us,” this thinking goes, per Smith. “Only those who are like us can understand us—or should even try. Which entire philosophical edifice depends on visibility and legibility, that is, on the sense that we can be certain of who is and isn’t “like us” simply by looking at them.”
Fiction is not photography, of course. A person in a photograph will continue to have a life alongside their image; if the image is deceptive or unflattering, it may have an effect on the real life of its subject. Of course photography depends on visibility and legibility to a far greater extent than literature does. My point, in invoking Smith’s essay, is not to argue for photography and fiction to have exactly the same freedoms, to move along the same lines, but rather to consider the ways in which these conversations in photography reflect a broader trend about authorial agency and responsibility, and the extent to which a critical discourse of defensiveness or suspicion can have a warping effect on the trajectory of a medium.
Smith goes on to express, unequivocally:
“Full disclosure: what insults my soul is the idea—popular in the culture just now, and presented in widely variant degrees of complexity—that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally “like” us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally. That only an intimate authorial autobiographical connection with a character can be the rightful basis of a fiction. I do not believe that.”
I feel the same about photographic portraiture. I believe that the instinct to depict people is innate and empathetic, and comes from a wish for mutual understanding. We are storytelling creatures, and we tell stories about each other: the things that move us, the things that cause us pain — it’s a rare novel that includes no human voices, no human stories. Most photographers I know began by taking pictures at home, of their friends and families; it is an instinct often born of love and wanting not to forget. Of course there are unethical photographers; but this does not mean that every portrait is unethical. There are egotistical photographers, just as there are egotistical writers, painters, doctors; but the instinct towards picturing others does not necessarily come from an egotistical, conquering place.
Photography is undergoing a long-overdue levelling of the playing field. The industry is finding ways to cultivate a landscape of more ethnically and socially diverse photographers, and this is an essential step in creating a medium that is more able to accurately reflect the world as it is. That said, I believe it’s possible to make an ethical photograph of somebody with a different lived experience than one’s own, whether on the basis of race, gender, ability, sexuality, class, or someone who has experienced the sufferings of homelessness, displacement, or war. I believe it’s important that we have a record of the world, and of the people in it, including those that suffer — both as a call to action in the present, and so we know how things were when we look back from the future. I believe that photographs encourage empathy, and allow us to learn about experiences other than our own. I also believe that in such a visual culture, thoughtfully-made photographs can lead to social change, and as such I believe photography can be, as much as an art form and a means of record-making, a social tool.
Later in Smith’s essay, she asks whether fiction has been “the creator of compassion or a vehicle for containment”. This dichotomy strikes me as a useful one for approaching portraiture. The photographer might ask themselves: is the instinct to portray this person compassionate or containing? And will the resulting image provoke compassion in the viewer, or offer instead a fixed and contained version of the person therein (containment implying an impermeable border between viewer and subject, a suggestion of otherness and difference that could never be crossed)? In the past, photography has been used as an oppressive tool for creating and upholding categories; this fact does not destroy the hopeful possibility that it can also be used, instead, to dissolve them.
Robert Bergman’s A Kind of Rapture was recently the subject of online discussions regarding its ethical status. In a debate on Instagram that was later recorded on Patreon, Brad Feuerhelm described feeling conflicted about this formally beautiful work in which Bergman seems to “hunt” for the marginalised and dispossessed. Later, I read Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s response to the book, and it struck me as a model for the way in which we might ideally respond to a portrait. There is no discussion of Bergman’s motives or approach in the text, and instead, Wolukau-Wanambwa responds to a few of the images at length, with searching directness and care:
“…I am drawn into abrupt, sensuous, and wordless contiguity with this man — so that I am simultaneously transported and held. I want to work out how to respond to the mystery of this stranger without seeking to reduce him to some manageable position on a calibrated index of difference from which I might separate myself. What I learn to want, in looking at this image, is to be unbound by it, to be decentred by it as I look on in permanent irresolution, so that through this encounter I am compelled to remain open to an inassimilable difference.”
What strikes me is Wolukau-Wanambwa’s commitment to considering the subjects of Bergman’s portraits as agents: as individuals experiencing something, and communicating it to the viewer. What might this person be communicating, asking, challenging? Rather than seeing them as flattened by Bergman’s perceived agenda, Wolukau-Wanambwa sees them as consentingly present; radiating presence, in fact. He allows himself to be shaken by
“the disruptive intensity of the presence of someone other than ourselves, and on their capacity to make themselves irreducibly and unmanageably present to us through these radiant images, and thus to disorder our sovereign centrality within the world.”
This is the effect that a portrait can have: a disruption of our usually unshakeable sense of ourselves. This is portraiture as compassion, not containment, approached as such by the photographer and the viewer alike. It is not easy, neat, or quickly satisfying; it requires the hard and active work of empathy, and it requires that we develop a level of tolerance to nuance and instability. “What are we to do in the face of the Other?” Wolukau-Wanambwa asks. Indeed: what are we — the viewers — to do? I fear that in a discourse of suspicion of photographers, their subjects are equally done a disservice; and we abdicate responsibility as viewers, referring our discomfort, resistance, and uncertainty back onto the photographer. The transformative capacity of the photograph is lost.
In reading Wolukau-Wanambwa’s essay, I am reminded that the effect of a portrait is negotiated between three sets of voices, subjectivities, agencies: those of the photographer, those of the subject of the photograph, and those of the viewer. By discussing the motives of the photographer only — even in the noble attempt to protect the agency of the subject — we remain in a closed loop, with nowhere to go, and portraitists trying to be more and more pure until the only recourse is not to make portraits at all. But in a discourse that more fully acknowledged the agency of the viewer as just as crucial an element in the effect of a portrait, we might be able to hold photography’s history at a distance at the same time as moving towards a more expansive and empathetic vision of the practice of documentary portraiture. It could be a discourse of approach rather than defensiveness, of progress rather than suspicious correction. We have a clear sense of what to move away from by this point; but it seems equally important to have an ideal to strive for, and this ideal concerns not only a clarity of intent regarding an ethical practice of photographing portraits — the responsibility of the photographer — but also a deeper, more patient, and more discomfiting visual literacy in our response to images — that of the viewer.
Toni Morrison’s introduction to Bergman’s bookspeaks to the conflicting potentials of image-making. “I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, control,” she writes. “Forgot too their capacity to help us pursue the human project — which is to remain human and to block the dehumanisation of others. If we are lazy [images and language] can hinder us in that project; if we are alert they can foster it.” Rather than aiming for purity, it seems important to work towards a way for practitioners and viewers alike to tolerate difficulty and ambiguity within photographic work: to find ways to proceed while balancing “potential good against potential harm”, and to remain alert to both possibilities. In this way, we preserve the potential of photography, and the ways that a portrait can genuinely communicate if we allow it to.
While making the work in Ohio that eventually became Snow, Winship had many meaningful encounters with people that she didn’t photograph (she plans to write about those encounters later). “People have a need to express themselves, to say things,” she told me. “A lot of it was about loneliness. Deep yearning, and a deep, deep need and desire to speak. In a strange way, a camera affords that.”
Portraiture can be a means of listening and of connection, both for the photographer with their subject in the moment itself, and for the subject with the viewer, too. This seems, to me, an obvious good, one worth protecting. While these necessary and long-standing conversations about ethics continue, an ambitious, forward-looking, and optimistic discourse must emerge in parallel, one that preserves and articulates the possibility of this good as vociferously as we guard against the re-enactment of past ills.
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Wanting to be Held, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa - from Dark Mirrors, Mack Books, 2021
The Fisherwoman, Toni Morrison - from A Kind of Rapture, Pantheon Books, 1998
Past Caring, Paul Graham - from Beyond Caring, Mack Books, 2021
Published by Deadbeat Club, 2022