A while back I wrote about my time spent working as a makeover photographer. Although at the time, the job was a learning curve in many ways, what I ultimately took from it was an awareness of of the interconnection between photography and gender discipline. As my thesis has taken shape, looking at various examples of photographic discipline, I have often thought back to what we called ‘the keycard’ – a quick reference guide for clients to pick their favourite style of photography. This card was a perfect example of discipline, in that it not just shows you the range of options that is open to you, but expects that you choose and inhabit them.
The first side of the card featured a number of categories, and examples of how each style rendered images of femininity, from ‘sexy’ and ‘pretty’ to ‘funky’ (the category of ‘art’ always amused me).
Next came the selection of montage styles, and the optional addition of wings:
Before I worked at the studio, I had no idea that photography would ever be regarded in this way – as a product of cut-and-paste techniques selected from a pre-defined shortlist. But it was not so much the images that were being produced in this way, but our clients. By asking them to choose and recognise themselves in these categories, we were reinforcing the processes that sort and grade individuals according to taste, class and lifestyle.
The choice of what you wanted to be obscured the fact that you must choose. ‘Be yourself’ is revealed to be a coercive demand, rather than a statement of liberation.
Needless to say, a client ticking all or none of the boxes was an act of rebellion, and meant that we didn’t know what to do with / to them. As with wider discourses of gender presentation, multiplicity or non-conformity renders the subject unreadable, and a problematic target for control. ‘Art mirrors life’ becomes more a case of art reducing life to a limited range of forms and meanings.