Month: September 2014

Photographs and Threats: Emma Watson and the Allure of the Non-Consensual

The recent threats against actress Emma Watson demonstrate several interesting things about photography and the humiliation of women:

1. This case make absolutely explicit how intimate images (even the idea of intimate images) are used as a weapon to control and silence women. At no point did the media coverage question why anyone would respond to Watson’s address to the UN with a threat to reveal photographs. Why? Because the connection between “woman gives feminist speech” (or in fact, woman does anything at all) and “people threaten her with images” has become absorbed and normalised by a society that implicitly blames women for whatever happens to them.

Despite the widespread outrage at this threat, and at the earlier celebrity photo leaks, a study of the comments beneath the line on social media demonstrates that there is still a strong tendency in popular discourse to just shrug, and say that she should have expected it. And you can be certain that had photographs emerged, we would have again seen numerous voices chiding her for taking such pictures in the first place.

As I have observed extensively in my research, this knee-jerk response is voiced by good and rational people as well as misogynistic trolls, demonstrating that explaining away the abuse of women, or denying it through making it seem rational and normal, is something that people feel a very strong need to do. Presumably, otherwise one would find it simply too difficult to function within society. This brings to mind Sherry Turkle’s description of people’s attitudes to privacy violations online, in which “people simply behave as though it were not happening” (2011: 261).

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2. As Valenti points out, despite the story turning out to be a hoax, it nevertheless reinforces a connection between outspoken women and humiliation. The use of the countdown clock and the website name “emmayouarenext” seem drawn from either the playground or a spy novel. But this use of a prolonged and unspecified threat nevertheless demonstrate the effectiveness of psychological forms of harassment, in which the mere prospect of something happening is enough to alarm and coerce. The countdown clock here performs a similar role to the warden in the Panopticon – he might be there, he might be watching, punishment might be about to happen, therefore the conditioned response is to assume that this is the case. Although none of Watson’s images were leaked in the end, it would be ludicrous to assume that she has not been affected by these threats. The effect of her wonderful speech has been overshadowed by the spectre of her humiliation.

3. The (unreliable) figure of 48 million page views of the site Emmayouarenext.com speaks for itself. It might be inflated, but its also believable that this website received huge volumes of traffic. The media’s eagerness to report on the story, even with very limited amounts of information, is both depressing and unsurprising – the humuliaition of women is news and entertainment at the same time. As with the earlier celebrity photo leaks, there are large audiences for these types of private images. Audiences that are actively seeking out photographs that have caused their subjects pain and humiliation. Audiences who understand the value and the thrill of obtaining non-consensual materials, in comparison with conventional forms of pornography. And it’s the audiences that really make this story possible: if there wasn’t this enormous hunger to access people’s private lives, then photographs of women could not be used in this way. If women’s nude photography wasn’t a source of shame, outrage and most of all prurient fascination, then they couldn’t be punished for, or with, such images. If this process of humiliation and punishment is ever going to be addressed, it needs to start with the audience, which is why the prevalence of articles calling on people not to look at private images was particularly heartening.

Lastly, it seems that photography, for women especially, is a dangerous business. The only way to protect oneself from this kind of threat is not to take pictures, and add this precaution to the enormous list already given to women: don’t go out alone / wear a short skirt / get drunk etc etc. But what I find particularly sad about this, is that the proscription against photographing oneself – such a harmless piece of fun in itself – is just another way in which women are denied a full social presence. Because what these threats and leaks and warnings to women suggest is that as society, we believe that being kept hidden – off the streets, away from the camera and certainly away from the UN – is apparently the only way to stay safe.

Dogs and Babies: The Happy Fantasies of Photography

I’m currently writing up my PhD thesis, and am working on a chapter on involuntary pornography. As you can imagine, this is not exactly the most cheery of topics, so this week’s blog post is going to try to be a bit lighter than normal to balance things out.

There’s an advert on UK television at the moment for the Halifax bank, which features a female photographer taking a series of heart-warming shots of dogs, families and babies.

These scenes of her hard work are presumably used to connote the bank’s commitment to its customers. As someone who worked as a photographer, shooting portraits and weddings and the like, I can assure you that the work is hard. I often went home exhausted, covered in grime and with a thousand-yard stare. But lots of people work hard – so why choose a photographer for this advert?

I think the answer lies in the public perception of photography – as tricky, maybe, involving a lot of vague notions of ‘creativity’ and technical expertise – but ultimately as something we could imagine ourselves doing. It’s interesting, but not threatening. That’s why mannequins in shops hold cameras and not microscopes.

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Despite the hipster fetishization of film cameras in shops such as Urban Outfitters above, the photography industry has been radically transformed over the last 15 years, with the role of photographer being seen as less of a profession than a demarcation given to someone who is using a camera. But so too has the role of photography itself radically altered, with images incorporated into everyday life and communication in ways difficult to imagine a generation ago. Which is why I think this advert presents an interesting time capsule of what we want photography to be, despite the ever-increasing gap between the warm-and-fuzzy photographer, and the darker figures observable online of the creepshot photographer and revenge porn user.

In this advert, we are reassured about photography on a number of levels. It is friendly and funny:

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It is patient and gentle:

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It is well-prepared and determined to make others look good (although who needs that many lenses to take an indoor portrait of a dog?):

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And it is reassuringly old-school, as conveyed by a medium-format camera on an unnecessarily-huge tripod:

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Two things struck me about all this. Firstly, this list of qualities of the ideal photographer seemed to emulate many of the traditional attributes of femininity, in terms of being welcoming, empathetic, self-sacrificing, and considerate of others. The woman photographer is therefore reassuring to customers because she is the quintessential  figure of feminine warmth (with the exception perhaps of the nurse or teacher). Secondly, the artifice of this construction is obvious not just in terms of its cultural wish-fulfilment, but also in the straightforward way in which it is enacted. As I watched the advert, I wondered why she had studio flash lights but no flash cable or wireless flash trigger on her camera (pedant alert!). Maybe she was just using the modelling lights to take pictures (odd), but in this behind-the-scenes shot, we can see the flash light being simulated off-camera:

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Now, I’m not going to say “it’s an advert and its presentation of life is not realistic, what a shock!” – but rather point out that this provides a handy metaphor for the fabricated nature of cultural assumptions about photography more generally. The view the Halifax advert presents of photography – as a lark, and as a site for developing empathy with others – is very different from the uses I see photography being put to in my own research. There, photography is used as a way of punishing, shaming, and bulling other people, in order to maintain a state of inequality between ‘us’ (those who ‘do it properly’, whether in the form of the photos they take or in terms of identity more generally) and ‘them’ (those who ‘do it wrong’, and who take selfies, or do duckfaces etc).

I don’t want to undermine the more gentle aspects of photography – far from it – but I want to expand the definition, to encompass the bad as well as the good. Because the warm and fuzzy perception of photography maintained by examples such as this advert is ultimately quite damaging, in that it presents images and the people who take or use them as harmless, when they are often, unfortunately, anything but. For society to only think of photography in terms of babies and dogs is to further marginalise the people who suffer as a result of what is said about or done with photographs. Although I have loved photography since I was a child, I am certain that it is important to confront and understand the nature and extent of the darker side to the practice, as much as we might prefer the friendly fantasy that is presented here.

Warning: Naked Selfie Detected

An article in the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo suggested that smartphones should be equipped with the ability to detect when the user is taking a naked photograph of themselves. The phone would then warn the user, and propose encryption, password protection and restriction on cloud back-ups. The aim of this, states Manjoo, is harm reduction, in that it enables the protection of potentially damaging intimate photographs. Despite criticising Snapchat’s faulty security features, Manjoo then proposes the use of a slightly different technology (using the iPhone’s fingerprint scanner) which he assures us will make copying pictures impossible. That is of course until it doesn’t.

A response piece in Forbes by Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger pointed out that this approach was problematic, in that it proposed a technological solution to what should be a personal ethical choice. Their concern was that the technology would be replacing the user’s capacity to make decisions, although they concluded that the ‘opt-out’ idea was preferable, in which detection software would be automatically engaged on the phone, and it was up to the user to turn it off and take matters into their own hands.

What neither article suggested was that this is not actually an issue for smartphone manufacturers to solve, but rather a social issue. Although I am all in favour of users being given the ability to encrypt their photographs, we can’t expect technology to protect us if we are unwilling ourselves to change the very attitudes that do the real damage. For naked selfies are not the problem here – it is the means by which they are used to marginalise the people who take them. A photograph doesn’t mean anything until we ascribe significance to it, and the meanings given to naked selfies are reflective of much wider social inequalities, which create a paradox for women involving the expectation of / punishment for sexual display.

I suspect that the ‘change social opinions’ option is not mentioned in either article because it’s not straightforward. But the equivalent in the world of, say, motoring would be to emphasise car safety at the point of design and manufacture without enforcing any sort of driving code. We simply can’t expect machines to protect us, and other people, if we are not willing to put in the work too. Otherwise we’re blaming the person hit by another driver for not having a safe enough car themselves.

We can see the division between easy / hard solutions described by Manjoo:

So money can be quickly reimbursed, but a reputation is more difficult to repair. Does that mean we should try not to change attitudes, simply because it’s hard? Surely it’s much easier just to build an algorithm that can detect naked selfies and trigger a warning? But this technological quick-fix further consolidates the problem it is meant to be alleviating, by identifying naked images as wrong, dangerous and to-be-hidden.

The truly effective way in which reputations could be protected from the damage wrought by naked selfies is if we collectively resisted the urge to condemn users in the first place. If the knee-jerk reaction was not to blame the subject – for not encrypting their picture, for sharing, for taking it at all – then the problem would be radically reduced. But this seems impossible, doesn’t it, as there’s no feature on the iPhone that we can engage in order to make this happen.

So rather than ask our phones to scan and police the morality of our own behaviour, what these articles suggest is that we’re actually expecting technology to ameliorate our own prejudices against the behaviour of others. If we’re not willing to change our own attitudes and desires to punish other people’s use of photography, then presumably we can just get phones and code to do the hard moral work for us.

Involuntary Pornography and the Logic of Blame

There’s only one news story from the last week that I could cover here, relating to the theft and dissemination of private photographs belonging to a number of female celebrities. I’ve written about involuntary pornography before (in a paper to be published soon by Palgrave!) – and this label, rather than ‘revenge porn’, is the more accurate, as it is not necessarily an act of revenge that spurs these instances of privacy violation. Rather than exist only in relation to individual instances of jealousy or anger, involuntary pornography instead demonstrates a more widespread attitude towards women and their use of photography. Having traced the discursive reactions to victims of involuntary pornography – on websites that host such materials and across popular media outlets – I noticed that there are three distinct strands to the conversation:

1. The woman is blamed for having made a poor choice to take intimate photographs in the first place, as to do so apparently indicates that she is easy, stupid or reckless. This establishes her character as being lacking, and focuses on what the woman did wrong. The dissemination of private images is seen as inevitable and therefore to be expected. Any woman who does not expect her images to be circulated in this way is therefore dismissed as ignorant of the way things are.

2. Despite the woman’s complicity in taking images being used against her, the value of such material lies in the fact that she did not intend for them to be publicly shared. This interesting conception of consent reveals that a woman must be both seen to be consenting (“she took the pictures, it’s her fault”) and yet also not consenting in order for the images to have their unique value, as evidence of both assent and reluctance. The viewer can therefore enjoy symbolic violence against a woman – getting sexual pleasure from her against her will – whilst also disdaining the woman for ‘having asked for it’. An unpleasant combination of desire and disgust.

3. In contrast, the choice of the consumer of images is expressed and validated on involuntary porn websites, relating to their assessment of the bodies depicted. Despite the women being displayed there against their will, there is still a strong culture here of condemning women’s attention-seeking behaviour as well as their appearances. Within this context, the full force of misogynistic hatred is abundant, in which the consumption of women’s bodies co-exists with a loathing women themselves. In particular, ire is directed at the agency of women: who are hated for having sexual desires and sex on their own terms, who take photographs of themselves, and who react in horror at being circulated in this manner. In this context, a woman who expresses her sexuality in any sense is conceptualised as public property and inviting predatory attention. It really is victim-blaming (and -hating and -devouring) of the most exceptional kind.

I feel very sorry for the women who have been the victims of involuntary pornography – celebrities and non-celebrities alike, as all in this context suffer an unpleasant kind of infamy, where along with the indignity and humiliation of being consumed in this way, they also are made to endure ferocious criticism regarding their personal lives. Attention rarely focuses to the same degree on those who steal and circulate such materials, as I argue that this kind of transgression against women is in fact culturally permitted. Tracing the discussion of involuntary pornography back to its logical roots, we see that victim-blaming here rests on a number of social norms relating to women’s regulated entry into the private sphere, the double standard and the expectation of women’s role in satisfying male, heterosexual desire. Involuntary pornography is therefore a symptom of the inequality between men and women – rather than solely direct our attentions at combating this breach of privacy, the solution lies in shifting this balance in power. For if women were not regarded in terms of their sexual value, or chastised for having sexual desires of their own, or automatically blamed for their own abuse, then involuntary pornography would not exist, as there would not be the cultural support that exists today to sustain and legitimize it.

I think the best criticism, and ridicule, of the victim-blaming over involuntary pornography came in the form of a tweet sent by writer Chuck Wendig:

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