fantasy

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.

Camera4

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.

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