The Eye of the Beholder

25 Aug

Whether you love it or loathe it, social media is omnipresent and every day millions of people upload millions of photographs to their social media pages for the visual consumption of friends, family and complete strangers.  John Berger (1972: 2) states that ‘every image embodies a way of seeing’.  Images posted on social media reveal much about those who made them, particularly how they view the world around them.  Unfortunately social media, through the types of images displayed there, can be used to reinforce dysmorphic ideas about our bodies and problematic views on gender and gender “normativity”.  Recently, I have been thinking about the types of visual representations of men and women that communicate dysmorphic or problematic messages, and specifically how others see [interpret] these representations.  What does a self-made image of a man or woman posted on a social media site mean to others who view them?  And to what degree can they impact on the spectator?  Do such images hold meaning for the spectator, are they more than a fleeting visual curiosity or distraction?  If such images do hold meaning; what meaning exactly?  I know of course the simple answer to these questions is – it depends!  Depends on the image and depends on who the spectator is.  None-the-less, I find this an interesting line of inquiry.

Berger (1972: 58) suggests that within art ‘women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him’.  I wonder how this applies to contemporary representations of men and women on social media?  Does the same assumption of the ideal spectator that may have applied to works of fine art have any resonance within the sphere of social media?  I’m not so sure.  However, that is not to say hegemonic notions of gender are not a significant influence in the construction and interpretation of images posted on social media.  Exploring the notion of an ideal spectator within the forum of social media is complex, and without a consideration of the subjectivity of an image may be redundant altogether.

Visual representations are after all highly subjective, and the interpretation of an image is informed by pre-existing assumptions held by the spectator.  However, if the spectator has been heavily influenced by prevailing hegemonic notions, it is fair to say these notions will in turn impact on the spectator’s interpretation of an image posted on social media.  Images may communicate using symbols or actions commonly associated with prevailing hegemonic notions, in this case the interpretation of the image will be obviously influenced by these symbols and actions, thus simultaneously reinforcing and perpetuating the meaning of the symbol or action.

The bread and butter of the visual arts lie in its subjectivity.  Two individuals can look at the same abstract painting and come away with entirely different interpretation of what it depicts.  Moreover, the same two individuals can look at a hyper-realistic portrait and yet differ on what the image communicates.  Demonstrating the subtleties of interpretation and the intrinsic difference in human judgement about truth and reality.  Visual representations of men and women on social media are rarely abstract, they are more often explicit in representation, yet there exists an applicability of subjectivity.  Even though representations on social media communicate in a visual language that is generic and lucid, there may exist a degree of ambiguity.  Much of this ambiguity is determined by the clarity of the image in its ability to communicate and the individual spectator who sees the image, and their ability to interpret.  None-the-less, a very many of the representations of women and men posted on social media appear to clearly communicate problematic notions about gender.  Many social media images are overtly pejorative, self-demeaning or simply serve to perpetuate dysmorphic beliefs about our bodies.

This has got me thinking, whether anyone is purposefully using representations of men and women via social media to challenge gender stereotypes, problematic notions of gender normativity and body normativity.  My past experience in the visual arts exposed me to artists, such as, Barbara Kruger, Zoe Leonard, and Cindy Sherman.  Artists who made femininity and the female form subjects of their work and whom in different ways confront the ideal spectator that Berger above refers to.  In my search to find someone using representations of men and women on social media that challenge dysmorphic ideas about our bodies and problematic views on gender and gender normativity, I came across three artists who I would like to highlight here.  These artists’ work, I believe are visually powerful, deeply meaningful and engaging.  Each artist’s work manages to successfully confront and challenge contemporary constructs of gender and gender normativity.

Lorenzo Triburgo

Lorenzo Triburgo a New York artist residing in Portland Oregon, produced a series of photographic work in 2009 entitled Transportraits.  This portraiture series of transgender (when someone’s gender identity or expression does not match their assigned sex) men examines and questions representations of American masculinity.  The work intended to question the origin of American male identity subtly interrogates notions of heroism.  Each heroic style portrait, set against an oil painting influenced by the late American landscape painter Bob Ross, depicts a transgender man posed looking above or to the side of the spectator.  None of the men gaze directly at the spectator, giving them a reflective and somewhat distant look, untouchable to the viewer.  The men look proud, confident and content, each communicating a subtle sense of achievement and heroism.  Full of vivid color, this portraiture series is gentle but strong, elusive yet honest; an interesting commentary on what is perceived to be “real” masculinity.

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Sara Swaty

Sara Swaty originally from St. Louis, is a Los Angeles based photographer who explores gender expressions, gender roles and gender boundaries through her photographic work.  Sara’s work is creative, powerful and energized.  Pink and Blue and In Between and Outside are two collections of photographs that explore gender constructs and in different ways challenge the male / female binary.  Pink and Blue, with matching color scheme, vividly depicts men and women in domestic and imagined settings.  These images are visually powerful and glossy, loaded with symbolism and metaphor.  In contrast In Between and Outside presents candid images that are more visually raw.  These photographs explore gender identity and the body, blurring the division between masculine and feminine.  Challenging other images that serve to perpetuate dysmorphic ideas about our bodies.  The subjects of In Between and Outside are individuals born into a gender that they do not identify with and others who have made physical transitions to change their bodies.

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Leland Bobbé

Leland Bobbé has worked as a professional photographer for 30 years.  A native of New York, his Half Drag – a different kind of beauty, is a collection of photographs that provide a unique perspective on drag queens.  Leland’s work is exceptionally well realized.  His photographs are beautiful, visually charged with drama and at the same time offer a unique vulnerability.  The dual images – half drag queen / half man are hugely engaging.  Visually these photographs are rich in subject matter, color and texture.  Not only do Leland’s photographs engage our curiosity but they challenge normative ideas about gender roles and hegemonic notions of masculinity.

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Each of these three artists explore similar ideas about gender identity and gender roles, yet each bring a unique understanding of and insight into the socially constructed nature of gender.  Visually each artist confronts the spectator with images that challenge hegemonic notions about gender, and present the viewer with subject matter that demonstrates the complexity, fluidity and indeterminateness of gender.  To view more of these artists work visit their websites – details below.

© Clay Darcy, August 2014 – for more blogs by Clay visit – www.irishsociologyblog.com

For more information on…
Lorenzo Triburgo go to www.triburgo.com or visit his Facebook page-www.facebook.com/lorenzotriburgophotography
Sara Swaty go to www.saraswatyphoto.com or visit her Facebook page-www.facebook.com/saraswatyphoto
Leland Bobbé go to www.lelandbobbe.com or visit his Facebook page-www.facebook.com/leland.bobbe.studio

References:
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing, Great Britain: Penguin Books.

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