The title of this post references the famous essay by Laura Mulvey on the principles of viewing pleasure in the cinema titled 'Visual Pleasure and Narative Cinema'.
I recently did a photoshoot with my dad ('Dad') who suffers from ‘frontal lobe dementia’. It’s a difficult condition to have in someone you love, someone who inspired you and who you want to remember as the great man in your childhood. The condition means that while he is still present and lucid to a relatively high level, he has lost the ability to perceive how others perceive him. He sees others but he has no ability to conceive of how others see him. It can make his behaviour very challenging (it’s not unlike dealing with a three year old) and as a result of the conflict that arises he has retreated quite a bit. It’s almost as if his coping strategy is to not engage in order to avoid the conflict. I’ve no idea if this mechanism is correct or not, but the reality that he is more ‘vacant’ these days certainly is.
In taking his portrait I wanted to achieve a number of things. Primarily I wanted to try and connect with his condition and with his experience of it. In doing that, I wanted to gain some insight into his experience (him as he sees himself) and thus reconnect with him myself. That’s a deeply uncomfortable proposition though and so it’s no surprise that no one seems to like the pictures I’ve made, not least my family.
My brother challenged my directly on this, saying that it would have been far better to capture the last sparks of who he was. There is a lot of merit to doing that. I think it’s a different project though there were one or two images from the session that did do just that. But the discomfort my brother experienced in the other images, and felt the need to (rightly and justifiably) comment on is perhaps more interesting.
It is part of a general trend I’ve noticed in attitudes towards portraits that dictates there is a formula for how these should be done; that a portrait of someone you know, for most people, should be something warm and positive. I’ve noticed this especially when I post self-portraits on social media and I get the usual round of comments about looking grumpy, or stern, or too intense or something else other than the clichéd happy/warm/positive you would expect from a picture you share of yourself with the world.
People are very uncomfortable with seeing something other than that. Maybe they are OK with it in an art gallery, where there is an understanding that you might see something you’re not comfortable with and even if you experience that discomfort, you know it’s temporary and therefore of no consequence. It’s different when it’s someone you know. There is nothing temporary about it. Whatever it is that you see, even if you put it out of your mind it’s still there.
I had a similar conversation with a friend of mine who is at the start of exploring gender transition. We’ve talked about making a series of images of him as a record of that process. His motivation is documentation and mine is the creative process, which naturally means I would want to ‘publish’ those images at some point. In discussing that with him, he commented that he wasn’t sure there would ever be a time when he was comfortable with that (which then seemed to limit my interest in the project – a subject for another post about the creative process). He said that having the permanent record of something painful like that was both a risk and challenging to him. My point was that there is always a permanent record and the existence of a photograph is irrelevant to that fact. You exist in the world and people experience you in it and in doing so, that creates a permanent record that can never be erased. A photograph might add to the collective memory, but it doesn’t solely define it.
It’s not difficult to understand where this discomfort comes from. It’s tied into Laing’s ‘I see you, you see me’ concept. We see ourselves. We know other people see us but we cannot experience that experience. We also know that there is us as we really are and that this reality probably sits somewhere between the experience of self and the experience other people have of us. The perception of self is usually built to help us feel good about things. Whatever someone else might think of us, we can put that away as less important because we know we can’t experience it. But the photograph breaks down that invisible barrier. It shows us what other people might see and therefore creates some discomfort if the images shows something other than the warm, positive, comforting image we have created for ourselves.
This explains why people react badly to their own picture which might then contradict that self-image, but why does the same thing happen when you show them a picture of someone else that they know?
Jacques Lacan described the process of ego creation in a young child as being greatly stimulated by the recognition of self in a mirror. That recognition usually takes place at a time when the child’s ambitions greatly outstrip their motor development and so they see the reflection as being far more capable than they really are. That process creates a sense of comfort and satisfaction that stimulates the creation of ego.
This theory has been developed to explain some of the principles behind the pleasure of cinema. It states that the act of observing the capable, all conquering hero on screen is akin to this process of self-recognition. It reminds us of that moment and in doing so, we see ourselves in the hero and we are comforted.
The same could apply to the viewing of portraits and is perhaps even more powerful in a portrait of someone we know and love so that when that picture is not one that conveys the positive aspects we associate with them, it actually serves to remind us of our own insecurities. It is if you like, the inverse function of watching the hero on screen.