The Male / Colonial / Tourist Gaze

[some adult content to follow, be prepared!]

A few weeks ago, we examined a series of articles that dealt with intimacy, eroticism and the colonial gaze. I’ve always been interested in how these different facets of photography intersect, and I enjoyed the discussion immensely. However, as I let the information percolate in my head, it occurred to me how many of these aspects of photography can still apply in certain tropical destinations, like Hawaii.

My family and I took a trip to Maui when I was relatively young, so my memories of the island are limited. However, I do have a clear memory of looking at the possible photographs to send home to friends and family, and coming across a topless woman, lying prostate on the beach. Considering my age, I was more than uncomfortable with the image. I quickly put the postcard back, and didn’t give it much thought…until recently.



(Two Modern Postcards from Hawaii)

Although I had studied how (hetero) male / white colonial gaze impacted the women of colonized places, somehow I had not made the connection between the erotic postcard I saw as a child and that performance. However, this connection was well made by Malek Alloula. Alloula, an Algerian poet who wrote the book The Colonial Harem: Images of a Suberoticism. It it, Alloula criticizes the exotic/erotic postcard industry, and the French men who enjoyed the images of Algerian women with their breasts on display. According to Alloula: “the colonial postcard says this: these women, who were reputedly invisible or hidden, and until now, beyond sight, are henceforth public; for a few pennies, and at any time, their intimacy can be broken into and violated…They offer their body to view as a body-to-be-possessed.” (118)

I then wondered about the history of the postcard industry in Hawaii, and whether the images rivaled that of Algeria. With a quick Google search, I found a number of historic postcards that bare just as much as their more modern equivalents.


(A Postcard from Hawaii, circa 1910)


(Another Historic Postcard, 1900-1910)

In a way, I am both shocked and not surprised that women’s bodies in Hawaii were (and continue to be) sexualized in this way, reminding tourists, and their associates at home, about the possibilities for pleasure a travel destination like Hawaii has to offer. I would like to learn more into how the more modern tourist gaze reflects and supports colonial assumptions about ‘exotic’ bodies and spaces… another time I guess.

I was also struck by Alloula’s outrage not simply the act of photographing such intimate details of women they hardly knew, but also how these images (or, these women) were passed around for the public consumption of French men. The consumption of the naked female body (even of historic postcards) has only increased in the digital age. I wonder how uncomfortable Alloula would be to know that sexualized images of the colonial Other are, potentially, more available in a post-colonial world.





Camera Lucida and a Personal Connection

In class the other day, we read a segment of Roland Barthes book Camera Lucida. It was one of the last things he wrote, and unlike his early work has a more personal quality to it. That’s why this blog entry of mine is going to have a personal quality to it.

There were a number of elements of this article that resonated with me: the search for a person’s “essence” in a photograph, the discomfort of having one’s photo taken, and the phenomenon of “punctum” (when a detail in a photograph inexplicably grabs the viewers attention). All of these made me think of this photograph:

The photo in quesion. Probably taken after my grandparents moved back to Portugal from Canada in the early 1970s.

The photo in quesion. Probably taken after my grandparents moved back to Portugal from Canada in the early 1970s.

This is a photograph of my grandmother Maria-Louisa, who passed away many years ago – before I was born, in fact. Because I never met her, I’ve often wondered what she was like, and spent many years searching through photographs trying to find “her”. There aren’t many, and in all of them she looks remarkably stiff, her eyes often averted from the camera’s gaze. It is clear that my grandmother, not unlike me, disliked having her picture taken. Maybe that was why I wanted find her so much, because I felt that we were probably quite a lot alike.

Then, a few years ago, we uncovered a box of old photographs from my father’s childhood, and this one stuck out. Not only is the photo in colour, and of better quality than the others, the angle provides interesting texture, and my grandmother is looking at the camera. She isn’t smiling (or course) but emotionally I felt that, for the first time, we had been introduced. To me she looks determined, caring, but a little annoyed her picture taken while she is trying to pick…some kind of fruit? I think?

Although her face was is one of the things that draws me to this photograph, I always end up focusing on her dress. Where on earth did she buy that? Or did she make it? I wonder if that was a style at the time? I never understood why I always ended up obsessing about her dress, chalking it up of historical distance. While I still think this is somewhat the case, I think it also relates to the concept of “punctum”, the unusual detail that may not stick out to anyone else, but does to me.

I always enjoy when something I’m doing in academia speaks to my personal life in some way or another, and I’m glad to have a greater theoretical framework to understand why I react to photographs, including my family’s, like I do.

Quotes about Photography

“If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug a camera.” -Lewis Hine

A quote like this seems as good a place as any to start my journey into the world of photography. Well, sort of: the study of photography, to be exact. I decided to go outside my comfort zone this semester and take a class called “Photography and Public History.” Wish me luck!

One of our first assigned readings was Susan Sontag’s On Photography. In it, she includes a chapter entitled “A Short Anthology of Quotes.” Although many of the quotes were relevant to what I’ve been learning, this one really stuck out, partly because I know now where our professor, Jim Opp, got his blog title. It is interesting both for what it says (to me) and who said it. Lewis Hine, an American documentary photographer in the early nineteenth century, used this skill to advocate against child labour. This is one of his photographs, from 1908:

"Glassworks. Midnight. Location: Indiana." From a series of photographs of child labor at glass and bottle factories in the United States by Lewis W. Hine, for the National Child Labor Committee, New York.

“Glassworks. Midnight. Location: Indiana.” From a series of photographs of child labor at glass and bottle factories in the United States by Lewis W. Hine, for the National Child Labor Committee, New York.

I like this photograph, because while it shows the poverty and difficult working conditions children, it also humanizes the nebulous concept of the “working class.” By looking directly at the camera, we are forced to address them as individuals, and account for the our part in the system that exploits them.

All this to say that Hine made an effort to use photography as a tool for social change. Like Roland Barthes believed, photography could be a democratizing force, and had the ability to challenge the status quo.

However, I’m not sure I agree with the underlying assertion that cameras tell stories without the cultural baggage of language. Semiotics is obviously an important aspect of any photograph, and photographers often include elements of their subject’s environment (in the case of the photograph above, the factory). This allows the viewer to use a mental shortcut using visual cues – what assumption the viewer arrives at about their subject is based on their cultural/social location (to paraphrase Bordieu). It is also important to remember the image’s sometimes “parasitic” relationship to text. For instance, how do I know what kind of work these children are doing? The title. In this case, the text provides valuable context for the photograph: context essential for the story.

Still, the visual nature of photographs – particularly those of other human beings – tends to elicit a stronger emotional reaction than text might. Consequently, I can see why Hine, and the National Child Labour Committee, relied on photographs to sway public opinion and advocate for change.

While I think that some photographs provide more questions than answers for the viewer, some certainly resonate at a subconscious level, beyond the realm of words. Perhaps it was this reaction that Hine is referring to.