Meditations on Photographs: A Terrified Young Woman Surrounded by A Group of Male Photographers by an unknown paparazzo


Do we want to base our decision on what is acceptable photography on macho posturing, on the idea that physical and psychological might make photographic right?


I am not going to actually show the photograph I am going to write about. I realize this is most unusual. But I hope that my reasons will become obvious in the following. The photograph I am going to talk about shows a young woman in the center of the frame who is surrounded by six male figures (there is a seventh in the background who does not appear to be part of what is going on). Of these six males, five are photographers. They’re photographers we call paparazzi. The young woman - actress Sienna Miller - is caught “mid-action”: Her posture looks defensive, her arms are raised, in particular her right one, as if to defend herself from the paparazzo at the left edge of the frame whose gaze is centered on her. The man at the right edge of the frame does not appear to be a photographer, he is looking at the paparazzo at the left edge. We might add that there must have been at least one other photographer present, the one who took the photograph in question. (more)

The activities that produce photographs like the one I am talking about here are widely accepted. Paparazzi have become part of our cultural life, and we are familiar with images like this one, and the countless other ones, produced and then printed in gossip magazines and on gossip websites regularly.

If you did not know anything about paparazzi your impression might be very different: A young woman surrounded by young men, in a very defensive posture, looking terrified - that’s imagery we usually attribute to assault, to the presence of physical or emotional violence.

Here is Sienna Miller talking about her experiences (quote found in this article):

“For a number of years I was relentlessly pursued by 10 to 15 men, almost daily… Spat at, verbally abused… I would often find myself, at the age of 21, at midnight, running down a dark street on my own with 10 men chasing me. And the fact they had cameras in their hands made that legal.”
I do not condone these kinds of actions. And I also believe that showing the photograph that I am talking about here (which, let’s face it, could be any other paparazzi picture of a young female actress unwilling to be photographed) would contribute to violating Sienna Miller’s rights.

Back to that quote. What kind of culture have we created where it is acceptable for men to chase down young women at night so there will be photographs for gossips magazines? How can we justify that? How can we, who are active in the photographic community, in whatever form, justify that? My personal answer is clear: We can’t.

There is a(n in)famous photograph of actor Marlon Brando followed by paparazzo Ron Galella wearing a camera and a football helmet. Earlier, Brando had physically assaulted the photographer. I have always been disturbed by the reception of that photograph. It is as if the violence that actually happened - in physical and psychological form - are somehow to be celebrated; and the anticipation of further violence that one can’t help noticing in many viewers makes for another part of the thrill here. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about violence here, violence, in psychological form, to get a picture, and violence, in physical form, as a defense mechanism.

How can we, as a society, justify a gossip industry that is engaged in what we can think of as societal bullying? How can we, as a society, but also as ourselves, as individuals, justify thinking that being a celebrity simply comes with this kind of bullying, that once you make movies (that we all watch) or once you record music (that we all listen to), then you deserve to be the object of ridicule?

How can we justify being excited over a photograph that shows violence whose sole raison d’ĂȘtre is the photograph itself? And even if we accepted a logic right out of American football (a sport rooted in violence), applying it to a large man who can defend himself alright might be one thing, but how about applying that same logic to a young woman? Mind you, I’m firmly against applying the logic of violence for any case.

When I worked on preparing a class on visual literacy that I taught last year, I realized that three seemingly unconnected photographic topics actually are peas in the same pod: The Other, hunting-trophy photography, and paparazzo photography. The Other - that means using photography to exclude someone (or a group) from our group, to whatever end (at the very least to denigrate the person or group: the bullied celebrity). Photographs of hunters proudly displaying the animals they killed is a variant of this: Animals are “clearly” inferior, in fact they are so inferior that we can just kill them willy-nilly, for our own amusement. In the case of the Other, it is photography that is used to create divisions, with whatever might come next excluded from the frame. Hunting-trophy photography just shows the end result (some of the Abu Ghraib photographs combine the two, driving my point home very forcefully).

And then there are paparazzi photographs, where the photo is the trophy, where the hunt is such an essential part of the process, and where someone is turned into something we can ogle at, someone who has just lost their right to be shown in a respectful, dignified way, just because we demand so.

Paparazzi turn human beings into trophies.

We might want to re-introduce the idea of photography and ethics (see, again, this article). It might be perfectly legal for paparazzi to do whatever they do. In the United States, the First Amendment offers legal protection. But argue as you may over it, the First Amendment is a legal construct, an abstract principle. It’s very hard to see why we should allow other humans to be abused and maltreated just because we want to endorse the most extreme interpretation of an abstract principle. There is no ethics in that.

The First Amendment might give photographers the right to act as bullies, but that doesn’t mean we have to buy the photographs to use them in our magazines or on our websites. And it also doesn’t mean we have to buy those magazines or frequent those websites.

Photographs like the one I am not showing here - I’m sure you can find it easily online - can, no: should offer us reason to pause. Is this how we want young women to be treated? Is this how we want anyone to be treated? Peel away the First-Amendment arguments, and you will find a large amount of macho posturing. Do we want to base our decision on what is acceptable photography on macho posturing, on the idea that physical and psychological might make photographic right?

Does our right to make or take any photograph really trump people’s right to live dignified lives?

At the end of my class I showed my students a photograph of Jackie Onassis running away from a paparazzo, using a screenshot of a MoMA web page. “Why is this part of MoMA?” one of my students, a young woman, asked. I’m afraid I didn’t have a very convincing answer for her.