Photography and ‘othering’

From the outset I knew I was going to have some difficulty getting to grips with the premise of this section, possibly the entire module.  For me the problem lies in the relationship between the photograph and the other.  I’ll try to get an overview of the ‘othering’ concept first.

 

Othering – a term created by Cultural theorist Edward W. Said – is a commonly used agenda that seeks to ‘other’ a minority group on the basis that their culture and beliefs are fundamentally different (and deemed as a threat) to the rest of society. By deliberately creating the idea of an alien ‘other’ it reinforces difference and promotes social and political dominance over the group deemed as being ‘the other’.

From <http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/18405>

 

That sounds fairly straightforward; it is important to most people to have a sense of themselves as distinct individuals.  Having this sense of oneself as an amalgamation of characteristics and traits is, in an evolutionary sense, fundamental to survival.  It allows social allegiances and alignments to form in an advantageous fashion, resulting in communal benefits.  For example, I could say “he looks like me so I think I can take a safe guess at how he may be disposed towards me” and take a risk inviting him into my cave.  On the other hand I may say “he looks nothing like me – there are many visual differences between us” and I may conclude we are entirely unalike, which may lead me to be cautious, even antagonistic towards the chap.

This essential comparison is basic human nature; we are wary of things (people) which are unfamiliar.  There is a natural tendency to define ourselves by identifying what we are not.  We live in social groups, the boundaries of which may be determined by defining those who do not belong, by nature of their difference.

 

In other words Othering is defining the position of oneself, by stating what it ain’t. The Other is defined in a negative way. Examples of processes of Othering that become very clear in the nowadays society are based on race, gender, social class, ethnicity, etc. Whether the different groups are divided in a stereotype or a hierarchial way, it is always meant to define, ensure or even upgrade ones own position.

From <http://geography.ruhosting.nl/geography/index.php?title=Othering>

 

Overt ‘othering’

Here’s a particular example of ‘othering’ for purpose.  This American poster vilified the Japanese leader, contorting his features to make him as unlike ‘us Americans’ as possible while still retaining recognisable features:

 

And just in case you were still unsure:

Yes, he’s after your sister.  Or girlfriend.

What about photography?  How does that connect to ‘othering’?

Having broadly understood  the idea of ‘othering’ (and I mean broadly, the weight of published work on the subject is staggering) I need to look at where photography fits with the notion, and more particularly how my photography might relate in a degree study context.

Exercise 1.1 asks us to make five pictures of ‘strangers’ and reminds us that we are ‘looking for the other’.  I’m not sure how to approach this. My understanding was that fundamentally everyone is an ‘other’ so a photograph of any person will suffice.  But maybe I should be looking for ‘difference’, finding characteristics which are unlike my own – indeed we are bidden to this very thing.  But I’m not too comfortable with this approach; could I be honest with people and explain that I want to photograph them because they’re different to me?

“I’m happy for you to photograph me but can you explain why?”

“Well actually it’s because you’re noticeably richer/fatter/more intelligent/better looking/more upper class/lower class/disabled than me and that makes us different enough for the purposes of the exercise”

Not a good way to start.  That’s even before considering how my own attitudes to those with such characteristics may affect the way I photograph them, subconsciously or otherwise.

Maybe it would be better to tell a little fib:

“Because you have a really interesting face/hairstyle/wardrobe”

That would probably work.  But wouldn’t it be fundamentally dishonest?  Some of this internal dialog relates to my personal ethical stance, what I might pompously call my photographic integrity.  I am never going to do a self-directed series on rough sleepers because I don’t have the ethical authority; I’m not part of a homelessness charity, volunteer group or philanthropic endeavor.  It would just be to satisfy a personal desire for emotional heft in my portfolio, a crude attempt to make capital from the ‘picturesque poor’. 

Not quite as divisive as ‘reinforcing difference’ and ‘promoting social and political dominance’ though; I will come back to that later and try to examine the functional mechanisms by which such outcomes may be effected. In the meantime I have decided to stay close to my ‘principles’ such as they are and make a series which goes some way towards fulfilling the brief, but with a sideways view.  Or rearwards.  Here are the pictures –

 

These pictures were taken at Seavington Hunt Point-to-Point meeting, a type of horse race.  I’m not completely familiar with the rules but it seems fairly straightforward:  the horses (with riders) go as quickly as they can around a circuit and the first one to finish wins.  It’s as simple as that.

But away from the horses it’s so much more involved.  This is a fashion show, an equine display, an exhibition of wealth, property status and land.  Most of the attendees are in uniform, mainly tweed, and generally flat-capped (men) or behatted (ladies).  Hair is a Big Thing.  The men are jovial, the women refined. I am aware of the difference between them and me and I could entertain all kinds of unfounded assumptions because they look different to me.  

I do genuinely feel uncomfortable.  Taking photographs feels like an intrusion – I am conspicuous in my jeans (not moleskin) and coat ( American, how coarse).  It’s ironic – as it turns out it’s ME that’s the ‘other’.

But actually I’m not really the ‘other’, I just look like I am.  Had I got talking to any of the race-goers I could have swapped stories about horses, shooting, mutual acquaintances and probably plenty of other common experiences. Not hunting.  I used to live in the same village as two of the jockeys.

Those were the facts of the occasion.  I homed in on a recurring theme to photograph in the hope of producing engaging pictures.