Make a quick illustrated list of the ways that you might be in a more privileged
position than those whom you have already photographed. This isn’t to make
you feel guilty but it is a way into thinking about something vital in portraiture –
the power relationship.
It’s probably worth defining privilege in the context of photographic representation. Some of the factors may include wealth, social standing, health, race, gender, education, citizenship and religion. But in these pictures the casual viewer will not, as far as I can tell, be aware of the photographer’s (my) position of privilege or otherwise unless I declare it. I don’t believe that the photograph will divulge anything of that nature even under the most careful scrutiny. It is a matter for me and my ‘ethical stance’, useful in the sense that it may allow me to recognise any power discrepancy between me and my subjects.
Here is a selection of pictures I’ve taken for this module, along with my thoughts about the nature of the power balance pertaining before, during and after the shoot.
I can’t say whether I am more privileged than this guy because I know very little about him. He just agreed to be photographed, turned up, sat in the car then drove off. His car is a few years older than mine… three or four I think. I don’t feel guilty about photographing him; I sent him a file and he was delighted to note that he looked like a ‘grumpy old bugger’. I can be grumpy too, so neither of us would seem to have the upper hand on that measure.
This is the Right Reverend Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter. He is more privileged than me because he is wealthier, lives in a better house, is better educated, has higher social standing and is somewhat closer to the Almighty. Our power relationship varied over time. His office held all the power before the picture was taken because they controlled access. When it came to doing the photography some of the power shifted to me – I was able to direct him as I saw fit and he relinquished to me the power of depiction in a limited sense. Afterwards I held power too, in that I could modify the picture. It’s a photograph I rather like because he bears the marks of privilege (as long as you know the code) and yet he looks rather humble, as indeed I found him to be in real life.
Possibly the most relevant power balance in my own work – taking pictures of people – is the power of depiction. Most people are aware of how they look – to themselves – and in allowing a photograph to be made they surrender to the photographer the power to make them look better or worse. It doesn’t matter whether the photographer intends this, or even whether it occurs. During the photographing process the person with the camera calls the shots.
Search for White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.
Write some notes in response in your log
Peggy McIntosh wrote about white privilege some thirty years ago in this essay for Peace and Freedom Magazine. In the piece she makes the assertion that not only does racism disadvantage those over whom it is wielded, it amplifies the advantage of those in the position of power. She sees white privilege as “ an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, “
Doubtless Peggy is referring to the privilege of her social class and upbringing. She is obviously highly educated as evidenced by her writing. She considers such advantage a mechanism of unconscious oppression. She goes on to identify a couple of dozen manifestations of her privilege, including being “…pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live” and being able to “… choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.”
The circumstances she highlights are inevitably cause for concern; few of them seemed to have altered significantly in the intervening three decades. Racism is a shape-shifter and fear of the other is manifested therein throughout white western society. It will be only to the good to maintain an awareness of this and other potential imbalances in my own photographic practice and to recognise it in the work of other practitioners.