Part Four – Ethics and looking at the other – The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes

The gaze…what is ‘the gaze’ A definition of the broad term is:
To gaze is to look steadily and intently at something, especially at that which excites admiration, curiosity, or interest: to gaze at scenery, at a scientific experiment.To stare is to gaze with eyes wide open, as from surprise, wonder, alarm, stupidity, or impertinence: to stare disbelievingly or rudely.

Other definitions or ideas can be taken from the term popularized by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the growing awareness and attached anxiety that develops when a person realises that they can be viewed. The psychological effect, Lacan argues, is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object. This concept is tied to his theory of the mirror stage, in which an infant child, viewing themselves in a mirror, realizes that he/she has an external appearance.

A certain tribe in Alaska, the Koyukon, have their own thoughts about visibility and therefore ‘the gaze’. The Koyukon:

live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature…is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel. They can be offended. And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect.

Do we as photographers respect all our subjects and the way we view, or portray them?


Read the article The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins.

In what ways does the idea of the gaze apply to your photography? What are the implications of this for your practice? Write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.

The thing is, if a lot of this is new my commentaries are never that short, or observations are tucked in with the analysis of the text…

To be able to answer the questions posed here I needed to fully comprehend what ‘the gaze’ is all about, do I apply it to my photography? Before ploughing through this lengthy essay my gut feeling is that to a certain extent I do use ‘gaze’: my own ideas of what I want to project in the frame, the personal baggage I bring, the signified and symbols I try to include, how I edit images after the event, the narrative I want to tell, do I want my subjects to be aware or candid, what mood do I want to capture? These are questions I ask as I shoot. In the past I have taken photographs of my, then much younger children, from behind, rather than a direct gaze. This was to mix up the images, give a different mood so even before considering the implications I do and have employed various guises, but have I ever thought about this politically or ethically? Beyond what I would deem unacceptable due to my own morality, no, I guess I haven’t really.

Lutz and Collins open their essay by advising us of the cultural importance of the National Geographic, its over reliance on ‘Third World scenes’ and ‘legitimacy as a scientific institution …that…relates to the history and structure of the society that has developed’ and in turn, simply put, how we ‘gaze’ at others – as seen through the eyes of this particular magazine and applying it to society as a whole.

From a standpoint of Westerners (in particular the USA) and non-Westerners they outline and dissect 7 different aspects of ‘the gaze.’ Despite this very narrow sample, and the publication date of 1991, I think that these different aspects are still relevant :

  • The photographer’s gaze
  • The institutional gaze
  • The reader’s gaze
  • The non-Western subject’s gaze
  • The explicit Westerner’s gaze
  • The gaze returned or refracted by mirrors or cameras
  • The academic gaze

The ‘gaze’ links into objectification, both of the photograph and the subject, and in most of the examples given, relates to the objectification of the non-Western person, how we ‘look’ – our differences, the perception of difference and how accentuating that difference is either productive or counter-productive, depending on your point of view. There is an emphasis on considering gender and ethnicity.

Is the gaze ‘an act of mastery’? (Williams 1987) Lutz and Collins’ essay was published in 1991 when most academic writing was still very patriarchal, is the gaze still considered to be masculine? Is how I view things that indoctrinated? In some ways I believe it must be. The magazines we view, films we watch, books we read all influence our thinking and if never challenged or informed of another way, how are we to know better?

Gradually, society is looking at things in a different way, or trying to at least. The Feminist Avant-Garde is one example, A Mighty Girl is another, there are articles highlighting women within the field of art and how women should strive to forge a career in photography. These are a small example of how society is attempting to alter one aspect of how we view, look at and ‘gaze’; trying to overcome Berger’s ideas of contemporary ideology, that men are doers whilst women are passive (1972). There are many more articles aimed at other sections of society, but that would be an entirely different post…the important point is, as Lutz and Collins remind us, of ‘the position of the spectator…to enhance or articulate the power of the observer over the observed.’ Welcome back Foucault with a bit of Lacan thrown in for good measure!

The National Geographic can be labelled as elitist and colonial, with editors who were at the time of writing ‘overwhelmingly white and male,’ how much influence did they have on educating people’s gaze or did they merely support pre-exisiting ideas of the ‘Other’? (Lacan 1981, p.84)

As with many things, we are not just one person, we have multiple roles and approach situations depending on what hat we are wearing at the time; am I being a daughter, a mother, a lover, an employee, is it a sensible day or a silly one? Just as these roles influence my mood and approach to life, they will also affect my gaze when both looking at, and taking photographs. As stated in this essay there are many interpretations of a photograph which centre around ‘intimacy, pleasure, scrutiny, confrontation and power.’

Let us look to these gazes…

The photographer’s gaze

Fairly obvious and straight forward, the argument that the photographer makes subjective decisions when capturing an image, over position, subject matter, vantage point, depth of field, cropping, colour et al. These decisions influence the readers gaze with the ‘camera[s] eye…a conduit for the magazine reader’s look.’ I particularly like the example given here of  a Venezuelan miner selling his diamonds and how vantage point and gaze has been used to construct a certain narrative.

The institutional gaze

In this instance the magazine’s gaze, using the National Geographic as the prime example. Here Lutz and Collins discuss the four main processes employed when selecting aspects of the photographer’s gaze: editorial decision to commission articles; the choice of image; magazine layout dictating crop, size, possible digital manipulation and emphasis; the caption which underlines the visual reading/understanding. Again, great example of layout given, where photographs of natives from Papua New Guinea in traditional feathered costumes, were interspersed with local bird life to project them as ‘natural creatures.’

The reader’s gaze

This is where it becomes slightly more complex…

<opens door…welcomes in Barthes> who stated: the ‘ photograph is not only perceived…it is read…by a public that consumes it to a traditional stock of signs.’ (1977, p.19)  re-iterating that our baggage, previous knowledge and the semiotics within an image influence our interpretation. The reader was also found to be slightly more discerning; the magazine would fail in its potential message if they found the images jarring, unnatural, off-kilter or re-touched. Viewers also ask questions beyond the frame, some fairly obvious such as the examples given: what are those people in the background doing? What is going on outside the picture frame?

These further complications are acknowledged by Lutz and Collins who agree that there is not one single reader’s gaze due to a ‘somewhat unique personal, cultural, and political background or set of interests.’

Burgin (1982) wrote about how the reader is forced into following the camera’s eye, of voyeurism, narcissism and surveillance. He believes that the ‘voyeuristic look’ promotes a distance whilst the ‘narcissistic’ promotes the mirror illusion. Do different photographic types alter how we gaze? Do we believe that depiction of the ethnic other relieves ‘the anxiety that the ideal of the other’s gaze and estimation of us provoke’? Do readers hold fast to the idea that by reading high brow magazine they elevate their own status and therefore gaze? Interesting questions that deserve more time on another day. I shall never read another magazine in the same light again! Will it affect how I take and display my photographs? Possibly, may be not, but I’ll probably think harder before pushing the button.

The subject’s gaze

Once again, in this essay they refer to the non-Western subject’s gaze. The authors explore the four main types of response a subject can make:

  • confront the camera head-on – direct gaze
  • look at something/someone within the frame
  • look out of frame/into the distance
  • no gaze

The first suggests an acknowledgment of the photographer and reader but is it confrontational or ‘open voyeurism’? Even the academics can’t decide and throw caveats into the ring, how is the gaze returned, what is the context, how does history and culture impact upon interpretation?

There is implied intimacy and a collaborative feel, which juxtaposes the magazines intent to reveal an unmanipulated view. How can a posed portrait be candid and natural? Lutz and Collins’ statistics revealed that ‘weaker’ subjects such as: the elderly, children, women, the poor, natively dressed and the tribal are more likely to directly face the camera, whilst others such as: men, the wealthy, those attired in western dress, the lighter skinned and those more technologically advanced are depicted as looking elsewhere.  Are these natural instincts or learned behaviors? Do these figures support Foucault’s disciplinary power theory, or were taken in this way because of it? Although having said that Tagg (1988) informs us that history has shown that a direct gaze is a ‘code of social inferiority’ with the subjects considered to be more civilized turning away from the camera (and previously the artist) making themselves ‘less available.’ It is highly likely that the editorial process within the National Geographic at the time, continued this tradition rather than actively altering it.

The second, where the subject gazes at an object or someone else gives the reader an insight to character and intent, with the example given returning to the Venezuelan miner, looking down at his diamonds the caption strengthens the opinions of the audience: ‘the hard won money usually flies fast in gambling and merry-making at primitive diamond camps.’ I find the language sometimes more condescending than the imagery!

Thirdly, gazing off into the distance – is it a form of defiance? You are not important , I am ignoring you. Or is it a deliberate ploy to reveal a pensive nature, thoughts of the future and therefore ambition and drive? Metz (1985) suggested this may help the reader connect with the subject as they are both ‘outside the frame.’

Lastly, we come to no gaze at all, either due to the insignificant size of the figures within the frame or the subject’s face covered by a mask or veil. Covered faces seem to be mainly representative of women.

It would appear to me that the subjects gaze, no matter which category they fall under, can have multiple readings depending on other factors within the frame such as context, signs and symbols.

The explicit Westerner’s gaze

I found this section quite interesting with regards to the change in power and cultural shift within Western society. This ‘gaze’ seems to have altered the most. When first published the image of the all-conquering hero striding out into the unknown was very popular, adventurers, explorers, mountain-climbers, and scientists from every field or the wealthy indulging in the unfamiliar were depicted alongside the ‘exotic other.’ The differences between them distinct, as they revealed a superiority and higher status.

This depended on who was watching who, were they watching the reactions, were the gazes reciprocated? The implication is that many come across as colonial and slightly condescending.

World events and cultural shifts doomed this style of photograph. International tourism meant more readers travelled to these foreign climes, the Vietnam War had an impact on how the Third World was viewed and how it should be represented, the fight for civil rights gave ‘white people a sense of changing… relations’, and decolonization all played their part. Westerners no longer wanted to be seen to be involved with contentious issues and dangerous places where they lacked control; photographically at least, the Westerner’s gaze withdrew to a ‘safer distance.’

The refracted gaze

This section of the essay deals with the number of photographs in the National Geographic, where a native has been handed a mirror or a camera, presumably for the first time, or where the mirror has been given significance within the frame. The suggestion is that these are tools of ‘self-reflection and surveillance’ and the authors link once more to the idea of the childlike fascination of newly acquired self-awareness and self-reflection and Western superiority. These images have also reduced with the impact of decolonisation, modern technology and the development of the Third World. More and more ‘native photographers’ have come to the fore and are telling their own narratives from their personal perspective. And all to the better in my opinion.

The academic gaze

Described as a ‘sub type’ of the reader’s gaze I am guessing Lutz and Collins put themselves firmly in this camp, alongside anthropologists, where this gaze is used to look at photographic and cultural differences and social relations. The intent is not ‘aesthetic appreciation’ but geared towards the critique of the images. ‘The author is dead’ rings in my ears


My own sentiments echo some of the concluding remarks made by Lutz and Collins as in, ‘the multiplicity of looks in and around any photo is at the root of its ambiguity.’ This is a very complex issue and although the main gazes outlined above can be applied and understood, they do occasionally contradict each other. Despite the contradiction there is definitely a link to how a photographer captures a subject’s gaze, the narrative they wish to convey and the message the reader accepts.

Lutz and Collins’ essay made me aware of myself as a viewer of images, my passivity as a viewer and my responsibility as a photographer. In thinking about my own photography I know I ask subjects to look in a certain direction or pose as if they are engaged in an activity to tell a story or create a mood. Even candid shots are invariably timed to show lost and confused tourists or children having fun. I must admit I never think much of the ethical issues other than not capturing the vulnerable or ‘exotic other’ to demean, give a sense of superiority to the audience or merely because they are a point of interest. I also never consider targeting a different audience beyond my own cultural references. So maybe I’ll never sell migraine pictures to an international magazine lolol.

Research [Accessed 08/05/2017] [Accessed 08/05/2017]

‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes’ [Accessed 08/05/2017]

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. New York: Dell/Delta

Wells, L. (Ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge


2 thoughts on “Part Four – Ethics and looking at the other – The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes

  1. TY :o) Took me ages to plough through the essay, and then re-read it multiple times to give a sensible response. Thanks for the link…will have to give it a thorough read through too!


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