Fandom and the Female Gaze

I wrote this original blog post in 2015, which shocked me because it simultaneously felt like yesterday and a lifetime ago. Since then so many things have changed, but I still feel like a lot of what I (tried to) say is still relevant, especially more so as there are now so many photographers in the SPN fandom (my own sphere of experience). 

My basic idea in my earlier blog was that “fandom photography” (which has kind of been developed and shaped in the Supernatural fandom) is a richly unique form of female gaze. Photography outside of fandom is largely still a male-dominated arena. Men photograph for other men’s consumption. Advertising, editorials, fashion, sport, travel. It can be argued that some forms of  commercial photography, like infant and family lifestyle photography, are more skewed towards females and dominated by females (this is arguable). But they don’t deal with the subject matter in the same way that say, someone photographing a convention panel would approach a subject. 

In case you wanted a refresher, “the male gaze” is a concept in feminist theory that “occurs when the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. It may linger over the curves of a woman’s body, for instance.” 

So conversely, the female gaze is the polar opposite to that. The camera is offering up a vision of (more often than not) a male subject for consumption of a largely female audience. (I realise these are wholly general and simplistic terms, and that the audience has grown to proudly encompass a whole range of different genders and identities. But because I am wholly unqualified to offer a well-rounded opinion on that, I am using black and white areas and terms.)

The cast that attend the conventions are largely male, and the audience they cater to is largely female.  Overwhelmingly, fandom photographers in the SPN fandom are also female.  They are taking photographs and recording events knowing that the material will be consumed predominantly by other females. So the question is, how much of that is subconsciously guiding how photographers are approaching their subjects? 

Jensen Ackles, San Francisco 2015

As a photographer, you use a variety of techniques either subtly or overtly to move the viewers gaze around your image. Line, repetition, form, shape, composition, framing, colour, shadow, light. The list is endless. It’s like a writer using words to build a story and a narrative, and more importantly, an opinion. As a photographer, I’m bringing to the table how I feel and how I see and using that to influence an audience. 

So, if I know that an audience would appreciate a certain pose, or a certain way of framing and thus emphasising something, I would use that either subconsciously or consciously to compose a shot. “Concepts that you use within photography – use of line, use of shape, use of curve, use of repetition – suddenly become avenues on male subjects that draw the eye and direct attention. These become the set of a man’s jaw, the curve of a back, the play of light and shadow across a face.” (Yes I am quoting myself, I used to be a much better writer).

Matt Cohen, Phoenix 2016

I argued in my earlier blog that it is not necessarily hyper-sexualised in any way, but there is a distinct level of intimacy on display. I would argue that there is a whole emotional layer that is over and above what is seen in the photo. The emotion is there on the side of the photographer – conventions are hugely emotionally taxing and that can have a tremendous impact on your state of mind while photographing one – and there is equally the emotion that someone viewing the photos will bring in seeing one. We all care for the people in the photos; it’s a strange, one-sided affection and familiarity that I could probably take all day trying to explain and not get anywhere close to touching the surface. But for whatever reason, we are hugely emotionally driven to these people despite any objectification the photographs may afford. 

Billy Moran, Cleveland 2018

Photography is a form of voyeurism and objectification. “It is a means of making meaning and definition out of wholly visual cues.” But I would argue that when you compare, say an editorial shot by a man (like Terry Richardson) to a photograph taken by a fan at a convention, you would be looking at two very different feeling photographs. And yes, con and event photography cannot in any way really be compared to portraiture or editorials. They are both means to very different ends. But photography is approached largely in the same way by everyone. The underlying technique is there. But where Richardson’s work may feel somewhat sterile and bare, a fandom photograph from a panel will more often than not feel brimming with emotion. I would argue that it is also wholly unique to the Supernatural fandom, in some ways. If you look at event photography that comes out of, say, San Diego Comic Con, it is completely different. How much of that is because of who is being photographed and who is doing the photography? 

Misha Collins, Burbank 2019
Richard Speight Jr and Rob Benedict, Las Vegas 2015

Candid photography is a very different beast than portraiture and one which is wholly uncontrolled. But there is still a lot of thought that goes into it. You are deliberately picking and choosing the moments you want to show. When you edit what you leave out is as important as what you put in. While you may not be running the numbers constantly and looking for something that will “get the most likes”, you are constantly thinking about what is going to be an emotional hook for someone scrolling their twitter. What is going to make them stop and go back to look a second time? Would it be the way someone’s profile stands out against a backlight? A curl of their lip into a small smile? The way another person’s back is arched, or the muscle in a jaw is tightened? A subtle lift of an eyebrow? Sinew in a forearm? It’s all a choice in the end, whether you recognise it or not. 

Richard Speight Jr, Minneapolis 2017
Rob Benedict, Minneapolis 2017
Matt Cohen, San Francisco 2017
Jensen Ackles, Las Vegas 2017
Rob Benedict, Las Vegas 2017

When you first start taking photographs at a con it may purely be just for a way to record your experience. In fact, you may never go beyond that point. But if photography interests you, as you start to develop and hone your skill your taste also starts to develop. You start to look at things more deliberately, really think about how you want people to see what you’re seeing. If that includes the male form for the female gaze, there are unconscious little learned tricks that you may have picked up somewhere along the way to help your audience find their gaze.

Alex Calvert, Burbank 2019
Misha Collins, Phoenix 2016

Who knows? Maybe we have learned something from being the subject of the gaze for so long, and we are wrenching some control back from that by turning the gaze to someone else. 

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