Documentary Photography

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. 

Pete Souza & Photographic Resistance

Like a lot of people, I’ve been following ex-White House photographer Pete Souza’s Instagram and seeing his almost daily posting of photos taken during Barrack Obama’s eight year presidency, often reflecting in them differences between the current and former administration. These are equally biting, critical, melancholic. They serve as an authoritative primary document – a way of reminding us of certain aspects of history in a climate where it is becoming frighteningly easy to bury and deny even things that happened yesterday.

As well as the moral and ethical implications these reminders have, it’s also really interesting from a photography perspective. A lot of the photographs Souza is posting are photographs he has posted before; he is reposting them to highlight a point, to serve a purpose. When these were taken, it is highly likely that the original intent was not the point he is making now. Documentary photography especially is meant to embody and encompass the world we live in at a particular time. We bring to it our knowledge of what is currently happening, as well as what has happened.

However, when Souza is posting these photographs – often tagging them and captioning them with pointed descriptions – they have an entirely different message to perhaps the original one intended.

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Souza was a prolific photographer – Obama wasn’t the only President he photographed – and during Obama’s administration he was with him almost every day, shooting thousands and thousands of photographs. During the beginning of Trump’s administration, he was actually going through his catalogue to pick out photos for a book he is releasing. So it was obvious that as certain things were happening, mirroring or sharply contradicting what had happened before, he would post or repost things he had seen as a form of social commentary. His captions were never outright hostile; they didn’t need to be. The photos said everything better and more succinctly than even the fiercest critic could.

For example, there has been growing criticism over the Trump administration’s responses to deadly hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Houston. Trump was accused at worst of negligence, and at best of using the size and scope of the destruction as a political and egotistical measuring tool. During all of this, Souza would post photos of the various relief efforts conducted during similar disasters during Obama’s campaign, as well as photographs highlighting the former President’s natural empathetic and selfless nature.

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During the aftermath of Charlottesville, Obama tweeted a photograph that Souza had taken of him alongside a Nelson Mandela quote, which became the most liked and fourth most retweeted tweet in Twitter history, showing not only how powerful and potent Souza’s photography coupled with Mandela’s words were, but also how desperate the world was to feel some sense of humanity and empathy.

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It has gotten to a point now where people are beginning to expect some form of photographic social commentary from Souza. There’s even memes about it, which he seems to find amusing. But in the comments there is also a sadness, a longing to go back to a time before. The comments are always a mixture of joy and pain, a reflection of what a country once had and a critical examination of what it has become.

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I can’t speak as to Pete Souza’s original intent in his “commentary” – he has started doing a book tour where he speaks about his experiences and he apparently feigns ignorance at his “shade” and insists he is only posting his work. But you have to think that for someone who was so intimately in the shadow of a great man such as Barack Obama, it would be increasingly frustrating to see the good works and the good intent being torn down daily, and worse yet, rewritten to suit a different narrative. To be able to post a photograph that says, “No, this is how it happened,” would be a powerful act of rebellion and resistance.

Words are becoming increasingly twisted and manipulated and denied and distorted. Photographs can change context, but what they show in them at their core rarely lies.

The Tank Man and Ieshia

You know those essays that you had to write on different books in high school? Or if you studied literature or poetry at Uni? Or music theory? Or art theory? Sometimes it can be tiring to break down art and into its smallest parts and analyse the different layers. There’s a danger that it can leave the book / play / artwork / poem / song lyric / photograph as something dry that no longer feels the same as before.

I wanted to look at why I felt certain reactions towards certain photos, but I didn’t want the above to happen. So I’m going to steer clear of going too technical, instead looking at the very first fleeting emotional response I had when looking at the photo.

Many photographs have been born out of the current racial tension in America, showing the widespread violence and fear, but for some reason this photo below is the one that people are talking about, and are using words like “iconic” to describe.

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The photograph, by Reuters photojournalist Jonathan Bachman, shows a young woman facing down police officers in riot gear who are trying to quell protestors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The woman, later arrested and identified as nurse Ieshia Evans, stands resolutely in the face of opposition.

The photo has become so popular, and so symbolic of the current climate in the US, that people are comparing it to Jeff Widener’s photograph Tank Man, of a man standing before a convoy of tanks during the protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, 1989. Which is remarkable, because even if the name is unfamiliar, a lot of people can at least recall the image of Tank Man, it is so pervasive in our cultural recollection.

tankman

Why did the photo of Ieshia and the riot police evoke such a strong reaction for people? In a time where we are bombarded by images 24 hours a day, for a photograph to quickly gain as much attention as it has is a huge feat and speaks to the fact that photographs are still a powerful means of shaping and framing our humanity and experience. Blogs have been written about the photograph, dissecting every aspect of it.

For me, my first reaction to the photo was that I was immediately drawn to the young woman. People will speak of the contrast between the heavily suited and armed police officers and the almost bare woman, but if we’re to look at her she is an incredible anchor point in the photo. She is resolute, immobile. Her back is ramrod straight, her fists are clenched. And yet she’s wearing a flowing summer dress, that is blowing gently and moving about her as she’s completely still. She’s not holding a weapon. Her face is serene almost, resolved.

In the face of that power, that contradiction, it almost looks like the police confronting her have been rocked back on their heels. They almost look as though they are put off-balance by some invisible forcefield around her. They are heavily covered head to toe in black. They are the ones who are shielded, protected, and yet they are almost cowering.

The photo is bare and doesn’t look edited. You can practically feel how hot and oppressive the air is, the light, very small breeze blowing her dress but not offering relief to the scene. Those were the things that stood out for me. It’s those tensions between elements in the scene that tell us so much about the tensions of what the photograph is about.

Is it iconic? Yes, I think so. Will it be talked about an recognised like Widener’s Tank Man? I’m not sure. Like I said, we don’t consume photographs in the same way that we used to. However we won’t know until it’s decades down the track and we are looking back on the current political climate in the US. But I think people will use Bachman’s photo of Ieshia and the soldiers as one representation and visual aid to help discuss our human experience.

Man Of Steel Premiere AU

Sometimes the very best plans are the ones made on the spur of the moment.

Such was my plan to fly up to the Man of Steel premiere in Sydney. I talked my Mum into coming (she is a huge Henry Cavill fan, so didn’t need a great deal of convincing) and we set off on Sunday morning.

We managed to stay close to the cinema, on George Street. Before the weekend, I had tried every avenue to be allowed a photographer press pass in order to secure a good position to take photos. But, as I learned the hard way, they don’t want to know you unless you are in some way affiliated with media – and even then it’s extremely difficult. I had never shot a premiere; I had absolutely no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I had to get there early. So, six hours before the estimated start time of the premiere, I camped myself in the cinema near where they were rigging up the lighting and backdrops.

Setting Up

Setting Up

I kept politely introducing myself to the event crew and security guards in the hopes of finding out where the best position would be for me to take photos. Walking around with my huge zoom around my neck evidently convinced them that I meant business, so they did all they could to help me. I’m so grateful, they really looked out for me and told me where they thought I should stand throughout the day. I felt like a chess piece being manoeuvred around a board, and I’m still not sure if I ended up in the best place. But I did manage to take some photos.

Media

Media

Director Zac Snyder with fans

Director Zac Snyder with fans

Henry Cavill

Henry Cavill

I have also discovered however, two things about myself shooting this premiere.

a) I’m way too short.. and
b) I’m not aggressive enough

In the “fan pit” it really is about standing your ground and toughing it out. But being 5’3″ also puts me at an extreme disadvantage!

One thing I did love was all the lighting. It created a really moody affect when I converted the photos into black and white. I have never been 100% comfortable playing with light, so I found it good practice. I sort of like the look of how they aren’t uniform – they aren’t the same sort of photos that the official photographers get (although maybe I’m saying that to make myself feel better that I wasn’t with them!) . They do give a real reflection of what it was like there.

Richard Wilkins interviews Henry Cavill

Richard Wilkins interviews Henry Cavill

Lined Up

Lined Up

Henry Cavill was not only beautiful (it’s true, he really actually is) but he was gracious and charming and very sweet. I’m very, very grateful I got the chance to photograph him.

Henry Cavill

Henry Cavill

He had photos and signed for so many people. I was lucky enough to get a photo, and even though it is completely blurry and I look weird, I’m treasuring it!

Henry Cavill and me

Henry Cavill and me

* If you would like to see the rest of the photos from the Man of Steel Premiere, check out the gallery on my site here

Roman Holiday 2013

I have been lucky enough to travel to Rome for the last two years for the big Supernatural convention there, Jus In Bello.

It is a massive convention with a very different energy to it than the other conventions run throughout the year. There are always lots of guests, and the guys always seem more relaxed and have more fun during their panels and in their interactions with fans.

This year I was doubly blessed because my friends and I won passes to Roman Holiday a three hour tour of some landmarks in Rome with some of the guys from the show. It is an extremely limited event with only a few available places (it’s like winning the lottery!) so we were so fortunate enough to get to go. It was a wonderful opportunity to take photos.

Trevi Fountain, Rome Italy

Trevi Fountain, Rome Italy

So I will break up my posts about JIBcon into two lots, the first will be photos taken on Roman Holiday, and the second for photos from the rest of the convention.

Because of security, the location for Roman Holiday isn’t known until we are actually on the bus on the way there. We were taken into the very heart of Rome, to the Trevi Fountain, where we took photos and waited for the guys to show up. Sure enough, Misha Collins, Rob Benedict, Richard Speight Jr, Jason Manns, Matt Cohen, Sebastian Roche, Steve Carlson, Brock Kelly and Ty Olsson sauntered over to us, and after some initial nervousness we started the tour.

Walking along the thousands-of-years old cobblestoned streets of Rome with the guys from Supernatural? Not something that I would have expected to ever do, but makes a pretty kick ass entry on a bucket list.

Rob Benedict

Rob Benedict

The guys were all really warm and friendly and made an effort to talk to everyone, even those who were too shy to approach them. We walked first to the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, to see the Doria Pamphilj Gallery. It was beautiful, filled with paintings (a Caravaggio!) and statues and luxuriously decorated with sixteenth century chairs.

Doria Pamphilj Gallery

Doria Pamphilj Gallery

We then made our way to the Sant’Ignazio Church, with it’s fabled ceiling that is painted to give the illusion that there is a huge and lofty cupola, rather than a flat ceiling surface. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and it was amazing seeing Misha Collins just as taken aback as I was (but then he made a joke about the building not being finished properly, so they had to paint their way out of a dilemma).

Sant'Ignazio Church

Sant’Ignazio Church

The last stop on our tour was the Pantheon. We had seen so much and I was so grateful and yet I still didn’t want it to end! I felt so lucky to have got to experience it all.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The Guys <3

The Guys <3

I don’t often tell people when I’m going to these things, because I feel weird about talking about it. But I am so, eternally grateful that I have the opportunity to do these things, and I don’t want anyone to think I take a minute of it for granted. Because I don’t.

Thank you to Daniela Chiusa and the wonderful Jus In Bello convention crew for an amazing experience, and thank you to Misha Collins, Rob Benedict, Richard Speight Jr, Matt Cohen, Sebastian Roche, Brock Kelly, Jason Manns, Steve Carlson and Ty Olsson for spending the morning with us in Rome and for helping to make it so memorable.

If you would like to see the rest of my Roman Holiday pictures, visit the gallery here