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. 

Art Show Portraits

A couple of weeks ago, my Aunt told me about an art show they were having at one of the residential aged care facilities where she works. The residents who were having their art work displayed were going to have photos to go alongside their biographies, and she asked me if I would be willing to take them.

I went today, and while I can’t show any of the photos for privacy reasons, I thought I would write a little bit about the experience, because it was so different to any other portraits I have taken. So I apologise if this ends up being a bit TL;DR with no photos to break it up. I’ll try and be succinct!


Osric Chau // Vancouver 2016 Photoshoot

The photoshoot I did with Osric Chau in Vancouver was the 8th photoshoot that we’ve done, and true to form I had no idea it was going to happen until about an hour before it did.

Osric had been really, really busy over the Summer and had even missed a couple of conventions due to filming. When I went over for VanCon I didn’t even know if we were going to be doing a shoot; and even when I got there I was told he would be doing a shoot with Chris Schmelke.

On the Saturday (Osric’s last day at the con before he flew out of the country), Chris messaged me to tell me to meet him, and told me that I was doing the shoot. Osric had driven home to get a suit, and by the time he got back we had about half an hour until he had to eat and do sound check for the Louden Swain Saturday Night Special.

(This is all to illustrate how incredibly rushed things like this are; there’s barely any time to think or plan, but likewise there’s no time to overthink and worry.)

It was about 7PM, but as it was still Summer in Vancouver the light was only just starting to leave. It wasn’t quite golden hour, but close to it.








Because Osric was dressed in a suit, and because of the location where we took the photos, they ended up having a completely different feel to any of the other shoots we’ve done. They looked a lot more mature, and I think it was a combination of things that framed the shoot that way.

It wasn’t cosplay, so it wasn’t necessarily a character. It came from a more personal place, and that felt a bit more grounded. To a certain degree it was still acting, but there was more of an emphasis on trying to capture something rooted in reality as opposed to a concept.




It became more about me trying to find a way to show “him”, but it was a “him” that he was letting me see. I’m still learning direction, and being more proactive about what I want in shoots. I was so grateful my friend Kat was there to help, because she’s excellent at direction and knows Osric well.








It’s probably the shoot I’m most proud of and was most surprised at how it turned out. Because I went into it not really knowing what we were going to do, we ended up just using the location as a guide and going from there. Ideas were bounced around, we tried different things and if something didn’t work we scrapped it and moved on. It was a lot of fun, and I was so happy with how it turned out.

I think it shows a lot how much we’ve both maybe grown, in front of and behind the camera?

Werribee Open Range Zoo // August 2016

My sister and I took ourselves to Werribee on a beautiful Winter’s day to try the “off-road safari” at Werribee Open Range Zoo here in Victoria. I’d been to Werribee before, but I’d never gone on the safari.




We had a really great safari tour guide, Matthew, who told us about the shift in zoos and wildlife parks away from the traditional attraction sites of the past to a focus on conservation and education, and the animals we saw definitely seemed to benefit from it.








They are given strictly limited human contact (only what conditioning is needed to help keep them manageable and safe) and the environment and species social groups help them to maintain their natural behaviours. It was actually really moving to see how happy and settled they seemed, even when we were driving around near them.








The only part I was disappointed about was that after the tour, we went to see the Lion enclosure but it was largely blocked off. The big cats are my favourite to photograph, so it was hard to take photos that worked from such a distance. I managed to get a couple of photos, but I wasn’t as happy with them.






I’m not really sure what prompted me to try editing them in black and white, I think I just tried it with one of the giraffe photographs and liked how striking the effect was. I did edit a couple of photos in a sort of low contrast, semi-matte colour, boosting the levels of the blues and greens using saturation levels in Lightroom, then selective colour in Photoshop. I made sure whatever I was doing with the colour in Photoshop to keep watching that the whites stayed white, which is always a good guide to keep things looking realistic (unless unrealistic is what you’re going for).






Taking photos of wildlife is, obviously, a completely different skill set to taking convention photos or portraits, and so it’s nice to stretch yourself and do something different!


Someone once said that the only person you should compare yourself to is the person that you were yesterday. I think the same goes for people who create.

(This is one of those times where I completely don’t take my own advice, by the way)

I’ve just been through a period where I’ve felt burnt out and started questioning why I was doing what I’m doing. I couldn’t face editing, or taking photos, and just tried to ignore everything. I was actually tired of it.

We have a tendency when we create things to measure what we create by what is out there already; it’s natural. It’s very human. We see what others are creating, we admire it and on a good day it motivates us to strive further to evolve and learn and create new things, that will in turn be looked at and inspire others etc. It’s a perpetual, self-feeding cycle.

On a bad day though, we look at what others are doing and can’t help but think that everything we’re doing is wrong / bad / not good enough / insert self-deprecating adjectives here. Suddenly what once became a shiny point in a tantalizing distance for us becomes an oasis in a desert that for some reason we’re stuck in but no one else can see. So while your friends or family or even strangers are telling you that what you’re creating is good, you’re thinking, “Yeah, but it’s no oasis is it?” A future that seemed ripe with possibility is suddenly …. Not. You start wondering why you’re doing it, why you are expending so much energy and time and passion (and money!) into something that you’re obviously never going to be “good enough” at. Do people think I’m wasting my time? Are people just being polite? “Oh this month she wants to be a photographer let’s support her, but you know, how long will that last?”

The truth is, people don’t think that way. Sure, your Mum maybe is being polite because she is polite. But we’re the only ones who actively compare our work to other people. Other people look at it from this magical place we’re not allowed in, called an objective space. They see two photographers and they don’t compare them, they just think, “Wow, all these people are giving me pretty things to look at, isn’t this cool?”

So why do we compare ourselves? Why can we see beauty in what others create but not find it in our own work? I am extremely guilty of this. I will look at other people’s photography and say, “Why doesn’t mine look like that? My colours aren’t punchy enough. My focus isn’t sharp enough. Is there some professional filter people run things through that I’m not aware of? Is it a plug-in for Photoshop?”

I can see that my work has an emotionality that people connect with, but I doubt every time I post anything. I think technically I’m not where I want to be, and I feel like it shows. Every. Single. Time. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been excited about sharing photos because I’ve felt like I’ve come far technically – the Louden Swain Saturday Night Special in Pasadena, 2015 and Osric Chau’s Captain American cosplay shoot are two examples in a tiny list.


Rob Benedict, Louden Swain SNS, PasCon 2015

Rob Benedict, Louden Swain SNS, PasCon 2015


Osric Chau, Captain America, Vegas Cosplay Portrait, 2016

Osric Chau, Captain America, Vegas Cosplay Portrait, 2016


It’s only because I had such a strong reaction personally to them that I felt like they would be successful. The whole process – taking them, editing them, posting them, there was very little of the usual doubt that I have. There was nervousness, there always is. But not the same doubt. It was liberating, and I wish I knew how to feel like that more often, but so far I haven’t mastered it.

The thing about creating, and about photography, is that it is such a personal thing. There are technical considerations that are universal, but other than that it becomes very much about how each person sees the world and how they want to show others how they see the world. There are always many, many photographers at the conventions but each one gets something different. Even pressing the shutter simultaneously, we will all have different interpretations of a moment. That’s what makes it incredible. But we also have to remember that each person is coming to that moment from very different circumstances – over and above different camera equipment, we’re sitting in different places, we’ve been photographing for different periods of time with varying experience levels, we’re concentrating on different things, we’ve focused on what we think tells a story.

I think what makes it so difficult today is the rate at which we can find information is so fast that we seem to expect ourselves to be able to learn just as quickly. The technology is so advanced that there isn’t the slow burn of learning how to process a photo in a darkroom, or really lining up a shot and being deliberate like you would using film because you don’t have as many chances to make a mistake. Film was very unforgiving compared to digital photography. Because that side of it comes relatively quickly (it’s still not easy, but you know what I mean), it’s too easy to think you’ll be the photographer you want to be in the blink of an eye. But things like photography don’t work like that. The people that I look up to mostly have been working for ten, twenty years longer than me. To them I’m probably an upstart who wants everything to happen for her straight away.

Instead of thinking about who we want to be, we should try to be gentle with who we are now. Doubt is normal. It keeps us honest and keeps us learning. If we felt 100% sure of everything we would never try. We would never push ourselves in directions we didn’t think we were capable of. We’d become complacent, and our work would suffer. As long as we don’t let doubt cripple us, we need to use it.

And I know it will take me time to listen to this, and I know I’ll go away and still compare. But I’ll try to focus more on comparing who I am now to who I was when I first started and there’s a surprising distance between the two of us. There’s no doubting that, and that’s something to be proud of.