Technique

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!

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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?

Emotion

I was thinking about how many different ways we have of describing the rhythm of our heartbeat and how we use it to punctuate different moments and events in our lives. We say our heart races when we fall in love. It stops when we’re afraid. It aches when we get hurt. It swells when we feel proud. It hammers, it skips a beat, it bursts, it thuds, it breaks. It’s a muscle, roughly the size of our fist, that plays like a silent soundtrack throughout our lives.

Sometimes I can look at photos and all I see is a heartbeat. I can see it swell, I can see it race. I have felt it when I’ve taken photos; the feeling like it’s beating so loud I could hear it echoing in my ears. It’s usually when I know something is coming, when I’m anticipating some moment I want to photograph.

 

SPNPhx 2016

SPNPhx 2016

 

Some might say that’s esoteric or simply a whimsy, that I’m placing too much on capturing a photo. But it’s these photos that I know have effected me that are the ones that seem to move people the most.

 

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VegasCon2014

 

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Makayla, 2012

 

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Kim Rhodes and Rob Benedict, SPNPhx 2016

 

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Matt Cohen, SeaCon 2016

 

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Rob Benedict and Briana Buckmaster, Seattle 2016

 

Jensen Ackles, VanCon 2015

Jensen Ackles, VanCon 2015

 

Chris Schmelke, Louden Swain Saturday Night Special PasCon 2015

Chris Schmelke, Louden Swain Saturday Night Special PasCon 2015

 

Photography is a shared, universal language in the same way that emotion is. Emotion doesn’t know or recognise age barriers, gender barriers, religious barriers, language barriers. It just is. It’s something we all know, and we don’t necessarily understand why we know it. But if we can look at a photo and recognise the emotion in it we will respond to it, regardless of the context of the photograph itself. It’s no wonder that photography is what is mostly used to document our history and humanity. It can tell a story that can cross borders in ways that words can’t.

 

Briana, Seattle 2016

Briana, SeaCon 2016

 

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Richard Speight Jr, SeaCon 2016

 

Dani and Dad, December 2012

Dani and Dad, December 2012

 

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Ruth Connell and Rob Benedict, VegasCon 2016

 

Osric Chau with fans, Karaoke VanCon 2015

Osric Chau with fans, Karaoke VanCon 2015

 

I truly believe that the more you put into a photo the more someone will take from it. If you want it to last and to have meaning, the feeling behind it should be equally as sincere. This is even more important in the editing process. You have to be quite strict and ruthless in what you cull. What you don’t show can be as important as what you do. It’s something that I battle with; I have to learn not to over-saturate, but instead to be more deliberate about what I show. It has greater impact that way. Leave people wanting to understand but not being given all the tools to understand.

 

Richard Speight Jr and Rob Benedict, Karaoke PasCon 2015

Richard Speight Jr and Rob Benedict, Karaoke PasCon 2015

 

Jared Padalecki, VanCon 2015

Jared Padalecki, VanCon 2015

 

Sometimes putting so much into photography can be exhausting, and when it’s all going wrong it can feel overwhelming. It’s tempting to just coast along and it’s tempting to not try to shift and grow.

But as exhausting and overwhelming as it can be there’s nothing really like putting your whole heart into a photo and seeing people respond to it.

There really isn’t.

What Makes A Good Photograph?

What is it about some photos that makes us really make us stop and take a look? Those photos that make us think? The photos that make us feel?

Before I go on; I’m not even just talking about the “worthy” photos, the ones that end up in National Geographic lists about photographs that changed the world. I mean even a photo that your grandmother took of you at your fifth birthday; you can look at that twenty years later and you can hear everyone’s voices singing happy birthday, you can feel the weak heat coming from the candles, and smell the cake. Photographs are powerful no matter who took them and how.

Bath time, phone photograph 2014

If you think about how many different images our brains take in and filter through in any given day, it’s a wonder that we are actually able to fully process and engage with any singular image. But some images really do have a unique power. It’s arresting, that sudden stop that you make when you see one. All it takes is that small seed, that tiny tug on the rope that pulls us in. But what is that? And is it the same for all of us?

The truth is I’m not really sure; I’m just as in the dark as you and as a photographer these are questions I ask myself all the time. When I’m shooting, when I’m culling through whatever I’ve shot, when I’m editing, when I’m deciding what to post; what’s foremost in my mind is what is going to be the one thing about each photo that is going to give that tiny pull. You know when you have a magnet, and you hover it over a fridge or something metal? And there’s that point, right on the edge of where the pull only just starts. That’s the feeling I’m looking for.

Kim Rhodes, Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Phoenix 2016

Kim Rhodes, Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Phoenix 2016

 

Parade, 2014

Parade, 2014

 

Angie and Brooke

Angie and Brooke

But I could shoot a hundred images and never feel that personally about any of them. Or I could shoot one image and feel it so strongly and someone else doesn’t feel anything at all. It’s the thing that makes photography so amazing and confusing and frustrating at the same time. We all come to look at different images bringing a lifetime of other images with us. Not only that, we’re bringing every thread from our own individual lives – who we’ve loved, who we’ve lost, what we think, what we know, what we think we know, what we’ve learned, what we’ve forgotten. No two people will look at an image and have that same background framing the meaning of a photograph for them.

Rob Benedict, Seattle 2016

Rob Benedict, Seattle 2016

 

Briana, Seattle 2016

Briana, Seattle 2016

As an example, if I take a photo of a person and another person looks at that photo, how they see the subject in that photograph can be dependent on so many different, very personal things. Do they know the person? How does this person make them feel? Have they interacted with them? Have they heard of the person? Does the person remind them of someone else? Someone they loved? Someone who hurt them? Is whatever the subject is doing something universal that we can all relate to? Does the person’s facial expression make us feel joy or discomfort? Is there more than one person in the photo? What does their dynamic suggest about their relationship?

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Misha Collins, Vancouver 2014

 

Makayla and Dani

 

Richard Speight Jr and Rob Benedict, AHBL 4

Richard Speight Jr and Rob Benedict, AHBL 4

Not only that, but there is a third person in the equation – the photographer. Are they trying to make you see the subject in a certain way? Or is the photo candid, and so it reflects something the photographer doesn’t even really know they themselves feel? This tension is a theme in all art forms; once it is out there, your work never really belongs to you anymore. It is a part of you, in some aspects a deep part of you that you don’t really know, and now suddenly it’s up for interpretation by anyone else.

As scary as that is, that’s actually why you do it though. At least that’s how I see it. I want people to feel something looking at my photography, because I feel so much when I do it. It’s another form of communication, it’s a narrative, it’s an expression, it’s a question, it’s an answer.

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Matt, 2016

Osric, 2016

Osric, 2016

And yes, there are some photos that just simply exist. They just are. They don’t offer deeper meaning, they don’t need to be read. They just exist. That photo from your birthday may never make a list in National Geographic but for that time you look at it years down the track it won’t matter, because it means something for you. We need those too. The more we look the better we get at seeing.