Photography and Exhibitionism: An Introduction

Ben Burbridge, Catherine Grant

BB: Why exhibitionism?

CG: For me, this topic crosses over some key areas of interest in contemporary fine art photography and vernacular online cultures. From teenagers posting standardised ‘sexy’ profile pictures on Facebook to the reinvention of image circulation through digital technologies, exhibitionism has become part of our everyday online lives. Intimate photographic details of our lives and activities are no longer confined to the photo album, but are shared across social networking platforms, with or without our permission.

The ways in which these online practices repeat and rework tropes from documentary photography and popular artworld photographers is something that has intrigued me as I watch the online image world grow. My own research into photographs of teenage girls and the presentation of subcultures in contemporary art is challenged by these shifts in image circulation. How does Nan Goldin’s classic subcultural photography figure in relation to a teenager’s tumblr site? How do photographic practices in the gallery or photobook relate to the daily updating of blogs and social networking posts? How do shifts in audience change the way in which we take photographs of ourselves and others? Does the internet simply provide a sequence of niche audiences that replicate those of cult books like Larry Clark’s Tulsa or have new digital communities particular qualities that allow us to reconceptualise spectatorship? What are the politics of being visible online? What are the politics of sharing pictures of ourselves and others?

BB: Like you, my interest in this topic derives in part from ways in which the online circulation of particular types of imagery appears to unsettle the status and understandings of elements within recent art photography. It will be interesting to probe at this relationship, and to see what the respective literatures generated by these practices can draw from one another. Nan Goldin’s work has been critiqued in terms of its potential voyeurism, but the impulse to share her intimate moments has not been interrogated in the same way. Can the literature produced within cultural studies, new media and the social sciences around the construction of online identities help us to unpick this?

The idea of exhibitionism also borders onto a set of ideas I began to address while looking at contemporary fine art photo portraiture in my Ph.D. A number of writers—from Benjamin Buchloh to Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello—have noted the extent to which subjectivity under late-capitalism—our very sense of what it is to be in the world—is increasingly tied to public visibility. Rather than be defined through the roles we occupy within given social structures or the belief systems we subscribe to—from the job we do, or the political beliefs we hold—identity comes from the self-image we fashion and present to the world. Viewed in this light, we have each become our own greatest commodity, the result of a labour of self-fashioning.

I wonder if this might be one way to understand the sets of photographic practices that we are drawing together under this ‘exhibitionism’ umbrella? Are we encountering a particularly extreme example of this need to define oneself through the gaze of others, so that people feel the compulsion to publicly broadcast moments that would traditionally have been understood as intimate and private? (There is a telling ambiguity to YouTube’s tagline of ‘Broadcast Yourself’). In which case, can we begin to forge links between such practices and other manifestations of a similar impulse—in aspects of celebrity culture or, indeed, efforts to become part of that culture through participating in ‘reality’ TV shows?

CG: This problem of self-fashioning under late capitalism is one that I have an ambivalent relationship to. On the one hand I agree that the conditions of commodity culture have enforced increasingly constricting social identities. However, I also relish the potential for new ways of presenting the self through DIY uses of online organisation: here we could think of the blog as an online version of the zine, which in itself incorporates aspect of the private diary, but puts it out there for public consumption. Rather than this being self-expression that is bound by the spectacle, there are also important aspects of communication and community building that are found here. There are modes of exhibitionism that, for me, have a politics to them that are not only defined by commodity culture, ones rooted in feminist and queer modes of consciousness-raising and activism. For me, the topic of exhibitionism in online culture is a chance to think about how online modes of self-presentation might enable politically motivated desires to be visible.

There is a paradox here—as capitalist image worlds become more invasive on our sense of self, we also have the potential to share images that might help to open the cracks within this same image world. I’m obviously employing a well-worn feminist model of transforming spectatorship and normative imagery, but the connectivity of online communities also shifts the discussion from voyeurism and consumption to production and dissemination in very interesting ways.

As someone who has not been involved directly in the theorisation of online communities and digital imagery, but is invested in feminist and queer theories of self-presentation, I am hoping that this strand of Either/And will provide some space to allow for discussion across disciplines. I am thinking here of how someone such as Laura Mulvey returned to her 1975 essay on voyeurism and scopophilia in classic Hollywood cinema (her amazingly influential ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’), and rethought our relationship to the image via digital technology such as DVDs which allow us to fast-forward, rewind or freeze the cinematic flow into our own set of images (In Death 24x a Second). For me, the shifts in self-presentation online and through digital technology also hold potential for reworking and reframing normative self-fashioning.

BB: It is an interesting paradox, and the current relationship between image production and consumption is no doubt a complex one. So I think you are right to suggest that any uncritical application of ideas concerning capitalist spectacle may risk obscuring some of that nuance. Indeed, I am interested in examining how these new image practices demand we rethink that model. The notion of the spectacle was forged in relationship to television and has traditionally been understood as a passive condition. So Web 2.0 appears to unsettle this, insofar as it opens opportunities for people to publicly share images in a manner that can sometimes allow for dialogue. Whether this finally cements or undermines a late-capitalist logic may depend, in part, on what types of imagery are being shared, by whom, to whom and within what context. Issues of agency seem to lie at the core of both our interests here.

We are focusing on a fairly specific body of images—pictures of the intimate and the everyday that would not previously have been shown to large audiences in the way they are now. Whether that has been due to a lack of desire or a lack of opportunities is another interesting question (I suspect we cannot easily separate the two). I can see how, in some cases, pictures of this nature can provide opportunities for subversive modes of self-representation, consciousness-raising, or a means to build communities. But I do think the other part of the paradox you have described merits close attention, as the dramatic increase in the number of photographs being produced and shared risks a further colonisation of the social world.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Geoff Dyer recalled Marina Hyde’s comic observation that population figures will soon decrease now that some young men have taken to ejaculating over women’s faces when they climax: a convention they have picked up from pornography, where sex is required to take on a highly visual form. Some may not perceive this situation as a problem, but it does seem to indicate the darker possibilities implicit in this exhibitionism theme, which pushes such a logic one stage further. Rather than challenge normative image practices and the commodification of the self, is it possible that people have internalised, reproduced and reinforced these tendencies through the images they share online? What types of methodology do we need to address these complex issues in meaningful ways? And how can we aim to understand potential transformations to the experience of intimacy—moments once shared with a small number of people—if they are photographed today? Are more aspects of people’s lives being conducted in a manner that anticipates an audience, owing to the increased likelihood that this will be recorded photographically and shared online?

CG: I think the potential sterility (both literal and figurative!) of exhibitionism is always something to be wary of, particularly in its erosion of intimacy. When we have scary statistics quoted constantly about the majority of people wanting to transform some aspect of how they look to help their self-esteem, we know something is wrong with how consumer culture trades on our self-image. However, as the essays in this strand will hopefully show, the concept of exhibitionism, when thought through online cultures, may both offer some small ways to challenge this ‘celebrification’ of culture (as well as ways to analyse it), and provide modes of communication that allow for new versions of community, intimacy and sex.