The Camera Doesn’t Capture Your Soul

Laurie and Debbie say:

Happy New Year!

Over at Bitch, Ph.D., M. LeBlanc is musing on finding that a sex picture site had collected some of her Flickr images:

The realization that someone was likely looking at my basically totally innocuous Flickr pictures because they were part of a larger attempt to find sexually arousing images on the internet was surprisingly disturbing. I know what a sexy picture looks like, and I’ve taken very mildly titillating ones before, mostly just for fun and sometimes to send to a boyfriend or something. But I’ve never put such pictures on the internet, nor would I, because the idea of random strangers getting off on images of my body really doesn’t do it for me.

The first important thing to say is that we sympathize with her repulsion when strangers get off on images of her body.

That being said, we see a lot of this differently. Actually, she doesn’t know what a sexy picture looks like. Because no one does. We know what a certain range of conventionally “sexy” pictures and poses look like, because they’re always being thrown at us as “sexy.” What we don’t know is what is sexy to a particular person at a particular moment in their lives or in history. For some people, a nun in a full habit is the sexiest picture imaginable, while for (most?) others, it’s either a nightmare from parochial school or just a picture of a nun in a habit.

The pictures don’t have to be of people: a display of belts in a men’s store is some people’s idea of a stroke picture; so is a display of hand-made chocolates on a red velvet pillow.

Nobody can tell anyone else what a sexy picture is, and nobody can make a photoset on Flickr that can be guaranteed not to turn anyone on. If you want to protect your body from the lascivious gaze of strangers, the only way to do it is to keep pictures of yourself off the Internet altogether. This is true regardless of gender, but it is most true if you are (or read as) female.

M. LeBlanc talks a little about what happened to her pictures:

What the proprietors of these websites do is link to and/or embed pictures from Flickr users that are “sexy.” The pictures usually aren’t even really that pornographic–mostly clothed or scantily-clad women, and very little actual nudity (more like women in low-cut tops, bras, or bikinis). The blog’s sole purpose, however, is to link to such pictures of women. Apparently, a lot of women whose pictures were featured would write the blog’s owner to ask that the picture be taken down or de-linked.

We agree that this is a repulsive phenomenon, though the sites themselves are generally boring. We gave a lot of thought to it back when we were preparing Women En Large for publication. Those pictures aren’t pornographic, and the Internet was young, but we still knew that there was a significant group of people (mostly men) who would use the book as a stroke book, and we knew that the book was the best way we had for the social change work we wanted to do. We just prefer not to know specifically who is using it that way, and we make real efforts to protect the models from any sleazy emails which might come our way. (We do get a few; we don’t get a lot.) Once you put a picture on the Internet (or in a book), it’s out there; you no longer have any control over what people will do with it.

While totally understanding the women who write these sites to get their links taken down, we would also say, “Don’t do it.” Take down the picture, sure. Make it private, or friends-only, sure. But every time you write to a site like this and ask the owner to de-link your picture, you’re feeding exactly what the lonely little creep collecting pictures wants: he’s hoping somehow that he can make the jump from pictures he finds sexy to contact with real women.

Finally, M. LeBlanc takes the issue into a broader social context:

The thing is, in a sex-obsessed, women-are-sex, body-as-public-property patriarchy such as the one we have, we can’t rely on anyone to make a distinction between a picture that is intended to titillate and one that isn’t. I’m sure that there have been a thousand public moments in my life where, if someone had snapped a picture of me, that picture could be easily interpreted as a “sexy” picture. What if I were bending over to pick something up in the street, or adjusting my shirt, or dancing in a club, or leaning on a bar to get a drink? And someone took a picture then?

We are second only to Twisty in our readiness to blame just about anything on the patriarchy, but this isn’t the patriarchy’s fault. (Most) humans are sexual beings; we notice what turns us on, we focus on what we like. The only difference between looking sexy in a club and having your picture taken in that moment is that the picture lasts longer: you can count on the fact that people have noticed that bend in the street, that lean over the bar. You can assume that some people have licked their lips and thought about what else they’d like to see. That’s part of living in the world, like it or don’t.

LeBlanc titled her post “The Camera Captures Your Soul: What Is this Picture For?” In the “sex-obsessed, women-are-sex, body-as-public-property patriarchy” culture that M. LeBlanc is describing, it’s too damned easy to believe that a picture of a woman’s body is somehow her self, and thus that someone with access to the picture has some kind of ownership rights. Your photograph is not you; at best, it is an impression of you. It does not capture your soul; it doesn’t even tell the truth about your soul. Someone who has your picture, but no other connection to you, has no power over you.

photography, women, internet, sex, feminism, gender, sexual attraction, Flickr, Body Impolitic

4 thoughts on “The Camera Doesn’t Capture Your Soul

  1. This is why I am dubious of all arguments that hinge on “intent.”

    And I am very, very aware of this, considering the Flickr traffic that pictures of my braces generate.

    However, the patriarchy does rear its head when we consider that it’s women’s photos that are most likely to be presented as “sexy.” Because, in patriarchy, yes, women are to be looked at (sexily or otherwise, I would contend). They are public visual property.

    In other words, I think that this (the original post, that is) is another case of mistaking a symptom for a cause.

  2. Er,

    And I am very, very aware of this, considering the Flickr traffic that pictures of my braces generate.

    “This” being “Nobody can tell anyone else what a sexy picture is, and nobody can make a photoset on Flickr that can be guaranteed not to turn anyone on.” I forgot to paste my cut’n’paste :P

  3. I disagree actually… When you say “Once you put a picture on the Internet (or in a book), it’s out there; you no longer have any control over what people will do with it.”

    You don’t have any direct control, but you can tell them to quit it, to criticize their use or exploitation of it, tell them that it annoys or offends you, and if it crosses a line into threat or harassment, you can say that too, to that person and to the general public.

  4. Hi, Liz,

    I think we agree more than is immediately apparent. Of course I (and Laurie) totally support the kind of actions you’re talking about, and we’ve taken them with regard to misuse of Laurie’s photographs.

    At the same time, the very fact that you may well have to wind up doing those things underscores our basic point–the picture (or whatever) is there, people are going to use it as they please, and what’s left to you is the right to play catch-up, to try and “fix” what you don’t like about how your material is being used. Catch-up can be a really important game; among other things, it’s how we defend ourselves against corporations in the 21st century. It also defines where the power is.

    Does that make more sense?

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