Subjectify Me: 5 Ways to Tell if an Image is Objectifying.

Via Julie JC Peters
on Aug 5, 2013
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“But… how can you say she was being objectified if she agreed to do the photo shoot?” my friend asked.

I’d just expressed my distaste with a nude yoga photo shoot I’d seen on the internet. It’s a good question.

The photo shoot is by prolific yoga photographer Robert Sturman, called “The Girl with the Ganesh Tattoo.” The Girl is naked on some desert rocks, interspersed with quotations about freedom—the photos didn’t make me feel free.

My friend wanted to know why it was so bad to look at erotic images. Does a feminist perspective on yoga mean we should all cover up? Isn’t that oppressive of women, too? pinupgg

Yes, it definitely is and my problem isn’t her nudity. There has been a lot of buzz on in the blogosphere lately about the objectification of women in yoga media, and this is not the first piece I’ve written about it.

Still, images like these tend to get either uncritical gushing responses about beauty or mean-spirited judgments of the person being pictured.

One of the most important lessons about yoga is ahimsa (non-violence) and personal attacks and objectification are both forms of violence. My feeling is that our community is not necessarily equipped with the kinds of tools we need for critical thinking about the images we are increasingly bombarded with.

I fear we are more concerned about what goes into our morning smoothies than the kinds of images we are swallowing. 5429259044_dd97a930b0 Conjecturing about the feelings, intentions, and personalities of the parties involved, though, is a dead end, and generally not very neighbourly.

To answer my friend’s question, whether or not The Girl agreed to be in the shoot has nothing to do with whether or not the work is sexual objectification: we don’t know, for example, what kind of relationship this woman had with the photographer, or how much she was getting paid, or whether she was gushy or outraged when she saw the final product.

Similarly, the photographer may have created something sexually objectifying without any intention to do so.

Perhaps he was simply working with techniques he knows work without considering why they work. Sexually objectifying images are a symptom of a culture that tells women they are wanted for the uses of their bodies, and that sex sells. We buy it on deep, subconscious internal levels, and we do it to ourselves.

Objectification is dangerous specifically because it is so deeply subconscious. sexist ads1024

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has said that objectification “includes denial of autonomy, denial of subjectivity. Not taking people’s feelings into account, but also treating them as a mere instrument.”

The object has no agency or ability, can be owned, destroyed, or damaged with no moral concern. She adds, “The Internet opens that up in a big way because it is a relatively autonomous world in which someone who portrays a woman in a certain light, can create a whole story about her that is relatively immune to any kind of correction because it goes everywhere, it lasts forever, and then it can spill back and have real effects in the real world.”

The good news is that once we understand how to objectify someone, we can conversely learn how to subjectify them. We don’t need yogis to cover up, necessarily. What we need is to subjectify them.

So what’s a subject, anyway?

In the context of a book, movie, or image, the subject is the being that acts, the main character. It’s essentially you: the one you can relate to and align with. An object is the thing acted upon.

In a grammatical sentence, the subject is the doer: “Julie got so upset she threw her laptop out the window.” Who do you feel with here? Julie (subject), or the laptop (object)? The subject position, interestingly, can switch dramatically, depending on how something is framed and described, we can quickly change what/who we are relating to: “The laptop screamed as it fell to its death off the balcony.”

Do you feel now for the laptop or the balcony?

Spike Jonze directed a fantastic commercial for Ikea that shows how easily our feelings about who is the subject can be manipulated. After watching a lamp being thrown away in exchange for a new one, the Ikea guy tells us that we probably feel bad for this lamp (and we do!), which is crazy, because lamps don’t have feelings.

More problematically, it’s remarkably easy for us to turn the other way and objectify something that really does have feelings. It’s been a political tactic to dehumanize anything (or anyone) a group in power wants to use and abuse. In an image, we feel with the subject, and look at the object.

Learning these five techniques for either objectifying or subjectifying can help us identify them in other kinds of media so that we can become as mindful and critical of our yoga media as we are of our morning smoothies.

Vancouver Burlesque dancer Lola Frost shares on her blog a photo shoot (by Rick Legal) that is erotic, feminine, nude, but also subjectifying. Read along with me: Sturman’s photo set and Rick Legal’s on Lola Frost’s blog.

1. Faces

Faces are incredibly important to humans, and we have a whole separate brain region for facial recognition. We relate quickly to something that has a face. A quick way to give subjectivity to a pet rock is to paint two dots and a curved line on it.

6287020081_741168ecc9 Objectifying technique: In Sturman’s photo set, the first thing we see is not a face but the piece of The Girl’s body with the Ganesh tattoo. We don’t see her face much. ganeshtattoo

Subjectifying technique: In many of Legal’s photo set, we see Lola’s face, looking right at us.

2. Pieces

Cutting things into pieces is also something we do with meat. The less it looks like the whole animal, the easier it is to eat. A classic hallmark of objectification is showing just a butt or boob so you don’t have a sense of its belonging to a person/subject.

Objectifying technique: At best, we are being asked to view The Girl’s tattoo, and the woman, as a piece of art. Unfortunately, neither art nor cuts of meat have feelings.

Subjectifying technique: Lola has tattoos, too, but we see them in the context of her whole body, face included. We are never asked to look just at one piece of her body.

3. Visual distance

Seeing someone through a mirror or window (like the Ikea replacement lamp) reduces their subjectivity because we are put in the position of this side of the mirror or window, while the object is on the other side. We become the voyeur.

Objectifying technique: In Sturman’s set, there’s a distinct impression that the camera is attempting to “capture” this woman without her knowing. She is looking away, she doesn’t appear to be choosing what to show us. Our subject positions are separated: She is over there, we are over here, behind the camera, which separates us.

Subjectifying technique: In Legal’s set, there is a window, too: but we are always on the same side of it as Lola. We are in the room with her.

4. Personality and Context

A telltale sign of subjectivity is if we can learn anything about the being’s subjective self. Who is this woman? What does she like or dislike? Can she speak? Make a joke? Does she think deeply about the universe?

Objectifying technique: The Girl has a name (Michelle May), but you don’t find it out until the very end of the piece. Her nakedness and the desert atmosphere lends little sense of who she is as a person. We don’t see much of her face, so it’s very hard to project any kind of personality onto her. She is a mystery.

Subjectifying technique: Legal’s photos have a dark, boudoir style to them. Lola wrote the attached blog, so we know she likes this style, but we also see her laughing, showing emotion. She appears to be in her own home, a context of her choosing, with her fridge photos, antique chairs, and a unique hairstyle that give us lots of information about what kind of person she might be.

5. Agency and ability: 

One of the telltale signs of objectification according to Nussbaum, is that the object has no agency or ability. She appears powerless.

6246120493_2ddf04b000Objectifying technique: In the one shot where The Girl is looking at us, she is not in a yoga pose, but something closer to that of a playful, harmless pinup model. (For an alternative view of pinups, check out the totally incapable-looking Menups!)

dsc6358nwSubjectifying technique: Lola looks into the camera often, and we get the feeling we have been invited into her home, a space she has agency over, and we at one point see her holding herself up by her formidable triceps. She is choosing to show us what she wants to show us. She has agency and ability.

These five telltale signs can take subjectification and objectification out of subconscious arena and into the mindful, conscious brain. Understanding how they work and how powerful they can be helps us name objectification and celebrate subjectification.

Interestingly, we see Sturman using these same subjectifying techniques in a photo set he did with the prisoners in San Quentin, a group that is often objectified and dehumanized in society. Again, it’s difficult to speak to intention.

Sex and nudity themselves are not the problem. Sex can bring us closer together, too, when it’s subjectifying. Knowing how these techniques work means we can empower ourselves to choose more often to represent women less as objects and more…well, like Ikea lamps.

Like elephant enlightened society on Facebook.

 

Ed: Bryonie Wise


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About Julie JC Peters

Julie (JC) Peters has been practicing yoga on and off from the tender age of 12, and it has gotten her through everything from the horrors of teenagedom to a Master’s degree in Canadian Poetry. She is a yoga teacher, spoken word poet, and writer, and teaches workshops on yoga and writing called Creative Flow. Julie also owns East Side Yoga in Vancouver with her mom, Jane.

Comments

86 Responses to “Subjectify Me: 5 Ways to Tell if an Image is Objectifying.”

  1. Erica says:

    Well done! This is an insightful piece which articulated and illuminated for me many of the different emotions I feel when I look at images of women..including myself. Thank you.

  2. JC Peters says:

    Thank you Erica! Knowledge is power right?

  3. Cool analysis! I would add to this list something about open mouths. It's sort of of a subset of number five, but it's so rampant in the photography of women I think it deserves it's own number. I didn't see this in this particular photo set though – and it's probably not as common in yoga photos.

  4. Nir says:

    JC. What about the pure artistic POV? Did you like the photos?

  5. elephantjournal says:

    Stephanie Forrest I think it's beautiful that this woman decided to practice and demonstrate her union of something she loves and ultimately I think translates to the love of herself. She's a woman who has embraced her imperfect curves and wears it proudly. I think more of women should learn to do the same and appreciate and love ourselves than be so critical to compare ourselves to those around us.

    Sara Lind What a really excellent look at objectification vs. subjectification – phenomenal!

  6. nicole says:

    Personally I take this a very biased article.
    Subjection, in the authors opinion.
    It takes a lifetime of practice, of self love and balls to do something like this.
    I love the tattoo, I love the photos. I noticed the tattoo, before I noticed she was completely naked.
    That's the title of the shoot, "the girl with the ganesha tattoo".
    She was not positioned in a disturbing way, nor did I once think any of the pictures were uncomfortable (and I get shy about these topics, I am not a promoter of naked-ness, etc)
    In response to this article, I will put her on my desktop,
    I think this photoshoot was beautiful, and I wish you'd personally not point fingers at one particular shoot/ person/ artist, and have a bit more to backup this article so that it seems less like picking on someone, and more of a non biased piece.
    I also stopped reading at one point too, maybe I missed it.

  7. nedtobin says:

    You make a great point, and helpful tips Erica. Subjectification – and removing (or at least being aware of) objectification – is something I want to work on. Thanks for this insight into how you recognize it.

  8. mpp says:

    Did you ask Robert's permission before publishing his photography?

  9. Rachel says:

    I strongly disagree with this analysis. I enjoyed both sets of photos for their disparate but equally valid artistic commentary. I found the yoga photos sexy and strong – as a woman I would love photos like this to be taken of me and I believe the artistic isolation of body parts is a way of celebrating the elements of a woman in isolation so as to appreciate their individual value.

    And the reference to the woman’s relationship to the photographer is insulting. Anyone can be taken advantage of, including if they agree to show their face in a photo.

    I regret the author’s eagerness to break objectification down to five easy compartments. She doesn’t feel free looking at these photos. I do. I feel string and free. I feel the celebration of musculature, and of flexibility, and of sweating for what you love. They make me feel those qualities in my own body. And they are sexy and I think empowered female sexiness is a good thing.

    But I also recognize that mine is just one opinion. Unlike the author who seems to represent the “correct” way to view these photos.

    Where’s the freedom in that?

  10. Lynsie Lee says:

    I am a nude model that chooses to promote sexuality in my images. I feel like the author of this article is the one objectifying the yoga photo. I had no inclination to think of it as sexual until she started mentioning it. Nudity and yoga have also had a kinship.

    Somewhat annoying when non-models/photographers try to critique their work of others or use images to promote their socio/politico outlooks :/

    Could have at least tried to get insight from the model or photographer of the image in question..

  11. Lynsie Lee says:

    Agreed!!!!

  12. bil says:

    Interesting that I submitted what i believe would have been the third commentary on this article. I took issue with it, identifying/addressing each element of the rebuttals subsequently posted. I am new to posting comments, and don't understand the process. I stand by what I wrote. I am no more or less biassed than the article's author. That being said, I felt strongly compelled to respond to my perception of the hypocrisy in Julie Peters' article. My comments were deliberate, hopefully illuminating, and subtly and not so subtly crafted to be a "projection reflection" mirror for Julie and her article's supporters.

    So my submitted comment was reviewed and ultimately not posted. i am now questioning the Why? and How? of my submission. My challenge to the editors of Elephant Journal is to reconsider the censorship of my previous submission. I am questioning my trust in the Elephant journal, my trust in what I read within the sites offerings, as I do not understand the rational for censoring, and I feel we all deserve an explanation.

    Please consider running my original comment in its entirety, or minimally, explaining what the decision process was exactly. It would spur an interesting debate I am sure. Are you willing Elephant Journal?

  13. Spencer M says:

    I'm still forming my opinion on this and want to learn more, but I feel like in a literal sense the yoga pictures are absolutely objectifying but that is the purpose of the piece, not in a malicious sense, but to display the body more so than the woman.

    These photos do absolutely have the feeling that the male photographer has the power in their relationship, and his name appears on every picture while hers does not, but I don't think its wrong if his purpose was to photograph yoga, which based on the pictures I believe it was (the one non yoga picture, to me was more to give the best shot of the tattoo, not of gratuitous flirtiness) I also think our attitudes are really affected by the thought, is this a naked beautiful woman doing yoga or is this a person who is incredible at doing yoga posing nude in the desert.

    I found the article really illuminating and understand more about objectify/subjectify idea but I think that this is a woman who yoga is probably a major or the major factor in her life based on her ability, and its probably a part of her self identity and that not displaying her face was a way to bring focus to her yoga and de-emphasize her sexuality.

  14. Whelm says:

    Perhaps the author hasn't considered the very likely possibility that the model did not want to be easily identifiable in the photos, thus there are no images of her face looking at the camera. If this assumption is correct, all five of these "techniques" (read: theories) go right out the window.

    What the author is really admitting to is her own discomfort with nude photography, which is totally her right. To magnify that into some greater social ill or cause is folly and barely deserving my time to write these words.

  15. Emma Holten says:

    I think some of these comments miss the point of objectification. A person can be objectified in a picture without it having to do with being sexual or naked. It is not about being viewed as a sexual object (although that is often the case, I agree), but moreso about being viewed as an object in a way where humanity and personhood is being disregarded as irrelevant. While this can be aesthetically pleasing, which is the case with the Ganesh pictures, it poses a problem because it is so rampant in regards to the photographical exhibition of, especially, female bodies in media. As with all things about sexism, this is also about the bigger picture: what graphic narrative about the female body are the Ganesh pictures subscribing to? The one where women are beautiful things without faces and emotions. And it works. But it is lazy and reductive, artistically. Thus objectification is indeed something that can be analysed without speaking photographer or model. It is a photo analysis of pose, composition and focus, not that of the artists intention.

  16. sharon says:

    Well said, Nicole!

  17. sharon says:

    Good points Rachel. I wonder if the author is a yoga practitioner or just practices yoga? Seems that she falls into the latter.

  18. sharon says:

    Agreed! Thank you Whelm for a dose of reality here.

  19. sharon says:

    My take-away from this article: The author of the article is comparing Robert's photography (Michelle May)with her model friend's (Lola) pictures. And the point she makes is that her friend shows her face, the photos are moody because they are black and white, and therefore they are subjective.
    Hmmm seems to me Miss Peter's article is far from subjective.
    (as commented from Robert Sturman's Facebook post…check it)

  20. Heart says:

    This article is weak and lacks valid support for the authors argument. Objectification is not something you can determine through comparing two different and equally artistic approaches. Clearly the authors own issues with nudity are interefering with the ability to be critical about the art she is viewing.

  21. PAF says:

    The notion of "subjectification versus objectification" are purely the opinions of the author. I feel that the author has judged this work with a narrow view and has not considered the frame of mind of the artist nor the beauty that is represented in the work. Based on her tone the author has decided that the "Girl with the Ganesh Tattoo" is objectifying and therefore bad. I'm sorry, but I thought freedom of expression was a good thing? Should we all regress back to the days of the closed minded and strive to all be the same, losing our individuality and our free form of expression?

  22. Was the artist really trying to make a huge artistic statement? Or was his intention to promote the benefits of yoga (which is one of the rationales behind 'yoga media'?)

    If it's the latter, he does an adequate job – the subject (that is what she is) is composed well, there are pleasing forms, movement and symmetry. If the artist's intention is to promote the benefits of yoga, than this image knocks it out of the ballpark.

    The subject looks healthy, relaxed, beautiful in fact. The environment is serene. That is how I feel when I practice yoga. But as importantly – perhaps more importantly, for the purposes of yoga media – I aspire to feel that way. Those feelings are what builds yoga adherents, studio members, and consumers of yoga media.

    Good article, but only a small part of the overall story 🙂

  23. the Ganesh series seems to be about shape and colour and light more than about human stories. that's a valid choice for an artist to make. although to be pure to that goal, i would have tied back her hair.. it does inject a traditional pinup/sex object vibe with its tumbling waves in the wind. and of course much of its viral-ness comes from traditional sex and beauty patterns(which the general public perhaps appreciates more than colour and light!), but i wouldn't completely write it off as objectification. you have the Men-Ups as an example.. i actually think this photo shoot could be equally effective with a male yogi, because it's not entirely about desire, it's about a body in unusual shapes. i don't know for sure, as a society we're less used to admiring the male body and so maybe it wouldn't be as popular, but i think as art it would be equally interesting. i 100% agree with your point about looking into the camera and how much power is displayed in faces..

  24. Krista says:

    Dear JC,

    I think your article is really thought provoking on many levels. I'm not sure whether you are an artist or not, but I'm just going to speak from an artist perspective. In the case of the "Girl with the Ganesha Tattoo" the subject of the shoot IS the tattoo—not necessarily the girl. It is an artistic expression of the art on her body. With that said, if the photographer was to have too strong of a face or other distractions in the photo, it takes away from the focus of the Ganesha as the subject. If I was the photographer though, I wouldn't have liked her sticking her butt in the air in an uncomfortable position to portray an very important spiritual deity. When taking nude photos there must be a very "natural" element to the position of the subjects if they are not supposed to look overtly sexual or possibly exploited.

  25. Gromm says:

    Interesting. By reading this article I'm reminded of many a Penthouse photo shoot – at least, from the 70's and 80's (I can't really comment on what their format is now, as I haven't read them in years). All five of these techniques were used in their standard format, pretty much all of the time. Penthouse went out of their way to present their models as whole people, even including snippets of conversation in the spread, which is a bit unusual for pure photo shoots.

    This tells me a couple of things. Either Penthouse was going out of their way to not be objectifying (entirely possible), or, depending on Julie Peters' opinion of their shoots, pretty much destroys what she thinks of objectification, sending her back to the drawing board.

  26. Cherie says:

    Your piece angered me. It's based on your assumptions and includes a lot of implications that are frankly, cheap shots.

    You assume a lot about the intention of both the photographers and the models. You imply that that Sturman and his model were unethical, and insult those of us who enjoy his work. You then proceed to tell your readers how to interpret both sets of photos, stating that those who express admiration for Sturman's work are uncritical and gushing.

    You go to great lengths to say that Sturman's photos objectify women and Legal's do not; however, neither example supports the opinions of your piece. Neither photographer is selling anything: Sturman's work appears to celebrate the strength and confidence of Yogis. Legal's appears to celebrate the eroticism of the female form. The IKEA commercial, on the other hand, IS selling something: IKEA products. So your comparisons don't make sense.

    You distill 'objectification' and 'subjectification' techniques into several points, such as showing the face, or emotion. A woman looking at the camera is not a litmus test for what you call 'subjectification'; take a look at any magazine: there's the sexy girl, showing lots of cleavage selling perfume with a big smile. Or she's selling shoes. Or champagne. And she's looking straight at you. Faces aren't hidden and she looks quite happy. Her happpiness and sex appeal sell products left and right. Looked at a porn mag recently? They don't hide faces or emotion, either.

    The argument of 'objectification' of women to sell things is valid. Sturman and Legal's work simply doesn't work as examples of 'objectification' and 'subjectification'.

  27. Fiona says:

    "I also stopped reading at one point too, maybe I missed it"

    No disrespect, but I think you did miss it. Julie's article specifically says that an image may objectify its subject whether or not the subject OR the photographer intends it to be that way. This article isn't written to point fingers – rather, it's meant to make us think about the way images, depending on how they're set up, may make us think differently about the people they portray. Many, many images in the media and in popular culture objectify women. This is a problem because the more we see women portrayed as objects, the more women will be treated as such. The photos in the Ganesha shoot are beautiful, and the woman has a beautiful body, which she has every right to be proud of. That doesn't mean there's not still a problem with the way she's portrayed.

  28. Art says:

    This is a subject I have much interest in since my wife and I are both artists, both often depicting nude women in our work. I would like to say that commentary and criticism are quite easy things to muster, and that creation is incredibly difficult. Art has two major purposes: to depict truth, and to depict beauty. Spectators should not disparage art that simply focuses on beauty, just because they prefer the art that focuses on truth.

    Yes, erotic art is frequently a cop out, a shield for creeps and misogynists. I personally cringe every time I read an ad for nude models that sets off red flags that the "artist" is unaware that they're crossing the line of pornography. I agree with the author that these rules are sometimes ways to de-objectify a woman in your artwork, but I disagree that they should not also be broken at the artist's will. Not every piece of artwork will reflect your personal values, nor should they. It's sometimes the point. Take offense at advertising for using unattainable ideals of beauty to sell soda, not artists for failing to mirror your views. They have a duty to fail at that. Analysis often says far more about the viewer than the artist, and I didn't learn a thing about the artist here. Incomplete.

  29. Muks says:

    JC, I found your article very informative. When I saw the photo with 'the girl' with the tattoo, I felt some discomfort right away. You are making very good points indeed.

    Btw, I find the stuck out bum very unyogic and objectifying as well.

  30. I thought this was an excellent piece of cultural and artistic criticism, using a wonderful set of guidelines from Ms. Nussbaum (a freaking genius and all around great philosopher).

    For those readers who disagree with the specific analysis here, or who find all art criticism too negative and distasteful to engage in, perhaps they could suggest other possible criteria for techniques of objectification vs. subjectification in visual media.

    I largely agree with the criteria proposed by the author for what photographic techniques encourage thinking of the subject as a subject versus as an object. The only wrench I would throw in to this analysis is the notion that some people enjoy being objectified, but of course that enjoyment is culturally constructed around notions of sexuality and power.

    Also, it's a separate issue whether objectification is always ethically wrong than whether objectification is taking place. The author seems to me to be clear about this, but many commenters here seem to conflate the two issues.

  31. What criteria would you suggest for differentiating between techniques that encourage thinking of the individual depicted in visual art as an object versus a subject?

  32. elephantjournal says:

    Bil: You are fee to question all you like and we encourage it. I didn't see your comments and so I don't know what you said; it's likely that the comments were deleted because in some way they attacked the author, personally. This doesn't lead to a constructive dialogue—it turns into a war of words, which we are not interested in. We are a free and open space and we encourage all to share—again, in a constructive and respectful manner. ~ Bryonie

  33. What criteria would you suggest for differentiating between techniques that encourage thinking of the individual depicted in visual art as an object versus a subject?

    And how exactly do you know that the author has "issues with nudity"? That is quite the mind-reading-through-the-internet-psychoanalysis ability you have there. 🙂

  34. What criteria would you suggest for differentiating between techniques that encourage thinking of the individual depicted in visual art as an object versus a subject?

    And aren't both photographic subjects nude? If the author is uncomfortable with nude photography, don't you think the nipples of the second model would have made her too uncomfortable to give such a balanced, rational comparative critique?

  35. Megan Marie says:

    Robert Sturman does not objectify women, he celebrates them. Last Spring, he did a shoot with 32 year old yoga instructor and mom of 6, Yulady Saluti, when she was in the thick of her battle with breast cancer. She was topless in most of the images and the art created celebrated her courage and dignity. Robert did a shoot with a neighbor of mine, 35 year old Saira Hopper who has MS and was told 5 years ago she would be in a wheelchair very soon–he celebrated her beauty in an image capturing Natarajasana pose on a rock at our local beach. He celebrated her beauty, grace and strength when she was told it will be all over soon and she would not walk again. I have a yoga teacher friend whose daughter was being bullied at school to such a great extent she canceled her shoot to be at the school in the morning to watch over her daughter. What did Robert do? He told Mary to come and bring her daughter, and that's when he empowered this 12 year old girl by creating majestic art celebrating how beautiful and strong she is… The Ganesha series? The model has a beautiful practice, and an exquisite tattoo. I found the portfolio beautiful and mysterious, especially the black and whites. And those two words describe the sacred feminine: beautiful and mysterious. As for "objectifying guidelines", spend less time on those and more time feeling and experiencing the Art itself.

  36. The surprising part to me is that the photographer is assumed to be male, a sexist assumption not safe to make in the current photographic environment.

  37. Liz Arch says:

    I strongly disagree with the author's viewpoint. I have worked with many photographers and Robert is by far the most humble, professional and respectful man I have ever worked with. His work can never be seen as objectification, because all of his shoots are genuine collaborations with the subject/model. When working with Robert, I have always had the freedom to choose shoot locations, select my own wardrobe, and choose which poses I want photographed. This is a rare and special thing in the world of photography. We set out together to create a story in which both the subject and the author have equal power to direct the narrative. He edits his photos with the skill of an artist and publishes the photos with the sensitivity of a man who celebrates and deeply respects women.

  38. Jesse says:

    Liz, it’s objectification.

  39. @samdulmage says:

    Hi Julie. Thanks for writing this article and touching off this spirited discussion.

    The notion of objectification vs subjectification is nagging at me here, partially because it seems to cut across the notion of objective vs subjective. The choice to make an image more subjective or objective is completely within the purview of the artist, no? If I choose to photograph someone in a long shot against a vast expanse of negative space, or if I see breathtaking beauty in an elbow or a collarbone, is that objectification by your lights? And is such objectification unequivocally a Bad Thing? I'm not so sure that it is. Using your guidelines I'm sure we could find a host of images that are objectifying to women, men, children, dogs, cats… What I am getting at is that a move away from identification towards abstraction doesn't in and of itself deserve a negative value judgment.

    I have a negative response to much work that is "objectifying" but it doesn't appear to line up with the criteria that you outline. The things that push my button are:

    1) This image may be glamorous, but it's really not beautiful.
    2) That person looks like they're having a horrible time.
    3) That person is cloaked in a costume or setting that is at odds with their inner nature.

    If we want to look at a metric of objectification vs subjectification, then need we subordinate beauty and showmanship to it across the board? These criteria haven't convinced me that we do.

  40. Hi Julie – I appreciate your perspective and totally respect the engaging discussion. I’m curious… why did you choose to portray Robert? I’m also curious about your intention with this article — I can draw my own conclusions, but how do you want people to feel about such artistry when finished reading this? I’d also like to share your point of view when it comes to 'prettiness' and 'femininity' as also read here: http://www.rebellesociety.com/2013/04/24/the-poli….

  41. Heart says:

    The author opens with "I’d just expressed my distaste with a nude yoga photo shoot". I didn't need to mind read, just regular read. You know, with my eyes.
    As far as where to go for more concrete terms for differentiating between objectification and subjectification there are legitimate scholars, women's studies academics and people who have actual experience in the industry she is criticizing who have very compelling and critical analysis about the issue of objectification and the male gaze. Consulting famous works in feminist and sociological theory like Berger's "Ways of Seeing", Mulvey or Ettinger would have been a good start.
    I came to this article as a professional looking to form better practice and was left with a bad taste in my mouth from the way the two equally valid works were picked apart. Have you seen the rest of Legal's work? Or Sturman's? Just looking through their webpages might give you a different take on the comments made her lauding one and criticizing the other.
    Saying an image where we see a woman through a mirror or window is automatically objectifying is asinine. This choice could represent a myriad of artistic suggestions and intentions.
    Interviewing or quoting models, photographers or feminist theorists would have been a great way to bring more validity to her arguments.
    Perhaps since yoga is her area of expertise the author could have compared two nude yoga shoots, there are plenty out there.
    I have a hard time with people offering tips and advice on areas they are hardly experts in.

  42. JC Peters says:

    Hey Sam,

    I agree the issue is much more complex than I could address in five simple points. I'm not trying to say that these points are always going to stand, or that there aren't other ways objectification can happen. It's a big topic. Thank you for your comments and thoughts about the issue, I figure the more we can discuss it the more we can all get a better understanding of how these things work.

  43. elephantjournal says:

    I love Robert Sturman's work. I do think there may be such a thing as "positive objectification"—ie, as Michelangelo or Sargent did, depicting the male or female nude in "conventionally" beautiful manner, but having it be a celebration, and respectful, and not lecherous.

    I'm no scholar, of course, and I'd like to consider myself a feminist ("this is what a feminist looks like") and while his work celebrates the male and female (admittedly, more often, but a lot of both) form, and only very rarely any nudity…I've never seen anything and thought it was demeaning. ~ Waylon.

  44. JC Peters says:

    Hey Tanya,

    Thanks for your comment! I chose this photo set simply because it was the topic of a conversation, and it's a good example, I think, of some of the techniques I'm trying to explain. I feel like any comment on artistic worth or beauty are beside the point from my point of view (and pretty inappropriate for me to tell anyone what to think of the artistry!).

    Sturman has some really gorgeous, beautiful photos, in my subjective opinion, and looking at them through a feminist lens muddles up the artistic sense with the political/emotional. I'm not intending to say his work is "bad" or ugly or poorly done at any point, at all–and I was careful to point out that I think he uses subjectifying techniques in his Prison Yoga photo sets very effectively, and even that's not a statement on beauty or artistry, but something else altogether.

    My intention was to get people looking at any kinds of images, yoga-related or not, and think about them more critically, to have a vocabulary for thinking about objectification and what it might mean in different contexts. There is SO MUCH conversation to be had beyond what I wrote about here–even beyond feminism and into dehumanization and animal rights and media literacy and all kinds of things. Trying to get a topic this big into blog size was a task, to be sure!

    Thanks for commenting and joining the discussion!

    Julie

  45. Lauren says:

    Why dicker over the example the author chose, rather than discuss the wonderful content of the article itself?

    I enjoyed the Ganesh tattoo photos; they're beautiful. I agree that the subject of the photos was the tattoo, light, form, rather than the woman.

    But that's WHY she's an object in the photos, not a subject, not a person with agency. She's not necessarily a sexual object in every photo, but she is an object. (and in at least one of the photos, I did feel like she was positioned as a sexual object specifically). So the series is valid for discussing objectification, no?

    I also loved the article. I didn't take it as a criticism of that particular set of photos. I understood that it was this particular set of photos that prompted the authors brilliant thoughts on subject vs. object.

    It's an important issue. Women are sexually objectified every day, and yet are socially stigmatized if they become sexual subjects. It's a terribly important topic (one that could apply to burlesque, and how it differs from stripping, too).

  46. bradboltman says:

    Someone needs to inform this women of this. It is completely SUBJECTIVE as to whether the individual is OBJECTIFYING any image. There are no UNIVERSAL standards only individual interpretations. This is the same women who wrote article an about yoga ads. That sent me on a mini tirade about how yoga has degraded into nothing more than flexibility training and acrobatics. For the record I like her style and I know her heart is in the right place but her context here is reflecting her issues and I actually find this type of 'journalism' offensive, judgmental, and extreme. I often wonder how people can be so smart, this is at least IMO a well written article. Yet waste time with what I see as high horse mentality and completely misguided logic that reeks of being a defender of issues that are based on her hangups not everyone's.

  47. CL says:

    I agree. I wish the other comments were more constructive criticism instead of defensive justifications. I think this post is really thought provoking, regardless if you agree with the conclusions reached. I think it’s wonderful to discuss it at all.

  48. jamesbarrosphotography says:

    Thank you for this.

    I was about to reply that, as a photographer, I do objectify my models. 100%. We work together to create something greater than a real person CAN be. We create the ideal, which is made more real by the fact that, by nature of it being a photograph, it is of a real person, and yet, at the same point, is posed, created, and a collaboration between my models and I to create this greater thing.

    They are often cut into pieces.
    They often work without faces (and sometimes in masks, to further anonmize them)
    My contexts are always gone entirely (studio) or built to make the mythical not the personal into the expressed reality. Huge wide angle rockscapes, seas, fantasy forests, inside the dojo… etc.

    But the last one… the last one I get a pass on. I always aspire to show strength and greatness, beauty and wisdom. (and I don't mean beauty as in being an 18 year old with a perfect body) We (my models and I) aspire to create within the viewer a sense of inspiration and awe, that they too can achieve the mythical, and so become heros… who are real people, but are greater than they thought they could be.

    While I will never be a Michelangelo or even a Sargent, as an artist, I appreciate your concession to objectification as a positive force in some settings. I aspire to this.

    Thank you.

  49. Jay says:

    "To answer my friend’s question, whether or not The Girl agreed to be in the shoot has nothing to do with whether or not the work is sexual objectification"

    It has everything to do with it. That's context, and context is vitally important to analysis.

    Claiming that a woman is being sexually objectified when she is doing something of her own free will, for her own benefit, is insulting. It denies her agency.

  50. Melanie says:

    YES! THIS! Blaming artistically taken photographs for the real world objectification of women is like blaming video games for violence. If someone can't separate fantasy (as in a posed photograph) from real world (as in an attractive woman walking down the street), that is a shortcoming of the consumer of said media, not the producer of such. If that person catcalls the woman walking down the street because they look at porn all day and think that's okay, you don't blame the porn producers. You blame the asshole who doesn't realize that a woman walking down the street isn't a porn star. I don't think the answer is to censor artists just because their art might be taken the wrong way.

    Objectification in the context of art is totally fine, even when that artistic object is a human body. I personally model nude and when I see a piece of art that's been made from the image of my body, I glow a little bit brighter when I think, "wow, that piece of art is the body I get to roam this earth with! That's pretty fantastic!" Nude modeling is what helped me to conquer my body image issues once and for all. Seeing my body as a work of art, even if it's chopped up by a camera lens, helped me to see myself in a different light. And I don't share my face because nude modeling is not the only thing I do and I don't particularly want it bleeding over into the rest of my life. I'm not ashamed of what I do, but there are people out there who think I should be and I insulate myself from such judgements by not including my face on the images.

    Does it objectify me? Absolutely. Am I okay with that? Absolutely. Are there people who take it the wrong way and choose to send me messages assuming my autonomy doesn't matter? Absolutely. Is that my fault for posing nude in objectifying ways? No. That's their fault for not remembering that it's a human body with a personality attached to it in the photos. They're the ones who need a reality check. I'm not the one who needs to adjust the way I create art. That stinks of victim blaming. "Oh, but if she just wasn't wearing that short skirt, she wouldn't have been raped. If no one took objectifying photos of women, women wouldn't be objectified." Please.

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