Our faces are both the most personal and the most public part of us. Their contours and contortions can betray our emotion and intentions to complete strangers, but also let us share a laugh with friends and forge connections with other people through an interplay of expression and empathy. Our brain is hard-wired to recognise faces and they are, in our society at least, the emblem of a person.
Our faces are a part of our life story, and it is a part that I like to keep fairly private – I very rarely put pictures of myself online and have never in my life felt the need to take a selfie.
So I was less than thrilled to return to Pokhara after an aborted trekking mission only to find my face on the cover of a Slovenian magazine. My father is a travel writer and photographer and, as part of submitting a feature about our month in Iran, he also volunteered my portrait for the magazine cover. Without consulting me about it, of course.
My first instinct was to fly back home just so I could throw sharp objects at him.
Fuming, I went for a trot along the banks of Fewa Lake, muttering to myself and alarming a gaggle of sweet Nepali ladies in the process – how dare he??
Funnily enough this is not my first foray into cover girl territory. My five-year-old face is on the cover of the children’s book my dad wrote about our first round-the-world trip in ’95. Back when the book came out I was too young to care one way or another, and now I treasure it as a wonderful reminder of an unusual childhood. Twenty years later I find it difficult to believe that I am the same person as that blonde little girl trying to hear the ocean in a seashell.
But this was different. To have my face displayed to an unseen audience without my permission feels supremely creepy, insulting, and completely, blindingly, infuriating.
It is not a question of vanity – I think that it is a good photo and I’m sure I will be happy to have it when I am a saggy prune-faced 80-year-old spinster. But I am an adult now (or at least doing my best to be one) and it should be my choice. My hatred of being photographed is no secret and my father knew perfectly well that, had he asked my permission, my answer would have been “over my dead body.” To have no say in the matter feels incredibly humiliating – I hated being treated as a child when I legally still was one and have not grown fonder of it since.
A couple kilometres of furious running later I ran out of breath and out of anger. The rational part of my brain, always so eager to work overtime, kicked in.
Do I have the right to be so outraged about this without being the worst kind of hypocrite?
On this trip I have reluctantly started dabbling in photography myself, knowing that travelogues with no accompanying photos had no hope in hell of being read by anyone besides my mother. With time I was surprised to find that I was beginning to enjoy it and I especially get a thrill from a good portrait shot. I make a point of asking permission before photographing someone, but of course I have neither the time nor the language skills to ask each and every one of them whether they agree to having their portrait published online.
And if National Geographic ever wanted to use one of my photos on their cover I would happily give them my entire portfolio and my first-born son to boot.
Sure, they’re their faces… but dammit, they’re my photos.
In June 1985 National Geographic boasted a cover that became arguably one of the best known portraits of the 20th century – the Afghan girl.
Her portrait was just one of the hundreds of photos that photographer Steve McCurry took that day during his visit to the Afghani refugee camp in Pakistan, and when it was chosen to be the issue’s cover I doubt anyone expected him to return to the camp and ask her permission. And if he had, I can imagine what her answer would be: “Over my dead body.” She comes from a conservative Pashtun family where girls enter purdah, or seclusion, at 13 years of age and has not been photographed before or since. Not until McCurry decided to try and find her 17 years later.
Her name is Sharbat Gula. By the time McCurry had tracked her down she had returned to Afghanistan where she gave birth to four children, one of whom died in infancy, and lived her life completely unaware of her unwanted fame.
How mortifying it must have been for her, a woman who has spent over half of her life under the veil, to realise that hers is one of the most looked-upon faces of the 20th century! If her interview is to be believed, she considers the burka “a beautiful thing to wear, not a curse” – and I think it’s safe to assume that she doesn’t take selfies either.
And yet… I’m glad this photo exists. This portrait, along with countless other photos taken and published without permission, is a beautiful example of the visceral power of image and the transformative potential of photojournalism.
Now of course Ona magazine is not National Geographic, my father is no McCurry and I am, luckily, not Sharbat Gula. But does that change anything? What makes her cover a beautiful piece of photojournalism and mine an invasion of privacy?
On the emotional, childish, egocentric level the difference is clear to me – this is my face we are talking about, and I’m a unique fucking snowflake!
But rationally I can hardly justify raging about it while I keep taking and publishing portraits myself.
In a broader sense, is my reaction not symptomatic of a more general cultural bias?
White girls chose to be models. Regardless of how many selfies we post on social media on a daily basis, we still expect to be asked permission before our face is made public by others. And, preferably, we expect to be paid as well.
But if you are an Afghani refugee, a Somalian tribeswoman or a toothless Tibetan granny your face is ours for the taking – as a magazine cover, a holiday snapshot, a cultural artefact.
Our faces might be the most personal and the most public part of us, but having a say in how our image is reproduced is a privilege reserved for the very few.
As a rational person, an anthropologist and an amateur photographer I can’t expect to be treated any differently from the countless women and men I have photographed and whose photographs I have admired over the years.
But as a daughter and as a unique fucking snowflake I am pissed.
Dad, you owe me my weight in beer when I return – and if you do it again I’ll use you for target practice!
What do you think? Can these double standards be adressed? Shoud they? Is the power inbalance between the observer and the observed an inevitable part of photojournalism?
Or has my study of anthropology just made me incapable of going through life without asking all these inane questions and I should just have some cake and get over it?