THE MANY FACES OF PHOTOGRAPHY: A Cover Girl’s Rant

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??

"Little Kaja goes around the world"

“Little Kaja goes around the world”

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.

 

A gross invasion of privacy Vs. a beautiful piece of photojournalism?

A gross invasion of privacy Vs. a beautiful piece of photojournalism?

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!

 

-K

******

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?

Comment below!

 

8 thoughts on “THE MANY FACES OF PHOTOGRAPHY: A Cover Girl’s Rant

  1. Hello, and this iz Zvone, Kaja’s bloody dad, the culprit of everything and I apologize if my english will not be on such a strong and fluent side as Kaja’s. But I’ll still do my best to explain my point. Which means: the editors of Ona magazine wanted interview with Kaja for their special travel issue, but she was somewhere on Annapurna trail – no signal, can you imagine it?! So I had to do it, something about our family travel experiences. They asked me for some photos – sure, no problem, I sent them! Five minutes later they called me back: can we use one with Kaja for the cover? Please … and we are in a hurry! Sure, I’ll be happy and proud, if somebody finds even my own daughter a kind of beautiful – no other thoughts occured to me, just a little bit proud father. The surprise came later when Kaja found out on my Facebook (yes, still proud and I published that blody cover), started fuming and I felt a bit stupid: what, why, for what a reason? What did I do wrong? Yes, Kaja, my dear, I completely agree with your reasonings about privacy but I feel much more familiar with the second part of your post. I beleive I planted a bit of my love for photography into you on our last trip. And we had issues in Iran already: good travel photography always means invading the privacy of other people as well. We do have double standards, absolutely. But at the same time we are lucky enough to get amazing shots from time to time, shots that change things a bit, even if we are not Steve Mc’Curry and you are not whatever the name of that Afghan girl was. And the reaction of people after that cover in Ona magazine was not: How dare you? What kind of father are you? It was just: Hey, how come you have such a beautiful daughter? Kaja my dear, I’m trying hard but I still can’t manage the power (or reasoning) to feel guilty. Just a bit proud – and ok, I’ll give you a point: I agree, I’m terrible as father and should be sued as photographer – not for a case of beer, you’ll get it. But now – take that bloody Olympus, go out, repeat my mistake with as many people as you can grab around in Pokhara and make sure you’ll be good. Because I want to be proud not just because of your quite lovely face in front of camera but because of your brains and artistic feelings behind it. Even if it means invading a privacy of complete strangers. But you know the rules: smile, be nice to them, say hello and tell them how beautiful they are … you remember our lessons in Iran and many other places, yes? Make their day, because they really are special. And you won’t need to feel guilty afterwards, even if you put their faces on the cover of National Geographic. Well, with the only exception of the face of your father – in that case I’ll throw sharp objects at you and try to get that case of beer. Fair enough? And, yes: I’m also fuming at the moment. Welcome to the club, we are photographers.

  2. Really loved the post Kaja. Having recently started to read your blog this post strikes a cord with me. Not that my face is put on the cover of a magazine (at least not to my knowledge) but I live in London and by default I get photographed countless times, while probably involuntarily photo-bomb many pictures and selfies. But what gets to me most is the fact that I live in a city with the largest number of CCTV cameras installed and being not only pictured but sort of tracked around the city and under it is imposing a feeling of control and restrain. And all this with a constant reminder that it is all for “our comfort and safety.” Well, I would rather be photographed by a stranger who is just passing by and finds my face interesting enough to take an imprint of it, than by mechanical devices scrutinized by underpaid underground workers or street patrol officers with the fear of misconduct or terrorism. The first snapshot gives me hope in connecting people, the second brings reality of daily disparity and distance between people the West is so used to. Keep on posting and taking portraits of these random people you meet – they are the true value of this globalized world.

  3. Have some cake and get over it, he is just so damn proud of you Kaja!
    And I must say I admire your english vocabulary, words you take…love reading your stories….keep on doing what you are doing, you are amazing.

  4. Kaja, we met over coffee in Alleppey, India, in January. I have enjoyed following your travels!

    I don’t know the specifics of the National Geographic portrait, but those photographers often spend a great deal of time with their subjects (sometimes days or even weeks) and the subjects are probably fully aware of how their photographs may be used, although whether they fully understand it if an international magazine is not part of their life experience is another story.

    I returned home from India with thousands of photographs including many, many portraits. Some were what I would call street photography, grabbed on the fly. But for many, particularly the close up shots like the one on the magazine cover, I first asked permission. Now as a professional photographer in the U.S. I would probably ask for a signed model release if I thought I might want to publish someone’s portrait. Like you, I didn’t do so on my travels in India. In North America there is a distinction between editorial publication, which generally doesn’t require a release, and commercial publication, which does, but I still wrestle with the same questions, and am hestitant to publish the photograph of someone who did not specifically give me their permission to do so, even if it’s only on Facebook and someone who lives an offline life in a small village on the other side of the world.

    • Hey Linda, good to hear from you! Well I suppose it’s a question that we’ll keep grappling with. At least nowadays, with smart phones everywhere, people are taking pictures of me almost more often than I am taking pictures of them, so I guess we’re even… the other day I dozed off on a bus and woke up to see a throng of giggly girls taking sneaky pictures of me… I hope I wasn’t drooling 🙂

  5. The renown of the McCurry/Sharbat Gula picture has always struck me as odd given her expression. It seems close to alarm, and particularly alarm at being photographed. It doesn’t give the impression of a person at home in her moment; there’s an odd forced tension and imbalance in the situation, which I suppose is part of the drama. She looks like someone caught.
    A portrait of someone in a moment of unselfconscious self-possession has grace to it, but a portrait of someone jarred in a moment of fear, confusion, doubt, or loneliness has drama, and both grace and drama are powerful and real. They need each other, and your stories here have plenty of both.
    Your portraits from Kutch feel like grace; your story about Borod, Fatimeh, and Ali has drama. Grace is an easy thing to live with and see every day. There are worse things than being caught in a graceful moment. Drama, on the other hand, is a rough thing to live with or spread around a community. If you catch a real person in a real drama and don’t have a surefire ticket out of their world or a pyromaniacal desire to burn bridges, what do you do with the shark you’ve caught? Is globalization turning everything into gossip?
    I hoped that by working more with words than with photographs, I could better avoid or at least put off this problem, the awkwardness of a stranger publicly professing to have truthfully captured or comprehended someone, but it hasn’t worked out that way. People I’ve barely met have told me about the deaths of their loved ones, their strained relations with their children, their failures in love, their crimes, their physical weaknesses, and their loneliness, and I’m no more comfortable trying to state their vulnerabilities, sorrows, or embarrassments in words than in images. If I don’t try, though, half the heart of what I’m learning and trying to share about the world would be missing; but no amount of respect and love can make it seem wholly right to make an anecdote of someone else’s pain. If I tell whoever cares to listen that I heard the strong, courageous person who took me in sobbing late into the night through the wall, is that betrayal?
    How does a photographer’s dislike of being photographed compare to a writer’s mortification at being interviewed?

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