This is not art

by Danielle Spires

“THIS IS NOT ART!” Those words echoed through my head while I watched my portraiture professor hold up my photograph. Mortified and seething with anger, I asked the professor to expound, and his reply was less than satisfying: “This is not how you portray the nude female body.” My professor then explained that I was objectifying the model, instead of showing her true beauty. The next day I was called into the Dean’s office to defend my art. The photograph in question was a black and white photo of a young woman, lounging semi-nude by a static-filled television while she smoked a cigarette. To me, it was purely an aesthetic choice based on what her apartment looked like, and I asked her to pose however she felt comfortable. But there I was, the tough little feminist, never leaving home without my well-worn copy of Inga Muscio’s Cunt, a book that explores traditional feminist issues and encourages women to reclaim female pejorative words, only to be told that I was doing feminism wrong! Come to find out later, this would lead to a game-changing realization for me.

I call myself a feminist photographer because I can’t imagine a world where I personally contribute to the degradation and subjugation of women with the click of a shutter. I also considered myself a feminist photographer sixteen years ago when that photograph offended my professor. I suspect he took issue with the slight and awkward spread in the model’s legs and the cigarette she coquettishly held in her mouth. The photo could’ve easily been perceived as voyeuristic and composed for a male viewer. As I defended myself to the Dean, I explained that this photograph was not taken with the male gaze in mind - I just wanted to portray badass women being comfortable with their bodies. I showed him examples of feminist art, gave him my copy of Natacha Merritt’s Digital Diaries, a book of graphic and intimate self-portraits by Merritt that focused on her desires, with no fear or shame of her body or sexuality. I’ve always rebelled against gender roles and fought against sexualized gender constraints such as the virgin/whore dichotomy, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming, and I wanted my work to reflect that feminism doesn’t chaste women. The Dean accepted my reasoning, told my professor to lay off me, and allowed me to graduate with a fine art portfolio I was quite proud of.

At the time, I was offended that an art school professor was hassling me for what I thought was my freedom of expression. Throughout the years, I’ve thought back on that experience and how my viewpoint has changed. While I understand art is subjective, I do think I had my model engage in the typical societal role prescribed for women, putting her on display for the viewer and essentially taking away her power. Then I came to the root of the problem. Women are typically exposed to media that is constructed for male viewership. Movies and television are rooted in patriarchal philosophy, creating a world of abhorrent (yet mainstream) violence against women and/or delegating them as young sexy sidekicks. The passive position of ‘being viewed’ is the expected role of the woman, and retraining myself to create content beyond male voyeurism, beyond the male gaze, was of great importance to me. I wanted the models to be active participants in the shoot, to make decisions, to dictate their own boundaries, and to communicate that to the viewer. I felt this would equalize the disparate gender dynamic, taking power away from the photographer and the viewer and giving it to the person being photographed. Women can and should be proud of their sexuality, and I actively try to portray them in a way that shows they are the ones driving the ship.

Photography needs feminism. Natalie Dybisz from Photo Boite describes photography as “a male-dominated arena, where the ‘looking’ is a masculine act, and the subject is feminine, playing the role of ‘looked-at’ and admired mainly for their outward appearance. Photography, then, has been a mirror for conventional gender roles in western society.” Our community needs less Terry Richardsons and more Brooke Shadens. The ACLU has recently stepped in and demanded that the film industry start hiring more women. According to the NY Times, “Women directors aren’t working on an even playing field and aren’t getting a fair opportunity to succeed,” said Melissa Goodman, director of the L.G.B.T., Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the A.C.L.U. of Southern California.” The photography world should be no different. In addition to archaic hiring practices, women photographers make drastically less than their male counterparts. The National Endowment for the Arts released a study that showed male photographers typically earn an annual salary of $35,500 while women photographers make an unlivable $16,300. So, why, when women make up almost 43% of the professional photography workforce, are they making half as much?

Male entitlement in the photography community is rampant, and I don’t blame models that are wary of male photographers. I’ve worked with and modeled for male photographers who have crossed boundaries with me creatively and physically. These are the same photographers that love to ask me “how I get my models naked.” I suggest they speak to the models like human beings and simply ask. Roxane Gay wrote in Bad Feminist that her favorite definition of feminism comes from a woman interviewed by Kathy Bail, editor of DIY Feminism, who said "women who don't want to be treated like shit." This is why the world needs feminism, why art needs feminism, and simply enough, why photography needs feminism.

While I’m not a perfect feminist, I am forever committed to the issues surrounding women today. I’m somewhere between an intersectional feminist and pro-sex feminist. My art is overtly sexual, which can be argued as contributing to the patriarchal male gaze, but I’d counter that the photos are focused on beautiful, tough, and powerful women who feel in control of their own sexuality, something that has generally long been dictated by men. Women and photography are the reason I’m so passionate about art. I want to create a world where women feel as comfortable on camera as they are off. I want them to love their bodies. I want them to guide and direct the shoot, and to love the outcome. I want to create photo series based on ideas close to my heart, and I want the photos to mean something to the model. I want to shoot beyond self-interest. I want to see photography evolve into a level playing field, and I am excited to be a part of that evolution.