Voicing Women's Desire With a Camera: The Feminist and Activist Potential of Auto-Photography

Voicing Women's Desire With a Camera: The Feminist and Activist Potential of Auto-Photography

Evangeline Tsao
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 28
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4829-5.ch010
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Conventional theorization of Western visual culture characterized the female form as passive objects that cater to men's viewing pleasure. This raises the questions of how women might take control over their self-representation to communicate their subjective sexuality, and to reclaim visual narratives of their own desire. This chapter discusses the activist potential of auto-photography, a practice that involves self-imaging and self-analysis, for women to actively voice their understanding and experience of desire. Drawing upon practices in art and in an empirical project of ‘photographing desire', it argues that the method enables consciousness-raising, and the materials generated can counter dominant discourse and unveil the diverse, underrepresented women's desire, thus having the potential of empowering women.
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‘One might simplify by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’ [emphasis in the original] (Berger, 1972, p. 47).

Berger’s comments, based on a Western context in which images of female nudes – traditionally produced for male spectators – state the prevalence of how visual conventions shape men’s and women’s viewing and subjectivity. Berger argued that in the context of Western painting, a man is traditionally the owner and spectator of an objectified female nude. This theorization finds resonance with Mulvey’s (1975) conceptualization of the male gaze that the sexual imbalance in society divides visual pleasure into active/male and passive/female (p.11). Since a male spectator cannot bear to become an object of sexualisation, he identifies with the leading male character, projecting his gaze onto the male protagonist’s, viewing the woman as an erotic spectacle. Thus, as Mulvey’s influential essay argues, a woman is not only being looked at, but also being displayed as a sexual object. This unequal relationship, according to Berger, shapes the way in which a woman looks at herself: she inevitably scrutinizes herself from the perspective of the spectator – the man – and turns herself into an object.

The theories of the male gaze were developed in the 1970s. Since then, the social and political climates have changed, and others have explored how women are viewing subjects. Since the late twentieth century, male bodies have become more widely distributed to encourage consumption – and for consumption (Bordo, 1999). These changes in the social atmosphere seem to have given women an opportunity to gaze at men for their own viewing pleasure. Bordo (1999) vividly describes her experience in 1995 of seeing a sexually charged image of a male body in The New York Times for the first time, and her story suggests that she was an active female subject who gazed for her own desire. The sexually inviting images of male bodies indicate that people who are not heterosexual men were also given permission to be voyeurs (Bordo, 1999, p. 170). Bordo’s argument responds to Coward’s (1984) idea that photographs allow a woman to look, because they are removed from the occasion where it would be unacceptable to stare; hence, through photography, a woman is no longer just an object of the gaze but can ‘reclaim the visible world’ (Coward, 1984, p. 52). This raises the questions: how, by becoming an active photographer rather than sole appearance, a woman might take control over the representation and communication of her sexuality? What is the activist potential of photography for women to make visible their subjective desire that counters dominant portrayals of certain femininity and ‘female sexiness’, and to reclaim the visual stories of their sexuality?

These are the questions that underpin this chapter. Drawing upon empirical research on ‘women’s sexual desire’ with auto-photography as well as innovations from across different disciplines, the chapter aims to analyse how women’s active image-making and self-analysis have feminist and activist implications. It reflects upon how women using photography can demonstrate the complexity and multiplicity of their sexual agency, voicing the underrepresented meanings of their sexuality. My discussion focuses on the methodology of auto-photography, examining its three interconnected possibilities of how the practice raises awareness of the auto-photographers, challenges dominant representations and ideology of women’s sexuality, and reveals the diversity of women’s lived sexuality. To conclude, the chapter critically interrogates whether and how women, individually or collectively, can use auto-photography as a form of political activism in relation to the complexity of ‘empowerment’.

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