Transgressive Photography

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For a while now, I have been trying to wrap my head around the idea of transgression in photography. How do I feel about it? I don’t know. There’s no clear answer. Just to make this clear, when I use the word transgression I mean it in a fully ethical sense. Some practitioners might consider the use of, for example, out-of-focus photographs transgressive. But that’s not what I’m interested in here. I’m interested in photographers stretching ethical boundaries or leaping beyond outright.

You would imagine that it would be simple to come to a conclusion concerning ethics violations. If you spend any amount of time on social media, there is no shortage of outrage and conclusions. I don’t mean to say that the outrage and conclusions aren’t valid per se. The rate at which they are being produced, the fact that vast parts of the internet have become an outrage machine, where someone is always offended by something and has to vent about it — I’ll admit I find that more than a bit tedious. But when something is ethically wrong in photography, we need to talk about it.

And yet…

Before I go on, I should probably make it clear that I’m not generally in favour of ethics violations. There are already so many in this world that adding more seems outright obscene. However, desperate times might ask for desperate measures, or maybe for measures that not just aim at making us outraged about other people’s problems, but that also make us uncomfortable.

It might be good to talk about something specific. There are plenty of topics that center on ethics violations. For example, a few years ago, I wrote about street photography and about the simple fact that these days, most people want to have a say in whether or not their picture can be taken, regardless of what a bunch of photo geeks familiar with their medium’s history think. In a sense, that was relatively easy for me to write because I couldn’t care less about street photography. I know where that type of photography was coming from, and for a while, it indeed was interesting. But it stopped being interesting something like thirty years ago.

I’m much more interested in portraiture. Portraiture is interesting for me, because I love looking at people’s faces (in principle anyway). Taking a portrait is really easy: all you have to do is to point your camera at someone’s face, and then you got a portrait. In all likelihood, unless you’re really talented and experienced, it’s going to be a lousy portrait. I’m writing this as someone who has taken a lot of lousy portraits, as someone who has looked at a lot of lousy portraits. It’s difficult to describe what it exactly is that makes a great portrait, but we usually know one when we see one (way before the street-ethics piece, I produced two articles about this very topic, asking a large number of people what made a great portrait. You can find the pieces here and here).

You probably want to ask your subject for permission if you want to take their portrait. But of course, you don’t have to. You could just photograph them, having a lot of what I wrote in my street-ethics article apply. You would then be in Philip-Lorca diCorcia territory: Heads. I think diCorcia’s photographs are fantastic. At the same time, I’m troubled by the ethics violation involved in their making. Coming back to where I started from, Heads is a very good body of work that I would describe as transgressive.

Even though I could see how someone might reject the work purely based on ethical considerations, I could never even remotely go there. I can live with the transgression, which, of course, is easy for me to do, given my rights weren’t violated. But I’m aware of that, and it bothers me: I don’t like the idea of dispensing with other people’s rights when mine aren’t at stake. This is where and why the idea of transgression has me interested, because it doesn’t allow me to come to easy conclusions.

In cases that deal with ethics, I usually apply the “how would I feel about this” test. How would I feel about seeing myself as one of those Heads? That’s a purely theoretical question, of course. But I’m certain that I would be flattered. The one thing that would certainly bother me, though, is fact that I would be unable to buy one of those pictures, because they’re so expensive.

The “how would I feel about this” test is good, but it has its shortcomings: if you place yourself into another person’s position, and you wouldn’t be too distressed about some transgression, you still want to remember that the other person might feel very differently. At the very least, though, the test provides a good starting point.

Let’s look at more examples. In this particular context, it’s very interesting to compare Martin Schoeller‘s Close Up portraits with Bruce Gilden‘s Faces. In more ways than one, it’s basically the same project, except that Schoeller photographed in a studio, to a large extent using assorted celebrities, while Gilden worked outside, basically relying on people whom you’d be very unlikely to find in Schoeller’s studio.

I think Schoeller’s Close Up portraits are unbelievably bland. They’re very competent pictures, but they’re basically magazine cover pictures (even the ones that never made it on any cover). As a viewer, you just know that those portrayed will feel not only very good, they’ll feel flattered. In contrast, while Schoeller’s pictures are incredibly flattering, Gilden’s are the complete opposite. On days when I wake up in a grumpy mood, I consider them cruel, done for an effect that those portrayed might not even be able to grasp (and the latter really is the ethics violation that gets me).

I really don’t like either project, and Gilden’s just ruffles my feathers a bit more because of its ethical defects. If I had to choose one to look at (let’s say, someone forced me to) I’d pick Gilden’s. I wouldn’t have to think long about that. Again, Gilden’s Faces are transgressive (while Schoeller’s are anything but), and it’s exactly that fact that somehow draws me to them. It makes me uncomfortable to look at them, for a large variety of reasons.

In discussions with students, the idea of collaboration in portraiture comes up a lot. I don’t subscribe to that idea. It might work for a variety of contexts. But if you want to make portraits for an art context, there can be no collaboration when the portrait is made (that’s already a bit transgressive, but not much). Another idea that often gets mentioned is that the photographer ought to make a respectful portrait or something to that effect. I don’t believe in that, either. If you want a respectful portrait, go to a Sears portrait studio. Why should a portrait be respectful? Art photography shouldn’t be merely a feel-good exercise.

OK, I get the idea why a portrait should be respectful, because of course you want to respect the person in front of you (to the extent that that’s possible: some people simply make it very hard to have any respect for them, let’s say when there’s a very racist, sexist person who holds a high office). But there is a difference between looking at a person in real life and in a photograph. A photograph is not real life any longer, even though it is taken from real life. A photograph is just a picture. Even though we are so wedded to the idea that a photograph ought to truthfully reflect a person (whatever that might actually mean), in reality that idea is really boring. It makes for boring pictures, and it doesn’t do anything that good art can do to us, namely to shake us up, in whatever way, or to move us.

Consequently, the making of a good portrait involves some aspect of transgression, of pushing beyond at least some boundaries, to get to a point where something interesting happens. The transgression is not done for its own sake — that can’t be (if it is, you’re just a jerk with a camera). It’s done to arrive at a higher truth. But the transgression also comes at a cost, a cost that can be quite steep, a cost that the viewer should feel.

I’ll be honest and admit that I have no idea of how to deal with the costs of photographic transgressions. I do think they’re necessary, lest we live in a very bland world that pretends everything is in order while every possible actual problem is simply being denied. At the same time, I have a very strong sense of justice, of believing in an ethical society. I feel incredibly guilty every time I take a picture of a stranger without asking, but I do it anyway (not all that often actually, usually my guilt wins over). I’m lucky enough that these pictures are all lousy enough that I never feel they should be seen.

But I also feel that in this day and age of constant social-media outrage, much of it performed for very valid reasons, things too often get too easy, too simple. In photography, there aren’t always simple solutions. Many of the best photographs we have seen have some form of transgression attached to them (not to mention the “all photography is exploitation” discussion). These transgressions weren’t done for the sake of it, and we don’t even necessarily have to sanction them. Still, to dismiss the photographs simply based on whether a transgression exists runs the risk of denying ourselves being exposed to some higher (or at least different) truth, a truth that might help us see more of not just the world but also of ourselves.