The Queer Body as Commodity: An Ethical Manifesto.
queer (kwîr) adj. queer·er, queer·est:
1. Deviating from what is expected or normal; strange
The other body.
What makes a body othered? Is its otherness present in its form? Its aesthetic? Its sex? Its agency/employment? Its reception? Is it possible to free oneself or each other of our flesh via an engagement with the queer body?
As I continue to behave as documentarian within queer culture, I want to address my anxieties at the thieving of othered bodies from their natural environment for their reappropriation within my own practice. Below is an ethical manifesto of how two years of photographing and filming my surroundings will see the 'unveiling of the harem' of the othered, queered body addressed ethically and responsibly.
What is the agency of the queered body, now?
The queer body; or the queering of the body becomes more and more agent in a capitalist world in which the flesh has become the new currency; the exchanging of bodies, the body industry: we are all, in some way, seeking our pound of flesh. Tiqqun's figure of the 'Young Girl' in his Preliminary Materials For a Young-Girl is the token of exhange; of sex, of lust, of consumer. 'The Young-Girl is not always young and, increasingly, not even a girl. She is but the figure of total integration into a disintegrating social whole.' Here, the 'Young Girl' is the queered ‘Adult Male' (or 'Normal Human') and so stands in for the consumer and the consumed object of desire, lust, exchange.
In contemporary Western life; every body is queered or becomes queered at the hands of the beauty industry, and as the overwhelming circulation of pornography (thanks, internet) skews our sexuality it, too, becomes queered. Sexual technologies (pornography, sex toys, sex dolls, virtual reality fucking) and medical advancements enable us to queer our own bodies: we become queered ourselves in our bodies and in our sex.
The biopolitical has become paramount, and the exploitation/exoticism/fetishism of the 'othered' body must be considered with responsibility, ethics, and humility.
Four ways to avoid the exploitation of the queer body:
1. Photographs will only be taken with the subjects' permission.
When photographing/filming at events/in clubs, as I often do, permission will be asked before taking photographs, as well as a 'call out' to crowds when appropriate, to inform people I am with camera.
2. Photographs will only ever be displayed with the subjects permission.
In particular, when uploading images online, but also when using images in exhibition.
3. Unwanted photographs will be destroyed on the subject's behest.
Digital copies of all images taken will be sent to the model before using them.
4. Subjects will be encouraged to represent themselves within the images.
Giving 'control' of the images to the subject will not only lead to better photographs, but will also eradicate any chance of exploitation/mis-representation within the images. No pressure will be put on the subject to reveal their body, or body parts, without their total compliance. This is especially important with the trans body; not every subject will feel represented by their body parts, especially their genitalia: the trans* betrayal of the body.
The unveiling of the harem.
'Harem' eroticism is a concept of fetishised otherness explored in a more colonial sense through Edward Said's Orientalism and Flaubert's encounter with Kuchuk Hanem. Eastern concubines had a huge popularity among Western men in colonial times, and like Flaubert, many artists and writers felt inspired to share their experiences with the harem of the East in an effort to reveal them to a Western audience; to unveil them (my choice of language here is no coincidence, as the veil is typical of much traditional Eastern clothing.) In his 1981 book Le Harem Colonial, Malek Alloula compiled an archive of colonial erotic postcards of Algerian women from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their image was a physical evidence of something seductive and sensual: a trophy. A proof that the 'sender' had met this woman, known this woman, and the implication being that he had been with this woman also. Alloula attempts to confront these circulators of oriental imagery with their own distasteful act, thus highlighting the individual parts played in a wholly unpleasant picture through the collection and presentation of these images in their archival entirety.
This model of confronting the perpetrator with their own images of prejudice, 'returning the postcard', is present in the fetishism of the queer body. Abjection/curiosity/lustfulness all bleed into one as the predating gaze attempts to seize the otherness as commodity. The queer body becomes commodified as a site of ridicule, disgust/abjection, and fetishism (evident with the enormous popularity of 'Shemales' on mainstream porn sites).
Two ways to avoid fetishism of the queer body:
1. Images will not be used as pornography.
Although my work is almost entirely nudes, and almost always sexualised, the fetishism of the queer body via circulation on pornography sites is an extension of the exploitation I am trying to avoid.
2. 'Classical' tropes of beauty/the nude will be employed within images of less classical subjects to highlight the beauty of the 'othered body', while avoiding overly-sexualised imagery.
Composition, lighting, and pose will be classical, and aesthetically beautiful.
The canon of the nude.
The canon of the nude must be widened to allow for every nude of every body, as this canon has long been exclusive, elitist, and exploitative. The history of the muse has so often catered to the Male Gaze; being the object of visual desire, available for the leering and lusts of countless strangers. Mary 'Slasher' Richardson comes to mind: the woefully misguided 'Suffragette' (they later denounced her) who took an axe to Velazquez's Rockeby Venus as, according to an interview in 1952, she didn't like "the way men visitors gaped at it all day long". Unnoticed by Richardson, apparently, was the holding of the onlooker's gaze by Venus, in the reflection of her mirror. The nude does not look away modestly, but instead challenges the predating, penetrative (in both senses of the word) stare of audiences.
One way to avoid the exploitation of the nude:
1. The subjects’ gaze must be directed.
Either by holding eye contact with the artist, and therefore viewer; by holding eye contact with themselves (in mirror shots, for example); or by holding eye contact with fellow subjects within the image. The subject might look away only when their gaze is directed elsewhere, with purpose, at something.
The artist/muse relationship.
One can consider the fetishism of the queer body in mainstream culture as sex trafficking; a prostitution akin to that of the artist/muse relationship (as historically, many artist models were prostitutes). The 'artist' position, for me, is actually more of that of a documentarian. Documenting a community, making an image anecdotal, this is more important than fabricating an idea of a subculture for myself (and thank you Nan Goldin, Loren Cameron, Grace de Volcano, and Rhys Ernst & Zachary Drust for paving the way).
Three ways to avoid the exploitation of the artist’s position:
1. Only myself, my friends, acquaintances, and sexual partners will be used as models.
When photographing subjects you have a real life connection with, there is already a trust established. This not only makes for better photographs, but eradicates the chance of exploiting the subject.
2. Digital copies of all images will be sent to the subject, as well as gifting the subject‟s favourite image as a print.
This will increase the subject‟s feeling of control over their own image.
3. Subjects will be photographed in their own surroundings: the sexuality/ownership of a space becomes very important.
Subjects will not be dragged into an unfamiliar, studio environment.