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Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Qajar Gurning, Ugly Laws and the Censorship of Images

I really love this picture from the Qajar court (in Iran) showing members of the harem gurning for the camera. It was made in the 1880s by Doust Mohammad. Ingres it is not.

Doust Mohammad was the son-in-law on Nasir al Din Shah, who took a huge number of pictures to document the women in his court, women who are visually defined by their moustaches (often painted in) and monobrows that make Frida Kahlo look like a wannabe model from the 1990s.

There are many readings of why he did this; to further subjugate the women by having them eternally within his photographic gaze, or as proof of his virility. At times there were long gaps between chidren and his use of the camera may have been a way of proving, via the photographers the vast number of women in the harem, his virility.

There are multiple readings and multiple functions, but just because you operate a camera doesn't mean you have control of it. Pictures live beyond their making and the relationships contained in it. And beyond any of that, the pictures are full of life and provide hidden clues to life led that go beneath the surface of the images. They have a life and a soul in other words.

And they give a visual life to people who would not otherwise have one. Staci Gem Scheiwiller writes how a photograph of these women in the 19th century '...was able to transform one from being meaningless, one whose story could not be told, to one of a face etched in time.'

This individual look fed into political life Scheiweiller argues, creating a consciousness in which women's faces, bodies, emotions, lives were visible. But that changed and women became invisible, deliberately so. These women of the harem have personality and soul and that was a problem for a male society which sought a less vocal and visible feminine identity.

There's the idea here that simply by showing these faces, by having these photographs exist, by having representation they are making something a statement, they make what was invisible visible and that can (and did in 19th century Persia) lead to political change. You don't want women to be active, you don't show them. You don't show them, they don't matter, they cease to exist.

That idea of having people visible or invisible, of what people should look like and the moral failings of those who fall outside that look is also apparent in my last post of 2018, a post which looked at the Ugly Laws and how appearance and wealth are conflated with social usefulness and the provision of full citizenship (and there's definitely a link to Azoulay's idea of the flawed citizen here).

Photography can be very prescriptive about what we can and cannot show, it is quite astonishing how often ugliness is used as a pejorative term, is used at all, the idea that to photograph somebody respectfully one must not show their physical flaws. It's an idea that has embedded within it a very particular idea of how we should look. It has an almost moral idea of what should be shown, what should be seen. Very often this prescription comes dressed up in the language of ethics but really it is reactionary in the same way any censorship is reactionary. it is a kind of Ugly Law in its own right.

I favour a more open approach and enjoyed reading Frances Hatherley's thesis on recovering the grotesque, and celebrating the body in  photography. It's basically the idea that ideas of ugliness, feminine ugliness in particular are class based and the aesthetic judgements that we make (and the ethical conclusions we draw from those judgements) are part of a moralising hypocrisy based on control of minds, bodies and souls by institutions of power.

And by extension we as photographers very much direct that power in the judgements we make. We turn people who are full citizens in non-citizens. We deny their existence and we become our own censors. And aren't there enough censors in the world as it is

 Here's a snippet of hte intro and you can read more here

This thesis’ reclamation of negative stereotypical images of working-class femininity, described as grotesque, ugly and shameful, hinges on an argument that aesthetic as well as gender categories are classed constructs.
Designations of “ugliness” are not neutral. Ela Przybylo writes in “The Politics of Ugliness” (2010) that, ‘ugliness is political in at least two ways: it denotes and bookmarks inequalities and hierarchies, serving as a repository for all that is “other” in our culture and ugliness is a necessarily contingent and relational, it is never an individual concern but rather exists because bodies are compared to one another, and because they are evaluated in accordance to the “norm”’. (Przybylo 2010, p3).

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