In the eye of the beholder

As photographers we all make images, (duh.) By making and sharing those images, we also shape how others perceive the subjects that we photograph. I was thinking about this over the last few months as I was traveling in the U.S.A and around Asia, (where I am writing from.) While I was in New York City, particularly Times Square, I crystallized my ideas into this blog entry. I am starting to understand (and worry about) the ongoing cycle of how images become part of our perception, which further shapes the next imagery, which shapes the subsequent perception.

(First, throw out any connection that popped into your mind about the idea of “image is everything.” That was bad tag line from a series of Canon ads and that is not what I am talking about. ) I am talking specifically about images/definitions of female beauty. While it has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, my travels around Asia have reminded me that beauty is also in the context of the local culture.

One reason I am writing only about female beauty is that media imagery revolving around definitions of beauty (across cultures and classes,) disproportionately involves women. Also, if you travel anywhere in the third world, you know that trousers and shirts have displaced local clothing among men in much of the world. I have seen exceptions, such as Guatemalan men in traditional shorts in the highlands and South Indian men wearing wraps. Still, most photographers know (often subconsciously,) that in most of the world women’s dress is much more likely to reflect local culture than men’s. In my recent travels, I encountered this over and over. Ironically, it took a walk through New York City’s Fashion District and Times Square, with those giant screens and building-sized images, to put all of my seemingly disparate thoughts and experiences together.

When I was in Vietnam I noted how Vietnamese women go out of their way NOT to get any kind of suntan. The lengths they will go to are amazing. On what I thought were burning hot days, they were wearing long sleeves, cotton face masks and sunglasses to make sure they did not lose their lily white complexions. Darker skin is clearly disdained in the Vietnamese woman’s definition of beauty. This is doubly ironic from an American perspective since a sun tan, in Western cultures, is considered “appealing.”

The Vietnamese ideal of beauty does not look down on the stereotypically thin Asian female figure. However, the Indian idea of beauty does! Yes, Indian women are concerned about having fairer skin, lest they be confused with field workers who spend their days in the sun. But they are more are concerned with having fuller, rounder figures. Such a curvaceous body shape is perceived as more beautiful, mimicking classic Indian (largely Hindu) imagery. The same shape also tells others that the woman with that rounder shape is relatively wealthy, since only poor women are rail thin, lacking enough food to have such a rounder body.

Also in Vietnam, as we were warned, there is vast difference in how women dress in the north vs. the south. In Hanoi many women wore the traditional outfit, Ao Dai, a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pants. In the Ho Chi Minh City (which the locals still call Sai Gon,) it was almost impossible to find a woman wearing that same garb. Most women in the south wore very western clothing in the form of more Western pants and a shirt.

In the Middle East, particularly in traditional Islamic cultures, a woman’s head, hair and neck is perceived as the most attractive part of her, which is often covered by either the Hijab or the Niqaab, traditional coverings. By comparison, that same neck is largely exposed for the world to see in Indian culture, where even the most traditional Indian Sari-clad woman will show her neck. The Sari also clearly exposes a woman’s midriff in a way that would be frowned upon in many other cultures.

As photographers, we thrive on photographing these wide ranging, culturally defined differences. The problem is that photography is also increasingly being used, consciously and unconsciously, to blur the lines between the various definitions of beauty. Fashion imagery is the most obvious example, where women across the globe are presented with an ever-narrowing definition of beauty. Media imagery in general, outside of the fashion world, be it in movies, celebrity portraits, web pages, etc., similarly portray a kind mono-market in beauty. The good news is that faces from across the ethnic spectrum are increasingly common. The bad news is that they are all starting to look alike. This becomes obvious during a walk through New York City’s Fashion District and Times Square, where one is inundated with all sorts of imagery, including but not limited to fashion photos. Such a tour shows that a global mono-market is on the rise, benefiting the fashion houses and media companies, which can sell their products without worrying about ever more blurred lines of difference between local culture.

Through the latest digital imaging technology, photographers are again contributing to this. New software programs for portrait photographers known as “portrait enhancement software” feature skin auto retouching. Portrait Professional Studio 9, is just one, which they describe as “the world’s first intelligent retouching software trained in human beauty.” If you look at their advertising, you will typically see images (all of women) with less than picture perfect skin. The promotional material suggest that with a few clicks the photographers can quickly (and easily) give the subject perfect skin. Simple before and after portraits show what their incredibly advanced soft ware can do. What is does not do is address the question of why are we collectively obsessed with such narrow definitions of beauty? The advertisement that I saw for Portrait Professional Studio 9 actually said: “No skill required.” I do not mean to pick on them since they are not the only company developing this technology by any means.

One of the newer things I noticed in traveling to India is how their definition of beauty has started to cross gender lines. The same skin lightening cream that has been pushed on Indian women for generations is now being repackaged and targeted at Indian men. They, like their female counterparts are increasingly aspiring to fairer (read whiter) skin.

Yes, there are individuals, media imaging outliers and fashion houses that push local culture and varying definitions of beauty, but they are the exception that proves the rule. These exceptions are in some way, the only hope for keeping a diversity of definitions of beauty. The better ones have realized that the only way to stand out in an ever more competitive market is to move beyond the homogeneity and focus on what makes them distinctive. (It is lesson that photographers should learn! As I have blogged about before, digital technology is similarly homogenizing much of the business of photography as well and differentiation is the key to survival.)

I am able to say that in one sense that I have actually not made much of a direct contribution to this process of homogenizing definitions of beauty. Not that I have not tried to do work in photographic genres that shape people’s perception of popular culture. I have and I failed. I have worked around enough celebrity, fashion and food photographers to know that I am not one. My few attempts at fashion work ended up looking stiff and lifeless on the newspaper pages, decades back. My one attempt at styling for food photography resulted in an Italian flag made of red, white and green pasta, which looked unappetizing in the studio and nauseating on the printed page.

Still, I teach plenty of photography workshops, nurturing future practitioners who will contribute to this process, so I am hardly blameless. Besides, if I were any good at food, fashion or any other similar genre of photography, I am sure I would be as active as I could in making images (and thus shaping perceptions.)

This blurring of definitions of beauty is not a new phenomenon. What is new, to me, is the chicken vs. egg nature of the problem for photographers. As photographers, we are both partial change agents and clear losers in this process. The most compelling fashion imagery sells an ever narrowing aesthetic that is spreading across the globe. As that happens, the diverse examples of beauty that we thrive on as photographers, that diversity will gradually narrow. One day, everyone in the world will look the same (or be in the process of trying to have that one look.) We will be among the people to blame for it happening. At the same moment we will be among the biggest losers. We will know longer have any different subject matter for making make new images. In this case, the comic character Pogo really had it right when he said: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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