What Can a Woman do with a Camera? Photography for Women, edited by Jo Spence and Joan Solomon, is a a collection of photo essays written by women. The whole book is a reflection on how we, women, see ourselves represented in media images and how we would represent ourselves if given the chance. It’s a breakdown of social constructs and a huge rejection of traditional photographic aesthetics and beauty standards.
“In taking the simplest photograph we are choosing what to photograph and, just as importantly, we are deciding what to leave out,” writes Solomon in the introduction of the book. I feel this is incredibly relevant nowadays: this book was originally published in 1995, when photography wasn’t nearly as accessible or shareable as it is now. In a world where sharing moments, special or otherwise, on social media is so pervasive (and sometimes even necessary) we are constantly choosing what to frame within our lens and what to leave out. Even after photos are taken, we edit them and pick the best ones.
This book had me thinking about the value of accessible photography and the power of self-representation. If I take a selfie to feel better about the way I look, is it a subversive act of self-love in a world where women are told to hate themselves? Or is it only subversive if I am okay with my flaws, my under eye circles, my bushy eyebrows and my hairy upper lip? Is self-representation whatever we want it to be or is it however people interpret when they see us?
These are all difficult questions to answer but I was particularly fascinated with the thought of what we leave out of photographs and why we leave those things out. So, to practice what Spence and Solomon wrote about I experimented with taking photos I wouldn’t normally take for a day and here’s the curious result. I hope you enjoy a sneak peek into my personal life.
I didn’t really know where to start or what to photograph at all – especially because, despite having a pretty nice camera, I really suck at the technical side of photography (aperture? what? I have no idea) – so I started thinking about the things I wouldn’t photograph at all. My room has been very messy lately because I’ve been applying for PhD programs and trying to keep on top of my MA workload so I haven’t had loads of time to tidy it. Here are a couple of snaps of my messy, out-of-control room:
I didn’t bother to hide anything about what my room looked at that particular time. You can clearly see books, a bra, a Gryffindor scarf, my untidy bed and even a suitcase in the backgroun of the first photo (which, by the way, I still haven’t had the time to unpack). I have always associated femininity with cleanliness and tidiness, but actually expressing femininity through cleanliness and tidiness is very difficult when life gets in the way. Am I embarrassed by this mess? A little, but then I realise I am very good at organising my academic and professional lives and I try to convince myself that at least I have my priorities in order.
Now, a bit of reflection on body hate. I try to do 30 minutes of yoga every morning but it usually doesn’t work out that way. I am seriously horrible at waking up early and getting out of bed. But I try to be healthy and get my dose of exercise because it makes my body and mind feel better. I don’t exactly exercise to lose weight or tone up, but I still hate bits of my body. I wouldn’t normally take this photo, but it is a part of my day: the unflattering sweatpants coupled with a sports bra are my yoga uniform. I took one of my brightest lipsticks to draw around my belly, which I have loathed since I can remember. But still, I kept my greasy hair out of the frame and I really struggled with actually uploading this photo.
Seeing this photo now, I realise I don’t have much reason for this hatred of myself. But every time I look down to my stomach, I hate the way it looks. I don’t hate the way it looks in the photo, but I hate the way it looks on my body, which I find really interesting and somewhat contradictory.
As I brushed my freshly washed hair that morning, I realised how much hair stuff I actually own to take care of my curls (and how horribly messy that drawer of my life is). Several wide-toothed combs, two huge pots of coconut oil, a huge hairbrush, a hair dryer, a hair straightener and some hair clips. A whole messy drawer dedicated to my messy hair. I tried to get my curls into frame as I bent over the drawer to take a photo.
I am always interested to see the view from people’s windows. I think a lot of the time, the first thing you see in the morning can set the tone for your mood. Here’s the view from my window on a particularly sunny day (a rare occurrence in the United Kingdom) where I was actually feeling quite positive about life. Maybe this is a photo I would take any day, but having a “quite positive day” for me is unusual because I have generalized anxiety disorder. So even though this photo doesn’t fully match the main theme, I really wanted to include it (sorry, not sorry).
This next selfie has several layers of meaning to me. Firstly, I wanted to show off my “One and Only Newcastle Brown Ale” T-shirt because I had just stolen it from my boyfriend the previous day. This T-shirt is oversized and comforting to me, especially because it really belongs to someone I love, who let me take it because he trusts me. Then, there’s the fact that I wouldn’t normally post this photo on social media: my hair is wet, I’m pretty sure I am not wearing a bra and the shape of the T-shirt is very unflattering. But that’s the point of this mini-project: what wouldn’t I show you and why the hell not?
And this was my practical use of the book What Can a Woman do with a Camera? Photography for Women. Has a book ever inspired you to complete a mini-project?