The Gaze and How It is Implemented in My Work

A large part of The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic (1991) talked about frontal portraits where the subject’s eyes make contact with the camera and therefore to a certain degree with the reader of the photograph. This was not relevant to much of my photography work including the documentary course as I tended to veer away from portraits – especially frontal ones. However, in Assignment 1 – Documentary I included a few frontal portraits and my tutor had highlighted the need for consistency where there were other people shots in the set where the person did not make eye contact. I now see why my tutor made this point because The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic (1991) made me realise just how different these two types of gazes by the subjects of the photograph can be for reader interpretation.

Later on in the essay it interested me where it mentioned if the readers gaze is interrupted (by disjointed composition or bad processing) then it is ‘more likely that the photographic gaze will be resisted by the reader.’ – (Collins and Lutz, 1991). This seemed to be related, like my tutor’s comments, to photographic consistency which was so important in ‘pulling the viewer (or ‘reader’) in to the photograph or set of photographs. Therefore I would endeavour to amend the series of photos for Assignment 1 where sometimes the subject made eye contact to instead either always having eye contact or none at all for the sakes of consistency. Also I would try to make sure the processing wasn’t over done which might also detract from the reader’s gaze into the image.

An aspect of the essay which was not particularly relevant for me was the comparisons and observations made about the non-Westerner’s and Westerner’s gazes. My work so far has been exclusively local-based and where I have lived is Western, therefore I could not associate with these gaze differences. However, I could see how this could be relevant to my practice: if I was photographing poorer or richer communities than myself then the subject’s gaze, the photographer’s (my own) gaze and the viewer’s gaze would be affected.

I have so far always edited and shot my own photographs; choosing the cropping, processing as well as where and how it appears in a sequence and with what, if any captions. Therefore I have had the luxury of being able to directly affect the reader’s gaze from the perspective of a magazine editor’s gaze and a photographer’s gaze. However, I learnt that despite affecting the reader’s gaze from both these perspectives, a lot of the photograph’s meaning was still down to the reader’s gaze. The reader’s gaze is about ‘what they imagine the world is about before the magazine arrives, what imagining the picture provokes, and what they remember afterwards of the story they make the picture tell’ – (Collins and Lutz, 1991). I imagined these points as the reader superimposing their own meaning over the intended meaning created by the photographer/editor. I myself have done this plenty of times when looking at artists’ photographs in exhibitions without looking at any captions or linking text first. This made me wonder whether I should look at embracing photography’s often inherent ambiguity rather than striving to make the meaning as legible as possible?


Collins, J. and Lutz, C. (1991). The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic. In. Wells, L. (2003). The Photography Reader. 1st ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 354-374.


On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography

As I read the first few lines about the Panopticon model conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1786, my imagination was immediately captured. The Panopticon was an architectural construction: a central tower is enclosed by a circular building whose cellular spaces are open on the inside and their occupants exposed to the unremitting gaze the tower affords.’ – (Green, 2005). It reminded me not only of Big Brother and to some degree modern surveillance but upon reflection and to a lesser degree photography. Just as modern surveillance like CCTV is for the most part invisible so are photographs. The Panopticon model/CCTV/photograph allows the viewer to see whatever is displayed (inside the Panopticon/relayed from the CCTV/through the photograph) but not the other way round. At least I wouldn’t think people in photographs could see out of them!

The Panopticon - Jeremy Bentham - 1786
The Panopticon – Jeremy Bentham – 1786

As I understood from reading Green’s text on Foucault’s essay Discipline and Punish (1975), this one-way visibility gives the viewer a certain degree of power. This would be for the reason that the ‘prisoner’ – the person inside not looking out – can’t see the watchman but the watchman can see the prisoner. Whether this new form of disciplinary power is good or bad is questionable. Green (2005) states that Foucault was aware of this when he wrote Discipline and Punish (1975): ‘power cannot be regarded only, as it often has been, as a negative force which makes itself known through the operations of repression, exclusion, limitation or censorship. Power must also be recognised in its positive forms when it enables the production of knowledge’ – (Green, 2005). I could see this was somewhat true with disciplinary power in the form of CCTV when the power afforded from these technologies is used to inform.

Relating this back to photography, especially pertinent with the prevalence of photographs nowadays, the viewer has instant access (via the internet and social media) to a multitude of images which is only increasing. The viewers of the photographs can see the people or objects inside the photographs but the reverse isn’t true. Therefore it seems plausible the viewer of the images has power over the images and how they view them whereas the people and object’s depicted in the images have little power once uploaded. However, if you were to follow this train of thought a little further, there is more power attributed indirectly from people depicted in images uploaded to the viewer than there at first might seem. The reason for this would be the people depicted in the images uploaded are often the people who took the picture (selfies!) or at least people close to them and they can have the option of controlling who sees them as well as interacting after the fact with viewers of the images. Green touches on this briefly at the end of On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography (2005) as a possible solution for the invasive properties of power: ‘But just as the forms of power are localised and specific so should be the forms of resistance. We must engage power at the points of its application and operation; that is, within the particular domains of knowledge and the particular institutions through which it is operative.’ – (Green, 2005). This correlates back to the power of social media photography, where the social media platform through which the photography is operative contains at least some resistance to its power through control of exposure of images and interactivity.

Another significant point in On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography (2005) was that photography is a very good medium for recording subtle variations in the people it photographs as a form of power: ‘But clearly involved here was not the discovery of pre-existing truths which the camera so meticulously revealed but the construction of new kinds of knowledge about the individual in terms of visible physiological features by which it is possible to measure and compare each individual to another.’ – (Green, 2005). The indexical properties the photograph possesses surely went a long way to establishing the photographs as ‘a form of empirical truth or evidence of the real’ – (Green, 2005) but it was through comparison of the details of the photographs that allowed the viewer to gain a form of power. Combined with ‘physiological measurement and written documentation’ – (Green, 2005), these photographs informed the viewer much more powerfully than they would have singularly or without written documentation.

The major thing I took away from reading about Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) through Green’s On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography (2005) essay was that the viewer in most cases gains much more power from photographs than the ones who are photographed and in this manner photographs could stand as the perfect modern-day Panopticon. However, as mentioned, there exist certain ways of at least reducing the overwhelming power afforded the viewer through looking at photographs. That is because the social media platforms photographs are often viewed on nowadays allow the people in the photographs a certain degree of control back themselves.


Foucault, M. and Sheridan, A. (1991). Discipline and Punish. 2nd ed. London: Penguin.

Green, D. (2005). On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography. In. The Camera Work Essays, pp. 119-131.