Writing on photography

Unforeseen Consequences

Writing about photography, and in particular writing in detail about individual photographs, it’s sometimes easy to feel that you might be over reading an image, and perhaps reading things into it which few others will recognise or feel. And yet the more time I spend involved with photography the more I think that only real difference between an avowed semiotician and a casual viewer is that the former is just more actively aware of the ways that images work on them. Without believing that the meaning of photographs is in any sense universal, or that images constitute a universal language (they do not) they do act on many of us in broadly similar ways. In recent posts I’ve also been going on about the idea that visual angles are deeply related to the ideological angles of the images they create. Where you choose to stand when you photograph something or someone, and how you position that subject or allow them to position themselves are completely tied in to the way the resulting image will be read and understood, whether that understanding is conscious or not. This matters, because whether you work in an interventionist, staged sort of way with subjects or whether you simply snap photographs when you see the world converging in ways which you find aesthetically pleasing, those arrangements will always be searched and read for the meanings that they are perceived to carry.

I think both ideas are relevant in discussing an online backlash directed against a cover for Time Magazine photographed by Lynsey Addario. The cover features Ayak, a Sudanese woman nine months pregnant as a result of rape during the conflict, and illustrates an article about the same subject. A number of people have argued the image is exploitative of the subject, overly sexualising and plays to some of the orientalist tendencies well known to anyone who has studied traditions of western art and photography in the context and service of colonialism. Others have made the point that the subject would have likely got a much more nuanced treatment if the focus hadn’t been on rape in Africa. To me the cover image is a strange mixture of rather mixed messages, on the one hand showing a woman who appears poised and defiant despite the trauma that has been inflicted on her, but on the other hand showing a subject who is subjected to a western gaze in a way which lacks the sense of parity (even in the simple sense of gazing back) which one might more and more expect to see in contemporary documentary or journalistic photography. In a text accompanying the story Addario tells how she explained what she wanted to do with Ayak, involving her in the process of constructing the image. ‘I went over the guidelines with Ayak – in terms of how she felt about being photographed, given that her image would be seen by thousands around the world’. Addario further writes that ‘I contemplated possible additional photographs in my head as I fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning, I knew I wanted Ayak’s photograph to speak to the consequences of rape as a weapon of war. The most natural way for me to do this was to focus on her belly.’

The involvement of a subject in the process of creating a portrait is an important check on the photographer’s immense power, particularly in situations where gender, economics, geography, or any number of other things create an even more imbalanced power relationship between photographer and subject. Clearly though this way of working is only effective in so far as the subject feels able to challenge the photographer over things that they do not like. It is also complicated again by the assumption that photographs mean the same to all people, and that what a subject recognises and reads in an image is the same messages that an audience thousands of miles away in a different culture will take away from it. For me, Addario’s mention of falling asleep while thinking of ‘additional photographs’ is interesting as a reminder that a final photograph is always one of many other possibilities. Of the photographs that were taken as part of the same assignment there are others which I would say speak to the same issue of the use of rape as a weapon of war but do it in a way which is perhaps less sensational and sexualised (perhaps partly why those images didn’t make it to the cover). This photograph for example, is in some respects extremely similar but with some subtle differences which I would say defuse some of the tensions created by the cover image, most notably that Ayak is wearing a bra, whereas she isn’t in the cover image. It’s a difference which might seem utterly minor, but which to me seems unavoidably significant for the way most people will read the image. It’s interesting for a minute to think about what the bra, as a product of a particular moment in western history, might symbolise when transplanted to an African context, or more specifically when it is removed from that context, what that absence might symbolise in light of historical depictions of African and ‘oriental’ women.

The other sense in which Addario thinking about ‘additional photographs’ is important is because it also begs a viewer to think about the other ways that this scene might have been photographed, in other words encouraging the viewer to transplant themselves into the position of the photographer, something which is more and more feasible in an age when ‘we are all photographers’. If you do a quick google search for ‘pregnant woman’ (as opposed to ‘pregnancy’ which mostly returns very anonymised imagery) it is quite interesting to see how the results contrast with Addario’s photograph in some of the ways I have already outlined. As a professional doing a job I’m sure Addario wanted to create something more memorable than a stock pregnancy photograph, but herein also lies a tension I often see between the need of the photographer to perform and demonstrate their abilities, versus the subject’s ideas and desires about how they are represented. To raise and discuss these issues is not to necessarily second guess or judge Addario, rather to use her case as an example of some pertinent points. In my brief experience as a teacher it’s already been notable how often she is referenced as an influence by young (particularly female) photographers. This is homage which is well deserved, but which needless to say also brings with it great responsibility. The great challenge of taking photographs of important things and putting them out into the world is that as well as being responsible for the photographs we consciously create and the readings and messages we design these images to transmit, we are also bear an almost impossible responsibility for the readings of our images which we have not anticipated, and which may bring with them consequences which are as unintended and unwanted, as they are unforeseen.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • Two remarks. One: nobody seems to be talking about the obvious references to the Demi Moore’s cover on Vanity Fair (occasionally repeated, but never quite as punchy). Two: I find it interesting that you caption the photo with the name of the photographer but not the name of the subject. I don’t know what, if anything, that means, but it seems to be worth pointing out.

    • Hi Andrew,
      1) Benjamin Chesterton and perhaps others drew that comparison on Twitter (after this post was published). I think it is an interesting one to make.
      2) More out of convention than anything else.

  • I wonder if there is a frame where she is looking directly at the camera. A very different kind of picture?

Writing on photography