- to hit, kill, or wound
- to fire or let fly
- to put forth new growth, germinate
- to pour out, empty out, discharge
- to be felt moving or as if moving through the body
- to record, as with a photograph
Ex: Two women, poised to shoot.
Shoot contains a kind of violence, and photography, said Laurie Anderson, is “a kind of assault.”
Here is a tale of two photo series shot forty years apart. 1973’s Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), a photo-narrative by then New York-based experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson, and photographer Hannah Price’s incomplete series City of Brotherly Love from early 2013.
Fully Automated Nikon presents a collection of men—men in the streets, men in cars, men with their mouths open—as they catcall to Anderson during her pedestrian commute through Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Frustrated by a sense of vulnerability, Anderson initially snapped photographs of street harassers as a kind of counter-attack, a way to take back the power in an otherwise humiliating situation. But she pushes it a step further, whiting out their eyes and presenting the doctored photographs as a series in the context of this initial assault.
The whiteout is not a gesture of secured anonymity but stripped identity. It’s a visual representation of the power shift that took place the moment she became an active participant in the situation. These stripes both obscure the male gaze and criminalize the gazer, observes scholar Philip Nel in his 2002 book The Avant Garde and American Postmodernity.
“[She] puts herself at risk,” he writes. “Turning the tables on them did make some of them angry and could have provoked a violent response…part of [the work’s] success lies in Anderson’s willingness to take such risks.”
Anderson becomes a kind of vigilante, and the viewer, seeing these eyeless black-and-white figures, these anonymous offenders, cannot feel sympathy for them. Many of the subjects, caught by surprise, still wear the ghosts of provocation. But like their words, they have become bodiless ghosts, visible but transparent, powerless in reality. Initially subject to aggression, she assumes the role of aggressor.
“I realized photography is a kind of mugging,” she writes of the piece. “I was shooting…then stealing something.”
Laurie Anderson was shooting to kill. Not so with Hannah Price.
While the context and content of her encounters with each person is largely unspoken, Hannah Price’s work exists in the larger framework of the city, Philadelphia. In such, her photographs define her relationship to the city more than her relationship to these individual subjects.
These are not mug shots. These men, their eyes staring squarely through the frame, sometimes sad, sometimes intrigued, mostly unreadable, are not being criminalized. Price obtained verbal consent for most of the photographs, actually talking to these men, and said despite the mostly positive response, she respected their wishes if they declined.
When “Photographer Turns Lens on Men Who Cat-Call” started popping up in my newsfeed a few months ago, I eventually decided to investigate. I didn’t really want to though. My knee-jerk reaction was discomfort.
“Who is Hannah Price,” I muttered, “and why is she taking pictures of black men?”
It’s the kind of thing that gets the “It’s not always about race” look, and almost never from other Kids of Color. Now, I hate catcalling; I find it both invasive and derogatory. But then, like Price, I grew up in the ‘burbs. Orange County can’t exactly be called white suburbia—there are substantial Mexican, Korean and Vietnamese communities—but I went to a mostly white school, lived in a mostly white neighborhood, and hung out with my mostly white friends. My expectations about public behavior are mostly white.
I didn’t get catcalled very often. Sometimes walking to the library, or on the edge of my neighborhood near the tiny Catholic Church.
But my mom had stories. Santa Ana, where she and my dad both grew up, used to be more diverse, a pretty even split between blacks, whites, and Latinos. There was an air base nearby, and all the blacks—my mother’s family included, and later my father’s—were sequestered to four square miles between Bristol, Warner, Harbor and 17th Street. Between the two of them, my parents could name a couple of families on every block.
So everybody knew everybody one way or another. That still didn’t stop the whistles and solicitations. My mom described the walk through McFadden Park on her way to school as the worst instance of harassment in her life.
“I used to hate it,” she said. “Older guys—like seniors in high school—would hang out in the park in the morning on my way to school calling to us. I mean, I was ten or eleven.”
“What kind of things did they say?”
“‘Hey you, cute little girl. Where you going? Don’t run, don’t run!’”
When she got older, male strangers would often offer her and her friends a ride home from high school. She told me she got cussed out for not wanting to slow dance with a guy at a party. When she explained it was too intimate, he said you’re just a bitch who thinks she’s too good for anyone.
I’ve been called that before. Too Good.
City of Brotherly Love is often incorrectly reblogged as My Harassers, and gained internet fame exactly because of the vigilante angle, the promise of revenge for the humiliation and fear you feel just Commuting While Female. Yet, while initially crafted in response to both the discomfort of the situation and her frustrated feelings, Price isn’t assaulting anyone, not the way Anderson did.
“The nonportraits are more sort of how I envision a romantic encounter,” she told Kat Chow in an interview for NPR’s Code Switch. “I’m in the photograph, but I’m not. Just turning the photograph on them kind of gives them a feel of what it’s like to be in a vulnerable position – it’s just a different dynamic.”
Would Philip Nel consider Price on par with Laurie Anderson in terms of “risk?” While in both series the men are predominantly black and Latino, Anderson is white, while Price identifies herself as “African-Mexican-American.” Even if we update Anderson’s project, place it in 2013, the perception of danger both intrinsically, on the part of the artists, and extrinsically, on the part of the viewers, will likely differ. The sociocultural interaction between all parties is different. The power dynamic between all parties is different. A white woman getting in the face of Men of Color with a camera is going to look different, almost automatically, from a Woman of Color turning a negative interaction into a conversation (because that’s what she did) with these men, who are also mainly People of Color.
There is danger in being catcalled; when it happens, I feel unsettled, physically vulnerable. A chill goes right up the back of my spine, and I walk faster, I hurry to escape. Male sexual aggression toward women, especially from men of color who are historically portrayed as lustful aggressors and sexual deviants, is bright and familiar in the popular imagination. I would argue the visceral response to street harassment is largely a reaction to this legacy of male dominance over/violence against women. But I am also reacting to the breach of social contract, of societal “standards,” an assault against what puritanical, sex-negative Anglo-America considers acceptable behavior.
Not that catcalling is positive, or harmless, or justified. But my relationship to it, like Price’s, is different than if I’d grown up on the south side or far west side of Chicago, or if I’d been born and raised somewhere like Italy, where these actions are considered more as an annoyance than a threat. It’s not just sex differences; it’s class differences, it’s color differences, it’s culture differences.
Can we condemn the action—and the perpetrators—while forgiving the colonialism that set these dynamics in place? Can we blame these men as individuals, when as individuals they are not responsible for the cultural fetishization of the female body, of Whiteness, when they are not responsible for the insidious systems of patriarchy that give them power? Can we blame them, these men of color, like we blame them for so much else? And if I say, “It’s not their fault,” do I become a catcalling apologist? How do I forgive these men but damn the institution, when actually they are one in the same? How do I forgive them when I still leave my house at night feeling anxious and vulnerable, when I lower my eyes to avoid confrontation, when I’m the one with a rape whistle on a keychain? How do I forgive them? How can I?
Continue reading » the walking class, reprise
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.