Wakiesha Titus and Riley Van Harte, Cape Town, South Africa, 2018 from the series Drummies by Alice Mann © Alice Mann (£15,000 First Prize) (all images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize calls itself “the leading international competition, open to all, which celebrates and promotes the very best in contemporary portrait photography from around the world.” The first prize winner is awarded £15,000 (~$20,000), and an exhibition of 50-plus winners goes up at the UK’s National Portrait Gallery each year. The globally heralded competition rewards the work of photographers — both amateur and professional — best capturing the world’s most intimate moments and enthralling scenes. But, according to who?

John Edwin Mason, a professor of African history and the history of photography with an expertise in the legacy of Gordon Parks, took to Twitter to express the ways the prize, and the demographics of its winners, speak to photography’s greater shortcomings.

“So, let me get this straight … ” he wrote. “All four prize winners in this year’s Taylor Wessing competition are portraits of black or brown people made by white photographers. That’s fucked up.”

Untitled from the series Londoners by Max Barstow 2017 © Max Barstow( £2,000 Joint Third Prize)

One of his tweets reads: “White people like to look at photos of black people. No question. There’s a seemingly insatiable demand photos of black folks. Part of the reason is that photos give us permission to stare.”

Twitter user Melissa Lyttle also pointed out the prize’s history, noting 2017’s two grand prize winners showcased the same demographics.

Mason and I discussed the Taylor Wessing prize and its position in a larger, troubling legacy of photography’s ogling of nonwhite bodies. He explained, “[The prize] has become a high profile and particularly egregious example of problems that fester within the photo industry and the art world.” Regarding the systemic exploitation of Black bodies in photography, Mason offered, “These images create false knowledge about backwardness, barbarity, or sensuality of their subjects and continue to be part and parcel of the visual culture of white supremacy.”

“One of the purposes of art is to allow us, encourage us, and provokes us to see the world with new eyes. Here, the Taylor Wessing portraits of black and brown people fail,” he shared.

The Wessing prize winners serve as a more innocuous example than more egregious pattern within the medium. Susan Sontag’s 2003 essay, “Regarding the Pain of Others” explores the ways in which photographers are limited by an inability (or limited ability) to capture experiences they themselves have not lived. 

Steve McCurry’s 1984 portrait, “Afghan Girl,” which is arguably one of the world’s most recognizable photograph, serves as a more conspicuous case. The National Geographic cover shot has circulated for over three decades in spite of accusations against McCurry of exploiting and stereotyping non-Western people throughout his career, particularly poor communities in South Asia.

Perhaps the most egregious available example is South African photojournalist Kevin Carter’s 1993 photograph, “Struggling Girl,” in which Carter captured a lurking vulture over the body of a malnourished child during a famine in Sudan. According to Time magazine, having been advised not to touch the children, Carter waited for 20 minutes in hopes the vulture would spread its wing over the child’s weary body — the money shot — becoming a vulture himself. The creature did not act, and eventually, Carter scared the bird away and wept. The New York Times ran the photo with a criticism of his inaction, and the image was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Not long after, Carter tragically took his own life, writing, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain.” The photograph’s controversial history was the focus of Alfredo Jaar’s Shadows exhibition at Galerie Lelong in 2015.

Shots of this nature — those which give white viewers the ability to gaze without action — circulate widely, and popularly. But whom are they for, and what do they accomplish?

Portrait of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart from the series Tombo’s Wound by Joey Lawrence 2017 © Joey Lawrence (£2,000 Joint Third Prize)

Past Taylor Wessing winners, Mason says, “cast [Black and brown people] as passive receptors of the white gaze — objects of fascination, curiosity, or concern. They don’t take white viewers out of their comfort zones. They neither ask nor demand that viewers see black and brown people in new ways. They don’t encourage or require viewers to think anew.”

He says few photographers of color have received the prize. Mason mentions the success of Carrie Mae Weems, Zanele Muholi, and Deana Lawson — Black female photographers who dominate the photography industry with their depictions of Black life — but speculates the work of these women would not be capable of nabbing the prestigious accolade.

He affirms that though the images are by no means inherently racist, they make no effort to operate in the effort of anti-racism.

Cybil McAddy with daughter Lulu from the series Clapton Blossom by Enda Bowe 2018 © Enda Bowe (£3,000 Second Prize)

“I’m by no means saying that white photographers can’t make portraits that challenge the white supremacist gaze. Some have and some do,” he said. “But photographers of color, by and large, are more likely to make images that subvert the white gaze. They do it by creating images that are rooted in the particular historical experiences of black and brown peoples. They create, that is, new ways of seeing and of knowing.”

One commenter argued that one of the 2018 jury members was a woman of African descent. To this, Mason told Hyperallergic, “Institutions and cultures are stronger than any individual. After all, Obama’s election didn’t signal the birth of a non-racial America.”

Jasmine Weber is an artist, writer, and former news editor at Hyperallergic. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

12 replies on “Discerning Photography’s White Gaze”

  1. Anyone outside the rarefied hothouse atmosphere of academic progressive politics can recognize these charges as shallow and self-defeating.
    White artists aren’t allowed to depict people of color unless they somehow “operate in the effort of anti-racism” according to Mason? Yet apparently none of the examples shown do so to Mason’s satisfaction, even though the power of a good photographic portrait is to push past stereotypes and reveal the individual. The winning entries that Weber includes appear, to my eye, to pass this test easily.
    This type of cencoriousness creates a space in which all artists must stay within their assigned categories for subject matter or risk possibly career-destroying public shaming.
    The Revolution is truly eating it’s own.

    1. Insofar as i’m a white woman who paints people of ALL colours and resents being challenged on ‘cultural’ appropriation when i defend the rights of fellow woman painter Dana Schultz to paint Emmett Till without having to ask POC for their permission, I still think there’s a point to be made about the active ‘white’ gaze on the passive brown receiver of that same gaze.

      Something very familiar to half of the gendered world. (Women, in case you didn’t get it.)

  2. I would like it if the article provided examples of the sorts of.images he thinks do a better job. It would be helpful to see the contrast and his analysis of the preferred photos, and it would also showcase those.photographers fpr the world to see. Would you please write a Part 2 of this article, with the above.information?

    1. The headline leads us to believe that this would be an analysis of how the “white gaze” is different from any other “gaze”. Rather than censor artists, which is always a losing and dangerous task, I wish the community of curators would step up and explore the issue.

  3. I’m sorry, but this is going to be a long rant here. This is a ridiculous article. As usual, someone is crying “racist” about something that is NOT racist in the least. So, what, white photographers are not allowed to take photos of anyone who is not white, unless they operate through the specific lens of “anti-racism?” What does that even mean? Why should they be forced to do this? So should all black photographers use this same lens when taking pictures of Asian people? Should all Asian photographers follow this same rule when taking pictures of Latino peoples?

    That is an EXTREMELY dangerous, narrow, and limiting viewpoint. As artists, photographers should be able to take pictures of anything they like, within the limits of decency and national security of course. Photographers, like all artists, should be allowed to operate with a certain amount of artistic license, which is related to their freedom of expression. If we suddenly force photographers and others to operate in only a certain, limited way, we are stepping on their rights and freedoms. If a photographer sees a subject that he or she finds interesting or powerful, he or she should be able to just snap a picture of it without having to worry about whether the photo will be scrutinized under a some set of politically-motivated rules.

    The specific photos that this professor is complaining about are also part of a competition. If no black photographers were among the top placing photographers, then, as Kurtis Blow would say, “these are the breaks.” Competitions are, and should always be, based on MERIT, not because of the colour of the photographers’ skin. So the competition should create special rules for artists who have a specific skin tone? Guess what? THAT is racism!

    The fact that this “professor” used a term like “that’s fucked up” to express his chagrin I think clearly shows what sort of person he is anyway. I really did not need to read much beyond that to understand what sort of nonsense and rhetoric he would proceed to spew. When I read the rest of the article, my suspicions were immediately confirmed. Someone who uses such inappropriate language, when supposedly a “professor of history,” should not be taken seriously.

  4. As they say, a hit dog will holler. These comments read as offense at the question of authorship and race, or the indignation that someone might dare highlight the underlying complexities and alternate readings that one might have at the fact that, for the past two years, all the subjects of of the winning photos were POCs, while the winners themselves were not. Don’t bristle so hard at someone asking a question, or nay, suggesting that your halo might not be hanging on so straight — you’re telling on yourself.

    Also, just a reminder: No one person gets to be the judge and jury of what is or is not racist, but, to be clear, your opinion of what is or is not racist weighs more when you have actually been victim of racism. It is okay to say, “I do not understand” or “my opinion may not be as valuable because I lack experience to speak eloquently on the subject,” and also “My offense might stem from my deep seated fear and insecurity of who I am and my importance/power in this world.”

      1. There was no accusation of racism. No one was called racist, and, In fact, the critic at hand said the images weren’t inherently racist. Again, don’t feel threatened because your perspective is being challenged. You stand to learn a lot more when you open yourself to asking questions, as opposed to jumping to conclusions.

        1. > “There was no accusation of racism.

          The “white gaze” is a feature of racism. That term. It was used. Above. In the title. Ergo: racism. Not complicated. Not interested in your ad-hominems either. Try someone else.

          1. I don’t think pointing out the white gaze is an accusation of racism. But, I often find that people are willing to traverse the distance to that point themselves, especially if they feel implicated in the discussion. Best of luck in your journey!

  5. From this secondary account, Mason’s concerns seem to be that many prize-winning or widely published images of black people either cater to “the white gaze” (an obvious riff on the well established notion of images of women and “the male gaze) and/or fail to address issues of oppression or inequality. But with respect, suggesting the problem is with who makes the images seems to me to get it backwards. Any image must stand on its own, whoever made it. If it’s exploitative or lacking, either in its content or in the way it is used, criticism is warranted. But to suggest that a photographer of a particular race cannot make a proper and legitimate image of another because of their race? There’s a word for such ideas.

    It may well be the case that a white photographer is less likely to deeply understand the black experience, but to make an a priori judgement is specious.

    Perhaps Mason’s feeling that the results of certain awards are f___ed up is justified, but if so the legitimate question to raise, it seems to me, would be who are the jurors for these awards, not who are the photographers.

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