Discerning Photography’s White Gaze

The three top winners of the prestigious Taylor Wessing Prize depict people of color, photographed by white photographers.

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.”

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